This is part of our coverage of the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival.
Vu is a student photographer, a quiet, contemplative young man who feels more comfortable alone in his dark room than out among the pulsing nightlife of Saigon. His lover, Thanh, however, thrives on the city’s rhythm and spends his evenings bartending at a club. He is also sleeping with the club’s chanteuse, Van, who loves drugs in the night and ballet during the day. These three inhabit director Phan Dang Di’s new film Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories. It’s a bit like a bisexual Jules and Jim with a soundtrack of synths and Vietnamese folk songs.
It’s no coincidence that the main character is a photographer. Each shot in Big Father is marvelously composed and mixed with a vibrant color palette. The club scenes burst to life with neon hues and strobe lights, while the scenes in the countryside are enveloped in inky blacks. Events often begin in the background or play out on the periphery of the frame. It’s a visual style that rewards attentiveness and charitably invites it.
The film makes the casual poverty of its characters a main focus. Vu’s father compares the cost of a new camera to its weight in rice. Someone reaches out to a loan shark to get enough money for an electric guitar. Another gets his tubes tied because the financial compensation is enough to buy his girlfriend a cell phone. The phone is a status symbol of high regard, as he proudly proclaims that she will be the only one working in her factory who has one.
But what makes Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories so strong is it never becomes strident in its tone, whether it’s depicting these economic compromises or the conflict of sexual identity at its core. The film always takes the route of reflection, never once succumbing to forced histrionics. When the drama does reach a climax, Phan chooses the path least explored. A chase peters out, a confrontation doesn’t involve words.
(Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories plays 6/3 at the Harvard Exit and 6/5 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.)