Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell
"There’s a freshness to this world, as if one had just stepped out of one’s own door and arrived in an unexpected place." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

Sometimes the pleasure of a film is in the story it tells, or in the performances. Sometimes it is, first and foremost, in the experience. Thien An Pham’s dazzling feature début immerses viewers in the ordinary moments of a life lived with new perspective following a family tragedy.

We meet Thiên (Le Phong Vu) on a night out. There’s a ball game and he’s enjoying a few drinks with friends in the adjacent open air bar. The camera consumes it all in one take; there’s plenty going on and it’s impossible not to get caught up in the moment, watching their conversation, seeing people come and go – and experiencing the sudden lurch as everyone abruptly reacts to something happening offscreen. As the camera turns, we see a crowd forming around a motorbike lying in the middle of the street, a crumpled form beneath it. It’s a shocking enough moment, so starkly at odds with the mood of the evening, but Thiên is about to get another shock. Later that night, in a massage parlour where he is on his way to a happy ending, he is interrupted by an urgent phone call. The victim of that crash, it emerges, was his sister-in-law Hanh. Her small son Dao (Nguyen TThinh) is waiting in the hospital, with nobody else to take care of him.

This does not mean that Thiên suddenly has to act as a father. Even in the absence of the boy’s wayward father, there are other relatives who can help, but reaching them means leaving the city, heading back to the small North Vietnamese village where he grew up. The boy is too young to understand what has happened to his mother. When he asks for her, Thiên distracts him with card tricks. Back in the village there are chickens to feed and a bicycle to play on. Life grabs hold of the boy and gradually carries him away from his sense of crisis. But Thiên, trying to track his brother down, finds himself tangled up in other people’s stories to such an extent that he has no real opportunity to process his own experience.

There’s a magical quality to this. Though the film is nearly three hours long, it never feels like too much. The intensity of the camera’s gaze is such that there never seems to be time to reflect or analyse; rather, we are swept along as Thiên is, absorbed in the minutiae of everyday sights and sounds. As he travels, he encounters people with their own stories to tell, their very different perspectives on the world. The old man who made Hanh’s shroud shares his war stories. An elderly woman in another village tells him about her experience of being dead and her consequent knowledge of souls. Assorted strangers step in to help him, full of unquestioning generosity. Animals wander in and out of frame, sometimes treated with kindness, sometimes destined for the dinner table. Every individuals feels like part of something else, something bigger. Roads and waterways wind through the film like threads loosely binding its fragments together.

The resultant sensation is something very different from what one might ordinarily expect to discover in cinema. There’s a freshness to this world, as if one had just stepped out of one’s own door and arrived in an unexpected place. When Thiên discovers that his former girlfriend has become a nun, their flirtation continues in a different vein, an acknowledgement of a love which is itself part of something bigger. The soundtrack, full of rain and wind and the calls of birds and all the small, subtle noises of living things, is everywhere, beguiling, but never becomes overwhelming; it simply draws the viewer in. Beauty is not applied or teased out of the landscapes we encounter; rather, we are invited to recognise it in ordinary things. Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell you will transform as Thiên does, but into what – well, that remains to be seen. The process is the wonder.

Reviewed on: 08 Nov 2023
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A man has to return his sister-in-law's body to her hometown after an accident while, along with his nephew, he searches for his long-lost brother.

Director: Thien An Pham

Writer: Thien An Pham

Starring: Nguyen Thi Truc Quynh, Le Phong Vu, Nguyen Thinh, Vu Ngoc Manh

Year: 2023

Runtime: 182 minutes

Country: Vietnam

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