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BUI THAC CHUYÊN: GLORIOUS ASHES (2022) - NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL, JULY 14-30, 2023

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Pyromania in the Mekong Delta

Glorious Ashes, the first feature in fourteen years from Vietnamese "poetic" filmmaker Bui Thac Chuyên, makes very little conventional sense at first. The people either don't talk directly or talk too directly. They don't answer each other, or just don't talk. There are no secrets. It's an isolated sui generis world, and people are eccentric. It feels a little like American southern literature of the Fifties: Carson McCullers, early Truman Capote, William Faulkner, but with river boats and palm leaf roofs. It takes about half an hour to acclimate oneself.

And one problem is that the film seems to defy us to acclimate, and refuse to tell a straightforward story. Whether this is "poetic" or reveals weaknesses in the screenplay and editing is open to debate. But there's no doubt we're in the world of a Mekong Delta river village: that comes through clearly and cinematically. It's primarily as a work of elliptical and eccentric ethnography that Glorious Ashes shines. (Jordan Meltzer seems to say something like this in his Hollywood Reporter review])

Three women emerge as the focus. Young Hau (Bao Ngoc Doling), who likes training a myna bird to say "Nahon" and "F--- you," gets married to Duong (Le Cong Hoang) - an early sequence - but Duong never shows much interest in Hau, and ultimately neglects her and runs away, spending most of his time as a fisherman on the delta She provides the film's narration in the form of letters to her absent husband. Wishful thinking: when he is at home he never talks to her or answers her or even makes eye contact - not that he's the only poor communicator, here.

People know Duong is still in love with his childhood friend Nahan (Phuong Anh Dao), who lives just a few houses down the river, even though she's married to Tam (Ngo Quang Tuan), who works in a ceramics factory (warning: putting him close to fire). Hau is using the myna bird to torment Duong by repeating the name of his lost love. She works seasonally camped out in the ocean as a shrimp fisher(wo)man. Hau and Nahan, the two neglected women, initially deadly enemies, eventually bond.

Loan (Ngo Pham Hanh Thuy) (the third thread) whose story is more peripheral and darker, is an older woman who was raped as a child. The man who did it, a rough looking sort, is out of prison now decades later lurking at a small local Buddhist monastery. There is a scene where the ex-rapist and the presiding monk rink together, and the monk declares that, at forty-two, he still has no clue about life. There's an anti-clerical as well as a feminist message here: he's been warned by a woman that saying sutras isn't helping anybody. (The healing value of religious ritual don't get a defense.)

Chuyên's evocation of river boat and forest shack village living in the Mekong Delta feels timeless, sort of. The people are very stylish. No T shirts or baseball caps for them: nothing but understated, elegant traditional dress, long, loose silk pants, long-sleeved shirts, and round hats. No sign of electronics, though the big skiffs are powered by outboard motors and can go fast. An older woman powers hers so fast riding back home from the market the younger woman riding with her gets sick and throws up. One feels Chuyên is best when not pursuing the story elements, with little incidents like this that stand alone. He takes a little too much time getting around to binding the stories together, and all that's really working well is the skillful depiction of the village and river lifestyle.

While the borderline-absurdist conversations don't yield much in the way of exposition, eventually the focus narrows to Tam and Nahan. In the middle of the picture there is a fire that sweeps through their lean wood house, which Nahan cooly escapes by gathering her things in two sacks and leaving. The house is close to the river and the villagers gather to pass big plastic buckets to douse the tall flames. It's too big to put out, but they may keep it from growing. In days that follow, in this self-sufficient world, men and women come and sort through usable objects, including salvaged pots and pans, and pack away the ashes, the "glorious" ashes. (More ethnographic value.)

Then there's another fire and another, each new house destroyed again. "We have a pyromaniac in the village," someone tells a newcomer, "and you can be a night guard." The ashes from each fire, Hau says, grow less and less. It is easy to rebuild fast with a collective effort, like an Amish house in Pennsylvania. But "don't go to too much trouble," one woman tells Nahan, "Tam will just burn it down again." Everyone knows he is setting the fires.

Glorious Ashes is based on two short stories by Nguyen Ngoc Tu. One remembers that Kurosawa's masterpiece Rashomon fuses several short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. And, speaking of rural pyromania, one remembers that Lee Chang-dong's exciting 2018 film Burning is about that too, and grew out of a Haruki Murakami short story published in the New Yorker a quarter century earlier. But here the fusion lacks a storytelling sense to anchor and motivate it.

Chuyên's film school graduation short film Night Run (2000) won him the first award ever won at Cannes by a Vietnamese film. His debut feature - length film, Living in Fear (2005) won several national and international prizes. His next and penultimate feature Adrift (2009) was chosen to compete in Orizzonti at Venice and won a FIPRESCI Award, and showed in big international festivals. Since 2002 the director has run a Center for Assistance and Development of Movie Talents (TPD) in Hanoi, which he started, and has fostered projects by young filmmakers.

Glorious Ashes 117 mins., debuted at Tokyo Oct. 24, 2022, showing also at Nantes, Hanoi, Bankok, Goteborg, Helsinki, Udine, and Beijing. Screened for this review as part of the 2023 New York Asian Film Festival (Jul. 14-30, 2023; North American premiere.
Showtimes
July 16
5:00 PM, Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center

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