Pearls of the Far East (2011)
Original Title: Ngọc Viễn Đông
Release date: March 8, 2012
Director: Cuong Ngo
Short stories by: Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc
Screenplay by: Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc, Matt Guerin
Cast: Ngo Thanh Van, Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc, Truong Ngoc Anh, Nhu Quynh, Hong Anh, Kieu Chinh, and Kris Duangphung
We’re only halfway through 2012, but Cuong Ngo’s Pearls of the Far East is probably the most gorgeously shot film I’ve seen all year.
Based on the short stories written by Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc, and also adapted by her (who also stars in the film) alongside Matt Guerin into seven different stories about women with the amazingness that is Vietnam as a backdrop.
Now, I have a confession to make: this is the first Vietnamese film I’ve ever seen in my life, so I’m really not familiar with people’s faces, names, the style of filmmaking, or the knowledge to state whether or not Pearls of the Far East might be reviving the local industry. Having said that, it’s always good to watch something different with entirely different eyes… and take the time to discover it.
The collection of short films in Pearls of the Far East are all dramas with obvious hints of magic realism, and sometimes maintain an eerie air, especially in segments like the second one (titled The Message) and the fourth one (titled The Boat). In the first segment, titled Childhood, we explore a little girl’s relationship with a boy. The two belong to different social circles. The second segment explores some LGBT-hinted (not bluntly told) themes dealing with a mother and the message that her son has passed away.
The third segment, titled Blood Moon — and possibly my favorite of the segments — explores the forbidden feelings between a young woman and a young man (Duangphung, The Golden Pin) living on a deserted island… if we want to be a bit popular-culturist about it, it brought memories of The Blue Lagoon back. If I want to be serious about it, I really enjoyed the no-dialogue approach (at least for most of the segment), as it added that extra bit of tension of “will they or not?” and I’m really a sucker for those glances that were enhanced by the gorgeous cinematography and music (!!!).
The fourth segment is a little bit harder to explain, since it’s the most fantastical of all and I’m not really familiar with Vietnamese folklore, but it seems to explore the relationship between a spirit (woman — or a fox spirit or something) with a man. Then, the fifth segment, titled Awakening, is about a successful woman (Thi Minh Ngoc, who was also on The Golden Pin) that revisits her past marriage attempts. The sixth segment titled The Gift is about a woman’s surprising new relationship with a younger man…
And finally, the seventh segment, titled Time, serves as a tribute to Vietnamese American actress Kieu Chinh starring herself and revisiting her career and the passing of time.
Pearls of the Far East is definitely not regular commercial fare — you’ve been warned! It requires your time and your attention to fully be absorbed. The work by cinematographer Mikhail Petrenko really amplifies the striking poetry in the Vietnamese landscape and helps the storytelling and overall mood of the film, and works wonders with Alex Pauk and Alexina Louie’s score.
The free screening of Pearls of the Far East at Pratt Manhattan is done, but according to writer/producer Matt Guerin, the film will be screening at the Asian American International Film Festival — July 25th – August 5th — in New York City.