Vietnamese director Pham Thien An’s debut feature Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell juxtaposes moments of great importance with the moment-by-moment stasis of everyday life. An has a terrific eye: the film’s colors are bright and vivid, popping off the screen. Using very long takes, he reframes the image so that a character can appear both in close-up and long shot.
In its opening scene, Thien (Le Phang Vu) watches a soccer game with two friends while debating the meaning of life. As costumed mascots and women selling beer walk by, the stakes seem pretty low, but the scene ends with a sudden motorbike crash. Thien’s sister-in-law is killed, while her 5-year-old daughter survives. (All of this is filmed in one take, with the camera moving to take in the street where this accident happens.) He’s tasked with taking care of the girl, returning from Saigon to his hometown and participating in Catholic funeral rites. During a conversation with an old man about his experiences fighting in the Vietnam War, the camera starts out from a distant position, slowly moving in until the actor’s faces are readily visible and then pushing forward into the man’s apartment. When Thien returns home, he’s forced to confront the emptiness of his life in Saigon and the possibilities of learning from tradition.
Although it doesn’t fully flesh out An’s voice as a director beyond his slow-cinema influences (especially Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Bi Gan), Inside the Yellow Coccon Shell’s rendering of life’s large and small questions pays off, culminating in the final scene’s richly earned peace. Ahead of Kino Lorber’s release beginning this Friday at NYC’s Film at Lincoln Center, I spoke with An via Zoom.
The Film Stage: For me, the high point of the film is the scene with the old man. How much of a presence is the Vietnam War for young Vietnamese people, like Thien?
Pham Thien An: Until 20 or 30 years ago, the war was still very sensitive to talk about, especially if you discussed American soldiers and the South Vietnamese army. But now people are much more open to discussing it. By coincidence, I came across an interview with this veteran on YouTube. I tracked him down and found him; we came down to his house and realized he had a special story. After talking with him, he showed me photos from his time during the war. In the photos there was a lot of feeling and reality. I wanted to bring that into the film without intervening further, so I wanted the man to speak about loss and fear as he spoke organically. This character’s image resembles Jesus addressing St. Thomas, in regards to Thien.
How was that scene shot? At first it appears to be a zoom, but the camera ends up inside the man’s apartment. Was it really one take, or is edited to look that way?
It’s one take. I wanted it longer, but I had to cut a little bit from the beginning. I didn’t do anything else. I looked at other houses and other roads when I was scouting locations. Then those locations changed and the team had to find a replacement. We spent about two weeks living in that area just to find one. I calculated the geography of the shot very carefully, from the road to the window in the house into the bedroom. But it took two weeks to rehearse the shot from beginning to end. We had to control the kids and animals that were living in the village. Mr. Lu, the veteran, couldn’t remember his lines. Making it a smooth movement––without him forgetting his lines as we filmed such a long shot––was difficult. All the rehearsals were very useful and meticulous. I almost gave up because there was a little thing that went wrong in every take. On the last day I finally felt like the shot I wanted would happen, and it did.
Photo by Colleen Sturtevant. Courtesy of the 61st New York Film Festival.
The colors are very bright and vivid, but they change from Saigon to the countryside. We see a lot of red in Saigon, but not in the village. To what extent does this reflect how these places really look, or how much is it consciously stylized?
When I was filming, the colors felt most natural as they came directly out of the camera. I wanted to capture them as you see them with your own eyes. I incorporated the time of day when the scene was filmed, such as fog or mist outside or the lights of the World Cup match in Saigon. That’s where my intervention lies. When I was working with a color-grader I didn’t want anything out-of-the-ordinary. I kept it simple and lowered the saturation to make it a little darker, so it’s easier on the eyes. All the details and general set-up of the scene were done during the filming.
You’ve lived in Houston, so would you consider making a film in the U.S.?
Actually, I followed my parents over here. But when I got to the U.S., I was already 25 so I was engrossed in Vietnamese culture. When I came here, it was very hard to get used to. I don’t really interact with people outside my parents and immediate family circles. When I talk to Americans, it’s about work, not the culture. The cultural references are so different. Vietnam is what I know, so I still want to make films there.
The blocking and staging of almost every scene is very elaborate. Within a five-minute shot, characters will walk close to the camera, then they’ll be at the back of the frame. How do you see that connected to the storytelling and emotions of the film?
I like shots to be still, without much camera movement, and I want a minimal number of shots. So how can I allow the audience to get closer to the character? There are only two ways. One is moving the camera closer, while the character remains still––this shows that the filmmaker wants to get into the character’s inner world. The audience will wonder what I’m getting at. Another, less-predictable way is letting the characters act on their own until they approach the camera. I learned that from watching other films. I wanted the characters to be both dynamic and close to the audience. The film uses both methods, with the camera moving a lot more near the beginning. It’s my first feature, so a lot of experimentation took place.
What are your plans for a second feature?
I’m struggling with how I want to approach it. I want to hold onto the boldness of Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, but coming up with a script idea that corresponds to it is hard. I’ve seen a lot of good movies the last few years, and it makes me question my approach, so I’m taking it slow. I’ve been asked about this a lot, but everything is still just an idea.
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell opens on January 19 and will expand.