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Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell ★★



Director: Thien An Pham

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

Release Date: LFF 2023

The camera floats, following protagonist Thien through the dark and endlessly uphill terrain of his childhood countryside village. As he treks through the night, the gloomy darkness sets in. A localised heavy downpour, brewed from the monsoon season, spits its bowels out as the surrounding tropical forest begins to exhale. The sounds of the forest are alive. He stops. The camera stays close, focusing on his weary figure before turning around to reveal a miracle. A tree full of white, divine-like birds fluttering amongst themselves until they leave in murmuration. If you could not already tell, there are moments of total majesty sprinkled all over Thien An’s Pham Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell. An assemblage and assortment of gorgeous, precisely calculated visual imagery, combined with a sound design that punctures through the tumultuous hum of metropolis life, tends to formulate into a transcendental experience for any spectator, especially myself. However, Pham’s directorial debut is far too precise in its form. Instead of inviting its audience to lose all weight in their bodies and ascend into the inexpressibly gorgeous landscape of Vietnam and the spiritualism that lends itself to the so-called ‘slow cinema’, it ultimately pushes its audience further and further away.

After his sister-in-law’s tragic and sudden passing, Thien attempts to reconnect with his long-lost brother and bring Dao, his brother’s birth son, back into his care. During this journey from Saigon to the countryside village where his brother is supposed to live, Thien is faced with his past, reflecting on his previous relationship with Sister Thao. Through the prism of faith, spirituality and the human connection to the natural world, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell explores what it means to be sentient and believe in something bigger than your individuality. However, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell gets so caught up in its formal on-screen audiovisual presentation and mixing up notions of faith and spiritualism that the end product is a sluggish, cold and honestly bland examination of the human experience.

Cinematic masters, such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, director of Tropical Malady, Memoria and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Tsai Ming-Liang, director of Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Stray Dogs and The Hole, both utilise the intoxication of still images as a foreground of their directorial sensibilities. From these images and cognitively stimulating presentations of spiritualism, these masters understand the intricacies of the human experience, which lends itself to constructing their narratives. Here, with Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, Pham prioritises, and borderline obsesses, over the moving, gliding camera, which constantly retracts from what is so intoxicating about ‘slow cinema’. Pham’s eye for arresting compositions and emotional beats is undoubtedly there. Still, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is so caught up in paying homage to previous works that Pham’s voice is entirely nullified. What ensues is a myopic, contradictory three hours filled with glimpses of what could have been a unique piece of work. Thien An Pham is undoubtedly a name to remember for future cinematic releases, and no doubt will curate something exceptional one day. Still, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is sadly far too derivative and concerned with its impressive looks rather than the material that gets the soul singing.

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