Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 04, 2020 3:37 pm 
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Running for numbers in Ho Chi Min City

Tran Thanh Huy wins the most intensely kinetic award for this film about a couple of Ho Chi Min City teenage street boys, a promising Slumdog Millionaire-esque debut whose inspiration was one of a series of shorts by the filmmaker that was a Golden Kite winner 16.30, shown at Cannes in 2013. The action here is central but its direction is immaterial. What counts is the propulsive movement and the fluid camerawork of dp Nguyen Vinh Phuc. Notably, the wide aspect ratio images are stylized by alternating left or right diagonal tilts, giving a kind of order to the chaos. Two boys are running around here, and at the end, they're still running: there's no resolution. More of a story-line is needed than this, but there is a lot of potential here, a light, comprehensive touch with urban life, if another time there is more of a script and some sequences that are allowed to breathe.

This is all about two scrawny, energetic Ho Chi Min City street boys who survive (or do they just keep in motion?) through acting as intermediaries for bookies selling numbers tickets - and finding good numbers: this is an impoverished world where, as elsewhere on an overpopulated planet, the poorest of the poor live on dreams of sudden luck, and where there is much reliance on superstition and magic. The debut-burdened customers in run-down apartment complexes - trying to ward off their housing from being demolished - beat the boys if the numbers lose and give them a nice tip if they win. Both the boys, who look underage for there 14-15-16 chronological age, yet also ageless, are engaging as well as indefatigable.

The initial focus is on Ròm (Trần Anh Khoa), who says he once got a 25USD tip. It's the most money he's ever seen. Rom was abandoned by his parents after a demolition and failed relocation scheme, but expects them to come back to pick him up. He keeps waiting, and lives by this dream. Rom soon gets a rival in the nimble, penytailed Phuc (Nguyễn Phan Anh Tú), a fast talker who also does a mean back flip of a wall, or in the middle of the street if the spirit strikes him. Phuc, who's as fleet and acrobatic as a young Jackie Chan, tries to move in on Ròm; his deviousness relies so much on speed he seems to outrun immorality. . Phuc says (is it a joke?) he adopted the name from an American client who kept losing and would say "Fuck!" ever time, which he thought sounded cool. It's one of many throwaway moments because this movie is in such a hurry it's all over in seventy-nine minutes.

As Allan Hunter notes in his Busan Screen Daily review, this action, like Danny Boyle's Slumdog, Has "a Dickensian sweep" in the way Rom's life is "measured in the characters he meets" (at whose mercy he is from moment to moment, his survival, and the way he's "constantly at the mercy of fate." But we don't have a thrilling, satisfying Slumdog plot here. Rom is brfriended by the motherly lottery dealer Mrs Ghi (Do Nhu Cat Phuong), buteverybody's out for themselves here. There are many frantic fights, especially between Rom and Phuc. There is one sequence when Phuc takes Rom on a rid on a tiny grass-lined raft. Rom's afraid to get on, for good reason. They're constantly falling off, and one shutters to think what the water is like.

The climactic action climax is a scramble where everything goes wrong, and the slum dweller customers and Rom both get cheated. There's no prize: the way to the prize is the prize. All the fun there is is in trying to get there, even if you don't. Some of the editing by Lee Chatametikool is pretty nifty in a Guy Ritchie kind of way, but even that kind of cheating survives because the vernacular realism makes almost anything seem real. Another reviewer mentions not only Boyle's Slumdog, but also City of God. But this film, for all its kinetic charm and neorealist grip on street life, doesn't have those kinds of grandeur, violence, or plot payoff.

Rom, 79 mins., debuted at Busan oct. 2019 and released theatricallyl in Vietnam Jul. 31, 2020. It was screened for this review as part of the 2020 virtual New York Asian film Festival.

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