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Every morning, Hai gets up, puts on an art-rock torch song, wakes his sister, and does his exercises. His favorite tune seems to be “Pale Blue Eyes,” a wistful ballad from the Velvet Underground’s hushed third album. Yet heor, rather, director Tran Anh Hungnever gets to the moment when Lou Reed sings, “The fact that you are married….”
Hai (Ngô Quanq Hai) isn’t married, and neither is his sister Liên (Tran Nu Yên-Khé, the director’s wife, muse, and usual leading lady), who lives with Hai in a proximity some might find unseemly. They sleep in adjacent beds, and the high-spirited Liên likes to imagine that people see the two together and think that they’re a couple. It makes sense, at least visually. Hai and Liên are both lithe, androgynous, and endowed with unnaturally sensuous featuresthey’re sort of the Vietnamese equivalent of Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, circa 1966.
The siblings have two older sisters who are married: Suong (Nguyen Nhu Quynh) and Khanh (Lê Khanh). Adultery figures in both their lives, although in somewhat different ways. Indeed, the troubled relationships of Suong and Khanh and their respective husbands, Quôc (Chu Ngoc Hung) and Kiên (Tran Manh Cuong), provide much of the plot of The Vertical Ray of the Sun, Tran’s exquisite, if sometimes willfully obscure, third feature. There are at least eight romantic entanglements at play here, although not all of them are resolved, and one of themthe most dramatic, of courseis actually part of a role that Hai is playing in a film-within-the-film.
Those who have seen any of the director’s previous filmsespecially The Scent of Green Papaya, his dreamlike debutwill rightly anticipate that Vertical Ray’s plot is not all that important to its overall effect. Tran uses some traditional narrative devices, notably opening the story with a feast commemorating the anniversary of the death of the siblings’ mother and closing it with another banquet in honor of their departed father. (The preparation of food remains one of Tran’s obsessions.) Underneath the voluptuous imageryphotographed by Mark Lee Ping-Bin, who shot much of In the Mood for Loveis enough of a domestic-disruptions story line to suggest comparisons to Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Still, the movie’s principal attribute is its palpable atmosphere of drowsy luxuriance, which supports Tran’s explanation that he was initially inspired by a trip to Hanoi during which he took up afternoon naps for the first time since childhood.
The director’s childhood is crucial to his work. Born in Vietnam in 1962 but resident in France since he was 12, Tran subsisted at first on dreams of his youth: Although set in Saigon, The Scent of Green Papaya was filmed entirely on soundstages in Boulogne. His second feature, Cyclo, was actually shot in Saigon, but it combined exuberant local-color footage with a lurid underworld yarn that suggests the gangster films of Hong Kong’s New Wave and featured Wong Kar-wai regular Tony Leung. Vertical Ray combines the second film’s enraptured sense of place with the first one’s domestic scale and serene mood. If the newly returned Tran saw bustling Saigon as the natural setting for a Wild East adventure, he found Hanoi altogether more relaxing.
Political upheaval has shaped Tran’s life, but not his films. The proletariat is inconspicuous in Vertical Ray, which revolves around the cafe where all three sisters toil while their men pursue careers in the arts. Hai is an actor, Kiên a novelist, and Quôc a photographer, and all seem to workand travelwithout restrictions. The physical world the film depicts, obviously Asian and apparently sultry, asserts itself with chattering birds, vividly hued foliage, and radiant light; whether in Hanoi or the countryside, the distinction between indoors and out- barely exists. Yet Tran’s arty, bourgeois demimonde could have been transposed from a Bergman flick, with pajamas substituted for heavy coats and Buddhism for Lutheranism.
Of course, those are important substitutions. Infidelity is not a hound from hell in this tale, which is more concerned with acceptance than betrayal. The central characters all face romantic travails, but none are ultimately shattering, and one actually ends up being the cause of some hilarity. The film’s distinctive rhythm contrasts talky, plot-driving episodesoften featuring the three sisters bantering together, sometimes bawdilywith languorous, visually oriented sequences. The latter are gently ravishing and at least as significant as the former. For all its fragrant tropicalísmo, The Vertical Ray of the Sun stays true to the elegant nonchalance of its opening song.
