Film Reviews
Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber

Vietnamese director Thiên Pham Ân’s “Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell” follows the physical and spiritual journey of Thiên as he searches for his estranged brother Tâm after a motorcycle accident kills his sister-in-law Hanh. After her funeral, with five-year-old nephew Dao in tow, Thiên travels through Vietnam experiencing philosophical and confrontational interactions that prompt introspection and reevaluation of his life.   

The catalyst for Thiên’s quest is established in the opening scene as a disenchanted Thiên listens to a friend express his spiritual and philosophical angst over the meaning of life. This resonates with Thiên, who, back in his home village, observes Hanh’s ritualistic, Catholic funeral. Of additional significance in his quest, Thiên will speak at length with Mr. Luu (a survivor of fighting the Viet Cong who now. Ironically, shrouds the dead), a good Samaritan will help him on the road, and an elderly woman will confirm the misery of souls after asking Thiên if he has forsaken his.

In addition, his former girlfriend, with whom he interacts, has become a nun, and, in flashback, he recalls their parting. Not only with people, Thiên is equally moved by the exquisitely beautiful Vietnamese countryside and, upon occasion, by wildlife and human kindness. He unmistakably seeks transformation, quietly and slowly, impacted by incidental encounters as the thin separation between dream and reality, memory and imagination, realism and surrealism disappears.

Thiên’s work as a Saigon based wedding videographer introduces both his profession and his trained eye, observing carefully, noting minute details. Director Ân invites similar viewer engagement, using static camera setups or panning slowly across compositions or incrementally tracking in toward subjects. In press notes, director Ân writes that he wanted “to examine how a man’s physical journey to his hometown leads him to reconnect with his past,” confronting his internal conflict “between a faith he neglected and a life which makes him deeply unsatisfied.” He contends, “The whole concept of the film revolves around one thing: the ‘divine calling.’”

Ân personally shared this crisis. As his surrogate, Thiên embodies the contentment we all seek while feeling constrained within, as the title states, a yellow cocoon, that is, a highly restrictive environment from which to emerge, metamorphosized like a butterfly. Awarded the prestigious Camera d’Or for Best First Feature at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, in Vietnamese with English subtitles, ”Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell” screens at Webster University’s Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, February 9, through Sunday, February 11, at 6:30 each of those evenings. For more information, you may visit the film series website.

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