There are reasons the general movie-going public reads rave reviews of certain foreign language films and suspects critics are all on dope. The Vertical Ray of the Sun is one of those reasons.
When critics dog-ear their thesauruses searching for adjectives to describe why we should appreciate films of this sort—it’s “dreamlike,” “impressionistic,” “lush,” etc.—you want to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they do find something rich and meaningful in this world of gorgeous cinematography and baleful glances. Maybe visual splendor satisfies much of what they’ve got the cinematic munchies for. Or maybe they can’t quite work up the nerve to admit that The Vertical Ray of the Sun is nothing but a gloriously-filmed bad soap opera with subtitles, though even a soap opera has the common courtesy to resolve its plot threads. Take away Mark Lee Ping-bin’s cinematography, and you’d be pleading for two hours of your life back.
Somewhere amidst all the sunlight and stillness slouches a narrative involving four siblings in contemporary Hanoi, in the month between memorial rituals for their dead parents. Sisters SÂ¦Ãng (NguyÃ¿n NhÂ¦ QuÂ¸nh) and Khanh (L? Khanh) run a small café, while youngest sister Li?n (TrÂ¬n NÃ— Y?n-Kh?) spends most of her time flirting creepily with brother Hai (Ng? Quang H?i), with whom she shares an apartment and occasionally a bed. SÂ¦Ãng’s husband QuÃ‚c (Chu HÂ¦ng), a photographer, flits about the country, as does Khanh’s novelist husband KiÃªn (M?nh CÂ¦Ãng TrÂ¬n), and everybody has secrets, either real or imagined.
Unfortunately for you, the unsuspecting viewer, writer/director TrÂ¬n Anh HÃ’ng—a Paris-based Vietnamese émigré—seems to find it amusing to keep most of those secrets from the audience as well. The Vertical Ray of the Sun takes such simple melodramatic elements as extramarital affairs, unplanned pregnancies and family mysteries and ties them into such a Gordian knot of crisscrossing plot lines that it’s virtually impossible to figure out what the hell has happened by the time the credits roll. Somebody’s trying to avoid Li?n—couldn’t say who or why. Some other guy apparently has something to do with Li?n, too, and she gets upset with him—maybe he knows that first guy.
Even when it is obvious what’s going on, it’s hard to work up much reason to care. When TrÂ¬n reveals that one of the characters has been leading a double life for four years, there’s a desperate attempt to make that character sympathetic through the ensuing quandary. Though there’s a refreshing shade of gray to Tran’s refusal to make the character an obvious cad, it becomes distasteful watching him moan over his “heavy heart.” There’s a child growing up with half a dad, just because he can’t pull his self-absorbed head out of his existential-crisis-ridden ass.
The sad part is, it’s one of the only occasions when TrÂ¬n seems at all concerned with the psychology of his characters. People just do things in The Vertical Ray of the Sun, to no apparent end. They occupy space, move from one event to the other, and leave no trace behind them that they were ever there. It comes as little surprise that one character’s fear that her husband may be cheating on her ends without a confrontation, or even a conversation. While it’s fairly clear that, at its core, The Vertical Ray of the Sun is meant to be a meditation on choices involving marital fidelity, TrÂ¬n downplays the consequences of those choices to an almost embarrassing degree. Even taking cultural differences into account, there’s too much meditation and not enough raw humanity. Tran meditates so intensely, the entire production is rendered virtually comatose.
Of course, it is all terribly lovely, in that way TrÂ¬n (The Scent of Green Papaya) has of making his scenes terribly lovely. He’s also working with one of the new masters behind a motion picture camera, Lee Ping-bin, who shot Wong Kar-wai’s exquisite In the Mood for Love. The Vertical Ray of the Sun does offer a rich sensual experience, the colors and details of every frame consistently engaging. True, there’s something oddly compelling about a lingering shot of fishnet underwear draped over a static-filled television screen. But the aesthetically-pleasing images complement nothing—not the characters, not the story, not the themes. You stare not just because you’re dazzled, but because you’re clinging to anything that might keep you awake.
To be fair, a number of noteworthy critics have admitted to being stymied by The Vertical Ray of the Sun’s stream-of-unconsciousness narrative. Chicago Reader’s highly-respected Jonathan Rosenbaum noted in his review, “I couldn’t follow much of the plot”—before going on to laud it as a must-see that inspired him to “wallow in the mindless visuals.” Keep in mind that this is the same critic who dismissed this summer’s Planet of the Apes as “sometimes wonderful” visually, but “at times close to incoherent.” That’s the double-standard that drives so many John Q. Moviegoers nuts: If only Tim Burton had made his Apes in Pierre Boulle’s original French with subtitles, maybe Rosenbaum would have showered his film with praise, too. What is this guy smoking?
Or maybe it’s just TrÂ¬n who’s on dope. Heavily filtered rays of sunshine stream into his compositions of characters performing languid calisthenics to the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed tunes churning through the background. People take long philosophical pauses between lines of dialogue, while the monsoon rain pours down thickly on the streets of Hanoi. Dude, it’s so deep. Come on, don’t bogart that roach.
The Vertical Ray of the Sun (PG-13) H1/2 Directed by TrÂ¬n Anh HÃ’ng. Starring TrÂ¬n NÃ— YÃªn-Kh?, NguyÃ¿n NhÂ¦ QuÂ¸nh and L? Khanh.