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Movie Critique: “Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell” (2023) directed by Thien An Pham.
Movie Critique: "Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell" (2023) directed by Thien An Pham.

Movie Critique: “Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell” (2023) directed by Thien An Pham.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of “Yellow Cocoon” is its ability to discover moments of brilliance hidden within the mundane.

by Vedant Srinivas

Epic in both length and scope, “Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell”, Vietnamese writer-director Thien An Pham’s debut feature, and the winner of this year’s Camera d’Or prize at Cannes, offers a striking meditation on faith, love, and the beguiling nature of earthly existence.

At Qcinema, “Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell” will be shown.

In the opening scene of “Yellow Cocoon,” the clash between spiritual and physical existence is established. Thien, caught between a believer and an atheist, expresses his uncertain beliefs about a higher power. As if on cue, a sudden gust of wind interrupts their conversation, followed by the sound of a motorcycle crash. It is later revealed that the victim of the accident was Thien’s sister-in-law, Hanh, while her young son, Dhao, miraculously survived. As Dhao’s only living relative, Thien takes on the responsibility of arranging a Christian burial for Hanh and they journey to their hometown in the countryside.

The character of Dhao, who is childlike, offers a contrast to the adult Thien. While Thien struggles with feelings of despair and dissatisfaction with his life as a video editor in the chaotic city of Saigon, Dhao is constantly curious and questioning about faith, death, and the meaning of life. These are difficult questions with no simple answers. As they journey into the countryside, the film takes on a wandering tone, expanding its scope to encompass everything it encounters. The rural landscapes and sounds of Vietnam become more prominent, and the film begins to focus on Christian rituals in an almost ethnographic manner. Thien meets various people from the town and engages in conversations with them, including an ex-girlfriend who is now a nun after finding her spiritual calling. These interactions also serve as a way for Thien to reconnect with his forgotten past. As he starts to make a plan to search for his missing older brother, the film gradually shifts into surreal territory with seamless transitions. Memories, desires, and fantasies take over, blurring the lines between time and space, and the film adopts a dream-like logic.

Thien An’s formal decisions emphasize the dreamlike state even more. Like his highly praised short film “Stay Awake, Be Ready”, “Yellow Cocoon” also heavily relies on length as a structural element. Most, if not all, scenes feature extremely long shots, where the camera moves gracefully and explores its surroundings, almost taking on a character of its own. This trend reaches its peak in a stunning twenty-five minute scene, starting with an outdoor conversation between Thien and Trung (Hanh’s brother), and ending with Thien entering the home of a local shroud maker after a motorcycle ride through busy traffic and a slow zoom-in through a window reminiscent of Antonioni’s “The Passenger”. The air is thick with memories of war, yearning, and death.

Besides their skill in creating visually compelling scenes, Thien’s preference for extended shots also reflects the movie’s exploration of existential questions. In this film, every aspect of life is shown unfolding simultaneously, in real time, highlighting its complex and captivating nature. This allows for spontaneous and unpredictable elements to be incorporated, such as a fly buzzing in the background, a leaf swaying in the breeze, or a motorcyclist unexpectedly speeding past the camera. As a result, the traditional linear storyline is replaced with the unpredictable and inexplicable aspects of life.

In the style of slow cinema, “Yellow Cocoon” focuses less on the development of a story and more on the sensory experiences of everyday life. The film alternates between beautiful shots of the Vietnamese countryside, captured in natural light, and ordinary moments that contain a sense of elemental power. These include rain on windows, a sheer cloth blowing in the wind, and the slow movement of light on reflective surfaces. The film’s soundtrack, filled with sounds such as birdsong, howling wind, dripping water, and melancholic guitar melodies, enhances the rich and multi-layered texture of the film. It highlights the interconnectedness of human existence with the natural world.

Thien An Pham’s approach to filmmaking will likely be compared to that of other renowned filmmakers such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang, and Theo Angelopoulos. However, Thien has a distinct talent in how he skillfully incorporates thematic and formal aspects, effortlessly manipulating both composition and storytelling to create a sense of elegance in his cinematic storytelling. This, perhaps, is the most remarkable feat of “Yellow Cocoon”, as it uncovers the extraordinary within the mundane.