Pearls of the Far East, 2011
Directed by Cuong Ngo.
Starring Ngo Thanh Van, Kieu Chinh, Huy Khanh, Diem My, Truong Ngoc Anh, Kris Duangphung, Anh Hong, Richie Kul, Huy Hoang, Leon Le, Minh Ngoc Nguyen and Thai-Hoa Le.
Seven Vietnamese women at various stages of their lives seek to find love and to be loved.
Opening with the chapter titled Childhood, two children Lan (Huy Hoang) and Tho (Phuong Quynh) who explore the wonders of nature together only to have friendship severed when parents of the latter arrive to take her back to Saigon for schooling. The Message focuses on Thiet (Hong Anh) who develops second thoughts about delivering a diary and informing a mother (Diem My) that her son (Huy Khanh) has died when she is mistaken as his future bride. From a desolate landscape a romance blossoms in Blood Moon where a young couple (Ngo Thanh Van, Kris Duangphung). The Boat takes on a ghostly atmosphere as Tan (Richie Kul) discovers the ideal woman (Truong Ngoc Anh) but does she only exist in his mind? Awakening is narrated by Mi (Minh Ngoc Nguyen), a spinster seamstress who has made of over the years six wedding dresses for each of her “almost husbands.” The Gift chronicles a meeting between a neglected wife (Nhu Quynh) and a photographer (Thai-Hoa Le) where temptation may become too much to resist. The final chapter Time centres upon an actress (Kieu Chinh) well past her prime who surrounds herself with photographs of her past glories and longs to star on the stage once again.
The anthology is based on a series of short stories and a novel, Between Two Mountains of Love, The Package of Cam le Tobacco, Blood Moon, Beauty, The Diary of an Abandoned Woman, Love is Out of Mind, and Beyond the Truth by Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc who also wrote the screenplay and stars in the cinematic adaptation. Unlike Cloud Atlas (2012) there is no intercutting and different actors are used in each of the seven stories. These factors work in the favour of the film as viewers are allowed the time to absorb each new world. Filmmaker Cuong Ngo has taken a difficult creative path for his feature debut by minimizing the dialogue and relying on the visual impact of the images to tell his story. The cinematography is gorgeous and so is the cast which works with mixed results; whereas the Vietnam landscape enhances the picture, the latter at moments contributes to a Harlequin romance quality which is hard to ignore. The musical score accentuates the internal conflicts and also helps to unify the different segments together especially during the dream sequence featured in Blood Moon.
There is a missed opportunity with Awakening to take advantage of the comedic aspect of the storyline which would have introduced a sense of emotional relief to the cinematic proceedings. A nice dramatic touch occurs in Time where the ageing actress smudges her facial performance make-up which simply sums up her mental state; she also has a memorable moment involving a bow, a flaming arrow, a makeshift wooden raft and a wedding dress. Cuong Ngo experiments with the thriller genre with The Message and The Boat which is more believable in the former as it is easier to understand the source of the psychological turmoil. The most visually stunning chapter is Blood Moon which takes full advantage of desert coastal setting; however, comparisons to the adventure romance of The Blue Lagoon (1980) with Brooke Shields are unavoidable. At times Pearls of the Far East comes across as being somewhat shallow which is hard to avoid in movies dealing with the feeling of love. Perhaps with further directorial experience Cuong Ngo will be able his raise storytelling skill to level of his lofty themes.