Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is nearly three hours long, moves at a pace some will find glacial, and doesn't seem interested in sharply defined resolutions.
That may not sound inviting but Vietnamese director Pham Thien An has made an exceptional film, one that asks us to live with it, travel with it, and experience life through its eyes. Confidently conceived and deliberate in its execution, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell absorbs us in its grief, mystery, and beauty.
Pham wraps his movie around a minimal story. Thien (Le Phong Vu) faces a major change when his sister-in-law is killed in a motorcycle crash. Her five-year-old son Dao (Nguyen Thinh) survives the crash.
Taking the boy under wing, Thien travels from Saigon to the rural village where he was raised. He hopes to find his brother -- the boy's father -- and deliver Dao to him.
Such is the film's spine, but Pham turns Thien's travels into a spiritual quest that introduces us to the simply expressed Catholicism of villagers whose homes are full of iconography.
How should we regard the faith that the film finds in some of its characters? Pham never tells us. It's part of the reality Thien encounters, no different and no less physically apparent than trees along a roadside. Perhaps religion represents the past Thien thought he left behind when he took up residence in Saigon.
The countryside gives the film a lush, expectant quality. Mysterious fogs embrace landscapes. We feel the dampness. We slosh through mud-clogged roads after a downpour.
As he searches for his brother, Thien meets three pivotal characters: an older man who fought against the Vietcong, a nun he once hoped would become his girlfriend, and an elderly woman who describes a journey she took to the place where souls live and from which she reluctantly returned to her body and the fetid world it inhabits.
Pham's imagery can be spacious. He photographs a scene in which Thien speaks to a war veteran as an almost reluctant form of intrusion. Thien waits a long time before his camera shows us the face of the man with whom Thien is speaking.
Speaking is probably the wrong word. Mostly, Thien listens.
Pham allows us to imagine backstories that remain unspoken. Why did Thien's brother leaves his wife and child? Why did Thien remain in Saigon when the rest of his immediate family left for the US? What ultimately will become of Dao? Will Thien return to Saigon?
The film requires patience. Watching Thien slowly push his crippled motor scooter up a hill tests one's endurance. That may be part of the point. If we're in a rush, as Thien may have during his days in the city, it's difficult to look for the profundity around us.
Pham never edits his images into disruptive chunks; he immerses us in time and space, encouraging us to wonder about the meaning of what we're seeing -- or simply to see it.
Neither we nor Thien arrive at a fulfilling destination, at least that's how I felt. Maybe that's the point. Thien's spiritual search -- if that's what it is -- brings meditative observation to a high level, approximating the limbo in which Thien finds himself.
We think that the meaning of all this should be deep. Perhaps, though, there's no revelation to be had -- just unfolding experience: mundane, strange, and emergent. Life, after all, is under no obligation to explain itself to us.
Pham achieves something rare: We almost feel each moment attaching to the next. On and on and on again, as the movie seeps into consciousness.