Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"A film you should see as soon as you can, on the biggest screen you can." | Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

Life on the streets is fast and unforgiving. If you can't keep up the pace, you don't make it. This has been a rule of life in cities all around the world for countless centuries, but it's especially true for the kids in Tran Thanh Huy's electric début feature, because they make their money on the periphery of Ho Chi Min City's endlessly popular lotteries. There are three aspects to the job: divining lucky numbers, placing bets and letting people know the results. Get it wrong and you risk a beating; get it right and you can earn good tips. Once upon a time, Ròm tells us, a woman gave him 25 US dollars, the most money he ever had. But it's a tough life, especially because it involves constant competition.

Ròm is 14. To Western eyes he will look younger, small and undernourished, and he has retained some childlike qualities which distinguish him from the other runners. In particular, he still dreams of finding the mother and father from whom he was parted many years ago. Whilst it seems most likely that he was abandoned, he cannot give up hope, and he draws stick figure portraits of them wherever he stops to rest, supposedly to remind himself what they looked like. at night, he sleeps on corrugated roofs or, occasionally, in a small room belonging to an older woman who seems sympathetic to his situation. Sometimes she also feeds him and gives him advice. Single-minded as kids are, he never considers that she might have become something of a parent to him now.

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In this hectic world, any kind of affection is rare. There's a grudging respect between Ròm and his rivals but every time it starts to look like real friendship, someone screws him over. Living in the edge as he is, there's always a danger that this could be fatal. In one scene he finds himself trapped in a hold, the sides slippery from the heavy rain falling around him. Somehow, he has to figure out a means of escape. nobody is going to come looking for him.

There's a bittersweet tone to Tran's film, which captures the exuberance of life lived in this way but never shies away from nor romanticises the ugly side of it. As well as being physically hard, Ròm's life is constrained by a web of superstitions. He genuinely believes in the lucky numbers that he sells. Some prove unsuccessful, but he puts that down to errors in his calculations or a failure to experience the visions that have brought him his greatest successes. He has a strong intellect and the instincts of a great salesman, pitching his numbers at speed.

Thinking only of his next meal or of beating his rivals, he never stops to consider what gambling is doing to his community, where several people have lost ownership of their homes and almost everyone is in debt. Loan sharks hover round the edge of the frame, ready to inflict violence to those who can't pay back what they borrow, and with half an eye on recruiting boys getting too old to be runners any more.

Mixing comedy with very dark things but, more than anything, focused on action, this is a film that leaps off the screen. Nguyen Vinh Phuc's vivid cinematography captures every detail of community life. A deserving award-winner at Fantasia 2020, it's a film you should see as soon as you can, on the biggest screen you can. It's raw, immersive cinema.

Reviewed on: 03 Sep 2020
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Street kids in Ho Chi Minh City make a living selling lottery tickets and divining lucky numbers.

Director: Tran Thanh Huy

Writer: Tran Thanh Huy

Starring: Jayvee Mai The Hiep, Tran Anh Khoa, Cat Phuong

Year: 2019

Runtime: 79 minutes

Country: Vietnam


Fantasia 2020

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