Early into Pham Thien An’s sprawling, stupefying Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, there’s a shot that manifests Caravaggio inside a shack in rural Vietnam. Having traveled from Saigon to his home village to attend the funeral of his sister-in-law, Thien (Le Phong Vu) is visiting a local elder who sowed a shroud for the departed. The twenty-something wants to pay for the service; the old man doesn’t take money from neighbors. He does accept the company, though, and very generously spills a whole cascade of memories from the Vietnam War, laying bare an old bullet scar on his ribcage. And as Thien bends to graze the bruised skin under the warm, caliginous light, Pham frames the moment as one of reverential awe, an image modeled off of Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.” It’s a beautiful shot in a film full of them. That it comes near the end of a particularly intricate 24-minute take is a testament to Pham’s mastery of craft; that this three-hour odyssey is only his first feature only adds to the wonder.
The Gospel of John says Thomas, having missed one of Jesus’s appearances to the Apostles after his resurrection, wouldn’t believe in the messiah’s return until he’d see and touch his scars. Jesus did come back in the end, if only to scold his disciple: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Caravaggio captures Thomas as he pokes the prophet’s flesh, mouth and eyes agape. So does Pham with Thien, and in a film so steeped in questions of faith––one that kicks off with three young men pondering the purpose of God in 2018––that that shot isn’t just a stunning tableaux vivant. It is also a reference to the overarching dilemma around which Cocoon Shell orbits: what, if any, is the space for the otherworldly in our hyperconnected 21st-century present?
Thien himself sounds skeptical. “The existence of faith is ambiguous,” he tells two mates as Cocoon Shell opens, “I want to believe, but I can’t. My mind always holds me back.” One way of thinking about Pham’s film is as a challenge to Thien’s agnosticism. Time and again, the young man witnesses experiences that blur the line between walking life and dreams, between the living and the dead. And death powers the whole journey. Only a few minutes in and the opening chat is abruptly interrupted by a fatal motorcycle accident, which Pham’s script cosmically links back to Thien––the casualty was his sister-in-law, who was riding with her five-year-old son Dao (Nguyen Thinh), who miraculously survived. Thien and Dao then bolt to the family village for the funeral, which for Thien also doubles as a chance to search for his brother, Dao’s father, who vanished into thin air years prior.
So far so straightforward, except as the quest progresses and Thien wanders farther into the countryside, Cocoon Shell grows more confounding, its images hallucinating, no longer tethered to a linear three-act plot but to something that defies pat explanations. Thien’s brother’s disappeared, yes, but Pham and his cinematographer, Dinh Duy Hung, are more concerned with moods and textures than questions like what or why or when. Cocoon Shell pullulates with scenes that in other films might be written off as detours or cul-de-sacs; in one this elliptical, these aren’t digressions but micro-films themselves. A moped ride across a misty town; a cockfight at the crack of dawn; a tree candied in phosphorescent butterflies. If these segments do not help advance the plot, that’s because plot progression is the least of Pham’s concerns; his film is far less interested in dishing out easy resolutions than it is in interrogating our need for them.
Cocoon Shell remains oblique; that’s no indictment. Dinh traffics in long, uninterrupted shots where the camera is seldom still, panning or tracking ever so slowly to sneak its way across fields, churches, houses. It’d be tempting to invoke the specters of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming-liang to account for Pham’s blend of mysticism, and while Cocoon Shell makes no secret of its touchstones, there is no sense of regurgitation or preening showmanship. The film features several technically complex segments––among them that early 24-minute oner––yet even at its most sophisticated, the camerawork doesn’t draw attention to itself. Aided by Pham’s editing, Cocoon Shell lulls you into a state of heightened somnambulism; you lose yourself to the film’s languid rhythms as your senses grow more and more awake to all its riches. Form is in the service of story, which is to say that everything in Cocoon Shell is designed to amplify the film’s ultimate subject: wonder, or rather our capacity for it.
Thien begins the film as an agnostic (Pham imagines him as a film editor who moonlights as an illusionist, thus literal-izing the connection between cinema and magic). What and where he winds up is a lot harder to say. I first saw Cocoon Shell as it premiered in Cannes last year, where Pham nabbed a Camera d’Or for best first feature. On every rewatch I come across new details, like the fact that the building being erected just next to the old village church is itself a church––one ten times bigger than the original, the giant concrete pillars a symbol of encroaching modernity. Here’s another way of looking at Cocoon Shell: it’s the tale of a young man from the city who gets lost in the countryside. Hopelessly reductive a reading as it is, it’s not necessarily inaccurate. This is, at its core, the story of a resurrection, spiritual and sensorial; at its most transcendental, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell makes Thien’s awakening your own.
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell opens on Friday, January 19.