To most viewers, a three-hour slow burn might sound like a test of endurance, the kind of indie project often stereotyped (and dismissed) as a haughty intellectual exercise. However, the feature debut of writer-director-editor Phạm Thiên Ân, titled Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Bên trong vỏ kén vàng), proves to be a rewarding and engrossing spiritual experience, if you give it your time.
The dreamlike Vietnamese-language film—a co-production between Vietnam, Singapore, Spain, and France—won the Caméra d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the top prize awarded to first-time feature filmmakers, cementing Phạm as a vital new voice in the Asian arthouse scene. Following one man’s journey through grief and prodding existential questions, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is “slow cinema” at its finest and most finessed, offering even the most casual viewers the chance to reflect on what they believe about the world and why, as they project a part of themselves into its ponderous imagery and walk away with something in return.
The opening sequence, shot in a languid unbroken take, follows a trio of friends out for dinner in Saigon during the 2018 FIFA World Cup. As they drink and discuss their outlooks on religion and the universe—a conversation that feels as casual as debating their favorite soccer teams—a sudden road accident nearby breaks the movie’s relaxed rhythm, like a shock to the system. However, the three friends remain largely untroubled, if only a little puzzled as to the circumstances of the crash.
Bitter irony soon rears its head when one of the three young pals, Thiện (Lê Phong Vũ), learns (in an equally languorous scene at a massage parlor) that a similar incident has taken the life of his sister-in-law—perhaps it was even the crash he witnessed from a distance; it’s never quite clear—leaving her 5-year-old son Đạo (Nguyễn Thịnh) orphaned though miraculously unharmed. Thiện takes his young nephew in, and is tasked with not only explaining this tragedy to him, but also with taking him and his mother’s remains (on his rickety motorcycle) to their rural hometown, in the absence of Thiện’s brother (Đạo’s father), who disappeared several years ago.
This journey, to the foggy Vietnamese hillside, proves a fertile breeding ground for Phạm to interrogate ideas of spirituality and regret, as Thiện crosses paths with numerous vibrant characters—a coffin-maker and family friend, an ex-girlfriend who’s now a nun and schoolteacher—whose respective religious philosophies stir something within him, forcing him to confront his own beliefs (or lack thereof) in a chaotic and painful universe. Phạm and cinematographer Đinh Duy Hưng frame each of these characters’ thoughts with gentle visual inquiry, via wide shots that drift and zoom in ever so slowly over the course of several minutes, until they eventually become close-ups.
This careful visual approach allows the spaces around each character (usually filled with serene nature) to introduce silent questions of where human beings—especially modern metropolitan youth, like Thiện—might belong in this world of singing birds, trilling insects, and lush greenery. Some characters appear to have found their own inner peace, usually through clergy jobs. But their answers continue to mystify Thiện as he observes his sister-in-law’s funeral rites, which leave him unable to reconcile death with the idea of an all-powerful benevolent force.
With its precise blocking, the film often frames Thiện through mist, reflections, doorways, mosquito nets, and other fabrics which partially obscure him. The camera captures his hazy, uncertain point of view from afar, as though he were experiencing life at a remove, unable to fully understand himself and his own perspective. Lê’s performance speaks to this sense of dissociation; he embodies Thiện as though he were a dissatisfied spirit drifting across landscapes in search of meaning.
The way Phạm captures each environment also lends itself to this idea of questioning what and where god might be, queries whose solutions (while unspoken) feel unique to each individual character with whom Thiện interacts. The aforementioned coffin-maker, for instance, recalls his time fighting in the U.S.-Vietnam war as he sits in his darkened cabin, an exchange that Phạm films from outside his home at a great distance, narrowing slowly in on the conversational intimacies via slow but melodic zooms. This framing compels one’s eyes to drift around the screen, scrutinizing the wide open spaces surrounding the coffin-maker’s dingy, humble abode, as though Phạm had hidden secret clues in the corners of the frame. Where—for this old man who has seen untold horrors, and now lives in the dark—is the god he serves, and of whom he speaks? Is “god” something that exists in the natural world around him, out in the light? Or is it something that lives with him in the dark, alongside (and perhaps in spite of) his most painful memories?
Were Thiện to search for comforting answers in the arms of religion, would whatever he finds liberate him? Or would it further envelop him in anguish, if accepting a monotheistic faith meant that god’s (or the universe’s) grand plan involved tragedy all along? In order to give Thiện a concrete goal to work towards, the film also twins his abstract quest for meaning with his physical search for his long lost brother, two journeys which—though Thiện may not realize it—are both acts of faith.
Phạm seldom strays from his methodical, slow-burn approach to dialogue scenes. It’s especially effective when Thiện speaks to strangers, like a sharp-tongued old woman he meets at a roadside pitstop while on his lengthy spiritual pursuit. Although she seems to speak in riddles, she has a wisdom about her that unveils itself more clearly as the camera zooms into her, revealing the wrinkled contours of her beautiful face, and thus, the sheer amount of life she has lived, especially compared to Thiện. “Have you forsaken your soul?” she asks him, in what could very well be a dementia-addled rant—her family, seated nearby, seems to think so—but it’s no less relevant for the city-dwelling Thiện, to whom the Christian rituals and traditions of his village now seem far-flung, and almost alien.
Once the film reaches a kind of conclusion, a calm denouement which Thiện experiences while fishing at a lake—it’s even accompanied by peaceful guitar notes that feel like the beginning of a reflective outro—it opts to keep going for another hour and a half, where a simpler movie might have decided to roll its closing credits. By placing this false finish about half-way through the runtime, Phạm appears to tease what an “open ending” might feel like in the realm of spiritual mystery: an acceptance that the questions Thiện asks may have no clear answers. However, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell keeps going, and keeps pushing and prodding visually at what happens after this apparent open ending. The acknowledgement of powerful universal uncertainties isn’t enough. What does it mean to actually live with a lack of spiritual closure, in the long run? How does it impact one’s outlook on the present—and on the past?
These are conundrums the camera continues to navigate as Thiện traverses the rural landscape. We’re only made privy to a single flashback from his youth, but it exposes a key moment when his spiritual dilemma might’ve first begun, as he watches someone he loves pull away from him during her own crisis of faith. For Thiện, whose love life and family tragedies have been defined by complicated notions of belief, pondering human existence and the juncture between the physical and the spiritual isn’t merely a theoretical dilemma. Rather, it’s an immediate and pressing one as he searches for ways to feel grounded in reality, and tethered to his own soul.
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell isn’t so much “meditative” as it is an act of meditation in and of itself, luring the viewer’s eye, heart and mind with enveloping, often enthralling scenes, in which nothing and everything seem to unfold all at once. It’s physically peaceful and spiritually rigorous, rewarding those who place their faith in the camera, and all that it implies about “emptiness,” as it fills each on-screen space with mysterious questions and luminous possibilities.
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell played at 61st New York Film Festival. It will be released in theaters by Kino Lorber at a to-be-determined date.
Published on November 1, 2023