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With: Tran Nu Yen Khe, Nguyen Nhu Quyhn, Le Khanh, Ngo Quang Hai, Chu Hung, Tran Manh Cuong, Le Tuan Anh, Le Ngoc Dung
Written by: Tran Anh Hung
Directed by: Tran Anh Hung
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements and some sex-related material
Language: Vietnamese with English subtitles
Running Time: 112
Date: 13/07/2001
IMDB

The Vertical Ray of the Sun (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The Sun in the Rain

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The star of The Vertical Ray of the Sun is Vietnam. Sure, the film also tells the stories of three sisters and their various misadventures, but the film is about the physical stuff that makes up Vietnam. Most of us here in the States have a vision of Vietnam as rotting jungle populated with flies, sweating cyclo drivers, soul-sick GIs, and desperate prostitutes - -- not to mention the evil "Charlie" firing at Americans from the bush in so many war movies.

So anyone who goes to see Tran Anh Hung's new film (which appeared at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival) will be pleasantly, gorgeously surprised.

The film begins as Hai (Ngo Quanq Hai), a twentysomething Vietnamese man, wakes, shuts off his alarm clock and turns on the stereo, cued to the Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes." From the next bed, another figure stirs, the staggeringly beautiful Lien (Tran Nu Yen-Khe), with several strands of her long hair continually falling over her eyes.

Tran's camera stays unbroken on the scene as the two figures languidly rise and shake sleep from their bodies. Hai begins a few exercises, while Lien simply sits on the edge of her bed. The room is warm enough to cast a lazy, peaceful spell, and bits of jungle peek in through the windows. The pair is obviously not in a hurry, and this lovely, relaxed lifestyle quickly overcomes us.

Lien and Hai provide the most compelling of the movie's many subplots. They're brother and sister who share an apartment, and Lien is strangely smitten with her brother (she tells him he reminds her of their father). At breakfast, she asks him to sit by her so that they can see the same view. During subsequent nights, Lien finds excuses to slip into her brother's bed to sleep with him. ("I was cold," she tells him.)

Hai brushes her off, apparently not sensing anything unusual. Strangely enough, their beds lay directly next to each other, separated only by a thin piece of silk.

But their two sisters experience little soap operas of their own. Khanh (Le Khanh) is married to a writer, blocked from finishing the final pages of his novel, and Suong (Nguyen Nhu Quynh) is married to a botanical photographer who's always on the road. Each of these four characters keeps little erotic secrets from each other, but none as fascinating or forbidden as Lien's unrequited relationship with Hai.

Tran, who previously directed only two feature films -- The Scent of Green Papaya (1993) and Cyclo (1995) -- keeps going back to the land itself to play off the humans. At one point, when Lien goes to a neighborhood cafˇ and tries to visit a different, legitimate suitor, who (like her brother) resists her affections, there's a huge downpour. It blankets everything in warm, noisy wetness, and makes the interior of the cafˇ with its warm cups of tea particularly inviting.

Another rainstorm catches Lien and Hai off guard, and they must hide out together in a small cranny, waiting for it to let up. Water, and the eroticism of water, keeps coming into play even with the secondary characters.

Born in Vietnam and educated in France, Tran now looks at his home country with an outsider's eye, allowing him to carefully juxtapose interior and exteriors, man and nature, without seeming too obvious or cutesy. The Vertical Ray of the Sun is the clearly work of a master poet. His luminous star and muse, Tran Nu Yen-Khe, has also appeared in previous films, so it's clear as to why she gets all the attention and the plum role. If the other two sisters had been as interesting and surprising as Lien, the film would have deserved masterpiece status. As it is, though, it still falls squarely into "must-see" territory.

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