Waiting on the Weather
By Julia Gunnison

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell
Dir. Thien An Pham, Vietnam, Kino Lorber

Director Thien An Pham shot Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell incrementally over the course of two years in Saigon and the Central Highlands of southern Vietnam, a region with a rainy season that lasts from approximately May through October. Rainfall plays a crucial role in the film. In the first scene, at an outdoor plaza in Saigon, the plot breaks open at the same time the clouds do, when a sudden burst of heavy rain anticipates a motorcycle accident. Later, Thien (Le Phong Vu), a wedding videographer, learns that his sister-in-law, Hanh, has died and, with his brother missing, their son Dao (Nguyen Thinh) falls into his care. Thien then returns to the village of his childhood, seeking both his brother and spiritual clarity.

The film has a seemingly fickle relationship to its own narrative. Certain scenes deepen character and drive the story in a straightforward manner, like when Thien remembers a passionate and painful tryst with an old love (Nguyen Thi Truc Quynh) who has since become a nun. At many points, however, the story is deemphasized in favor of aesthetic and philosophical experimentation. In these sequences, rain, and the vivid soundscape it creates, work together with Pham’s long shots, extended takes, and slow pacing to demonstrate the convergence of mortal and sacred realms. When Hanh’s family prays the rosary together following her funeral, roaring rainfall nearly drowns out their recitation. In another passage near the film’s conclusion, Thien walks on a mountain path following a night of intense rain. It dissipates as he comes to a rest on his route. The camera then floats away from its human subject to settle on a tree filled with white moths. Weather patterns and the natural world thus become a conduit through which Pham offers transcendental expression.

Just as ubiquitous as rainfall, motorbikes are ever-present. Motorcycle travel is essential to the character of Vietnam. Since the Doi Moi economic reforms of 1986, the country’s expanding economy created steep new demand for transportation, as well as the conditions to attract foreign investment to supercharge the production of bikes. There are around 70 million registered motorcycles in Vietnam—a country with a population of 98 million—and congestion in major cities is a key element of urban life. In the film’s vocabulary, where weather signals divinity, motorbikes are emphatically human. Dense city traffic, muddy dirt roads, mechanical malfunctions—this is the bikes’ less than heavenly domain. Whizzing through streets side by side yet separate from one another, these machines repeatedly remind us of man’s isolation, frustration, and ingenuity.

One extended scene, filmed in extreme long shot, shows Thien walking his broken-down motorcycle along the side of a winding road. A stranger—a passerby who had no notion of any filming taking place—stops his own bike to pull over, converse, and offer help. The film incorporates nonfiction in a few other instances. Shortly after arriving at the village, for example, Thien visits Mr. Luu, an older man who weaves shrouds in both the film and in life. The story Mr. Luu tells Thien about his experience in the army during the Vietnam War comes directly from his biography. Pham rehearsed for three weeks to choreograph the camera around Mr. Luu’s monologue, which he delivered in his own words. The scene with the damaged motorcycle, however, is the only one that is purely unscripted. Pham acted off a hunch that the setup would yield worthy results. This idiosyncratic punctuation, which comes late in the film, is one of the most effective and memorable moments in a film that moves further away from realism as it progresses. The use of the motorcycle brilliantly enables a sweet, comic exchange, a true social connection that no other scene matches.

The film begins with a conversation between Thien and two friends about the meaning of life. One friend plans to leave Saigon to discover his life’s purpose among the peaceful mountains. The other chides him as naive, predicting that the city will draw him back as soon as he runs out of money. Thien refrains from endorsing either perspective, instead reminding his friends of the ambiguity of faith. Though most of Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell takes place in a rural environment, this opening debate foregrounds the question of how urban and rural spaces inhibit or enable spiritual discovery. By raising this topic in the context of a multi-sided discussion, the film suggests ambivalence and acknowledges different interpretations. How the film comes to characterize the urban and rural, however, sometimes comes across as more simplistic. Scenes in Saigon are overwhelmed by crowds, commerce, tedium, and interruptions. Only by escaping the capitalist city can Thien begin his quest for spiritual wellness. His departure is what initiates the more dreamlike, abstract section of the film, where Pham’s compositions emphasize the beauty of the mountains, greenery, and layers of fog. While the friends’ conversation suggests an opportunity to build nuance into a common theme, the dichotomy of the Godless city and the holy countryside that emerges is a bit too tidy.

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell has a languorous rhythm. Certain moments have a magnetic power: a lineup of water buffalo staring eagerly at the camera, that stir and shy as it moves closer; Thien’s impassioned, solo karaoke number inside a mirrored room; and a trancelike, motorcycle ride down a foggy road at twilight, illuminated by headlights. Other passages simply slide by. As the narrative loosens its grip on the film, some sequences obliquely contribute to Thien’s story, such as when Thien meets his brother Tam’s wife and child. Other scenes are disconnected from the story, but further develop Pham’s visual language of faith, like the film’s many gates, fences, and screens, which suggest a border between worlds. There are also frequent segments that do not quite achieve either purpose—yet this imbalance is not unpleasant. Ultimately, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell passes much like a rainy day: long, slow, and sleepy, our attention drifting between what’s before our eyes and some remote, unseen interior world.