In Vietnamese director Thien An Pham’s debut directorial feature Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, a strong, unshakable sense of mystery wraps itself upon the most mundane. A quest for explanation is pursued, but one which must first move out of the individual limbo of not being quite ready to forgive, empathize and understand. In the long, unbroken take of the opening scene, when the thirtysomething protagonist, Thien (a restrained, unobtrusively luminous Le Phong Vu), remarks he wishes to believe in the sense of eternal life and search for faith but somehow is not able to, his mind holding him back, Pham seems to be hinting with an ever-so-light touch to the central questions his film will explore.
Pham has a talent for subtle, elliptical storytelling, expertly blending sparsity with emotion that sneaks up on you. But the emotional responses are mediated through indirect, cumulative associations, so the epiphanies carry an unmistakable weight of time. Pham favors an elastic relationship with time in his film, with an editing style that often veers to consider something entirely else right in the middle of a long conversation as an old, ex-military man shares anecdotes and memorabilia with Thien.
Therefore, while being fixed frequently for long stretches, like on a pair of fishes or roosters, the cinematographic focus also allows itself to be fractured by erratic movements away from a carefully built zone of interest. A visual uncertainty is playfully mixed with a solid ear for a spare, atmospheric sound design that mostly comprises whatever the natural environment projects.
Thien’s sister-in-law, Hanh, passes away in an accident. Her child, Dao (Nguyen Thinh), survives the crash unscathed, whom Thien takes under his wings. Thien’s brother and Hanh’s husband, Tam, disappeared years ago without any explanation. Rumors about his disappearance were rife in their disparities.
Few suspected Tam to have left for another woman; others contending a spiritual calling drew him away. The film, however, deliberately retreats from settled explanations, relying on a distinctive sensorially inflected ambiance that lets you into its world with quiet, gradual, and complete immersion. What is Thien hoping to discover in his pursuit of his long-missing brother?
The film’s approach to this quest is myriad and meditative, with a tinge of profound loneliness. Thien is almost unmoored from his surroundings. In the opening scene, as there is noise from the fateful accident that incidentally happens in his vicinity, he barely cares about looking around. Thien deeply desires to understand and absorb a metaphysical resignation and surrender, the meaning of divine will, and the implications of submitting to a higher sense of purpose.
At the remote rural native village of Vietnam, far from Saigon, where he had relocated, where Thien journeys along with Dao for Hanh’s burial rites, he chances across his former girlfriend, Thao (Nguyen Thi Truc Quynh), who is now a nun teaching kids.
He repeatedly tells her how much he admires her conviction in taking up this life of austerity and altruistic service; she is amused. He can hardly disguise his wonder and awe at her decision. Pham brilliantly interposes a flashback from the time when the two were in a relationship without underlining it. A character says one cannot live simultaneously in the dark and the light. Thien craves the light, but he is too hung up in the past, making him nearly disengaged and passively detached from everything around him.
Working with DP Dinh Duy Hung, Pham stages a series of long-take, single-shot sequences, at one point closely trailing Thien on his bike as he travels to meet someone. As Thien makes his way through the streets, stops outside a dwelling, and finally goes in to talk, Pham does not cut away, even when there is a tremendous shift in focus. The filmmaker executes such bravura sequences with a sense of commonplace and the every day, none ever coming off as esoteric shows of technique.
Hung’s camerawork richly situates both Saigon’s bustle, the cramped interiors, and the desolate, moody expanses of Lam Dong. In a stunning scene, Thien walks out on the road in the night, drenched in heavy rain, and watches a fantastically glimmering cluster of butterflies.
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell exquisitely captures a sense of wandering with layers of inscrutability whose impact slowly sneaks up on you. The deep-sunk languor in the telling has bursts of wisdom and grace, as when an old woman taps Thien, reminding him of the earthly misery humans can get used to and the need to recognize it as well as break out of it. Pham establishes the momentous with a light-footed touch in this extraordinary, profoundly affecting scene. It marks the arrival of a gifted filmmaker who can combine an ethereal dreaminess with a solid groundedness.