As celebrated in The English Patient and now Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, World War II was, above all, a great time to fall in love. The traditional order was disrupted, the proximity of violence charged the passions, and sex with relative strangers was divine. And the fascists were just so cute!
After its generally glowing initial reviews, The English Patient was besmirched when some spoilsports noted that its hero was a Nazi collaborator. The filmmakers who adapted Louis de Bernières’ 1994 novelknown in the United States as Corelli’s Mandolinhave anticipated such complaints. Their Capt. Corelli (Nicolas Cage) is an officer with the Italian troops that occupy the Greek island of Cephallonia, but he’s a gentle music lover who’s never seen combat and has no respect for Mussolini, Hitler, or even Wagner. (He’s a Verdi kind of guy.) Although technically an ally of the Nazis, the mandolin-playing Corelli prefers the Greek peasantsespecially local beauty Pelagia (Penélope Cruz) and her father, kindly Dr. Iannis (John Hurt)to the small contingent of Germans on the island. In fact, when Italy surrenders to the Allies, Corelli joins with Greek partisansincluding Pelagia’s fiancé, Mandras (Christian Bale)to battle the Nazis. After this insurrection fails, Corelli is among some 10,000 Italians the Germans decide to execute.
This uprising and the subsequent massacre really happened, and there actually is an Italian veteran whose story is nearly identical to Corelli’s: Amos Pampaloni, who has denounced de Bernières’ book. For Pampaloni and many others, the principal point of controversy is that the novel (which I haven’t read) depicts Greece’s resistance fighters as cowards and criminals who did little to battle the Nazis. This long-discredited portrait, they argue, is in fact British propaganda, left over from the U.K.’s attempts to justify its betrayal of leftist Greek partisans in the late ’40s, which led to a blood bath and several decades of totalitarian rule.
Unsurprisingly, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin skips all this. Director John Madden, who after Mrs. Brown and Shakespeare in Love can be said to have a speciality in semihistorical romances, sticks to the basic love triangle, although eventually he has to admit that there’s a war on. (Much of the movie is little more than a retread of 1991’s Mediterraneo, another tale of nonbelligerent World War II Italian soldiers seduced by Greece.) Remarkably, the job of turning a right-wing book into an apolitical love story fell to Shawn Slovo, the daughter of South African anti-apartheid radicals whose autobiographical script, A World Apart, yielded one of the best British films of the ’80s. Slovo has changed the ending and jettisoned much of the ideology, save for such safe exchanges as one in which Corelli rebukes the island’s nicest Nazi (David Morrissey) for believing in “scientific” racism.
The film was shot entirely on Cephallonia, with suitably picturesque results, but any sense of place is undermined by the dialogue, which is mostly in English, and by the casting of American, English, and Welsh actors as Greeks, Germans, and Italians. Although Madden did hire veteran Greek actress Irene Papas for a small part and used locals as extras, the story clearly transpires in the nowheresville of international co-productions, where the principal excitement is hearing stars of many nationalities struggle to maintain their feigned (and sometimes clashing) accents. The opening scenes are ethno-vaudeville: There’s a husband who’s unsure whether he wants to be cured of the hearing loss that allows him to ignore his nagging wife, and Dr. Iannis encourages his daughter to demonstrate her medical knowledge by discussing the gluteus maximus while a small crowd observes a bare-assed patient. When the Italians arrive, the apparently bilingual Corelli is assigned to translate the letter of surrender from the village elders; he ascends the stairs of the town hall and solemnly reads, “Fuck off.”
Such hilarity can’t endure, but what replaces it is equally feeble: The affair between Corelli and Pelagia, who spurns her Italian suitor until one bodice-ripping day in the woods. Their attraction is as inexplicable as such loves usually are when transferred from page to screen, and the movie glibly sidesteps the issue of Pelagia’s fraternization by singling out another woman for punishment after the Italians surrender. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin may reject de Bernières’ Cold War-era politics, but its shallow, melodramatic approach is of similar vintage. CP