Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell

Thien (Le Phong Vu) is a wedding videographer living in Saigon when he suddenly becomes responsible for his five year-old nephew Dao (Nguyen Thinh) after his sister-in-law is killed in a motorcycle accident.  Returning with the boy to his home town in the mountains, Thien reassesses his life while searching for the boy’s father, his older brother Tam, in “Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell.”

Laura's Review: B+

Writer/director Thien An Pham won the 2023 Cannes Palme d’Or for his personal reflection.  With a run time of three hours, An Pham’s film definitely qualifies as slow cinema, but his long, deliberate takes are mesmerizing and reinforce his themes of faith, family and nature.

The film begins with Thien sitting at an outdoor Saigon eatery with friends, opining that the existence of faith is ambiguous.  Moments later, people rush forward to observe a horrible, head-on motorcycle crash.  As it turns out, this may have been the crash which left Thien’s nephew a virtual orphan, a bystander noting that a woman was killed while a child survived without a scratch.  At the hospital, Thien soothes the little boy but bends the truth, telling Dao his mother is a floor below them.  Running outside to get some food, he rescues a baby bird, which will take up residence sitting on a tin can beside Thien’s computer.  When the two leave Saigon in a van, Dao’s mother’s casket in the back, that bird will accompany them, but the burial we see and Dao’s tears will be for that feathered friend, Thien’s first reengagement with nature another loss.

Thien offers to split the funeral costs with his sister-in-law’s brother Trung (Vu Ngoc Manh), who asks him to take a portion of it to Mr. Luu (Nguyen Van Lu'u), the old man who prepares shrouds for the dead having refused to take a neighbor’s money.  In perhaps the most extraordinary of cinematographer Dinh Duy Hung’s long, unbroken takes, we follow Thien on the old motorbike Trung has given him as he makes his way to the old man’s home.  There, we will hear him being regaled with Mr. Luu’s old war stories through an open window, the camera slowing gliding in to settle on Luu as Thien learns that it was Luu’s experience with death during wartime that led him to honoring the deceased thereafter.

Thien meets his old flame, surprised to find out she is now Sister Thao (Nguyen Thi Truc Quynh) yet telling her he admires her decision.  A flashback will reveal the passion that once existed between them.  After explaining that faith is like trusting a friend, he will bring Dao to enroll in the Catholic school entrusting him to Thao’s care.  At a roadside stop for motorcycle repair where Thien shows strangers pictures of his older brother tam, he will meet an old woman (Nsnd Phi Dieu) who talks about the futility of gaining the whole world if one loses one’s soul, her Catholic beliefs melding with Buddhist ideas about reincarnation. 

The film revels in Vietnam’s natural splendor, verdant hills shrouded in mist, butterflies dancing in the night sky, a grouping of water buffalo blocking a path.  The camera accentuates both vertical and horizontal space while often rotating 360 degrees to transition into another scene, as it does near film’s end to bring Thien back to his sister-in-law when Dao was still an infant.  Asking him to hold the child, she prepares the lunch they drive out to Tam’s workplace, but do not find him.  Another turn of the camera will reveal this as a dream, Thien having returned to the spot to look for his brother, but when he sheds his clothes to lie in a stream above a waterfall, we know he has found something else.  “Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell” rejects the trappings of modern life for the spiritual and the natural and casts a convincing spell as we follow Thien’s journey.

Robin's Review: B+

A young man sits with his friends at a Saigon bar eating, drinking and talking. He gets an emergency phone call that will take him from his comfort zone and put him in the middle of a family crisis far from the city in “Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell.”

I can often spot a first time filmmaker by the length of their premier feature flick and that is the case here with Thien An Pham with his 2:59 debut feature. Usually, the self-indulgence works against the fledgling filmmaker but, here, there is talent in the filmmaking, even though some judicious editing – 45 minutes to an hour - would have made a much tighter and better flowing story. Tyro filmmakers frequently see every minute of footage as essential. Not so.

But, if you trim away all of the tyro-filmmaker exuberance and really indulgent long takes – for example, a two minute static shot of a rooster crowing that should have been 15 or 20 seconds – there is an interesting story contained within.

Thien thought he was done with his country-boy roots and has a new life in the bustling metropolis of Saigon. The emergency call from his family informs him his sister-in-law was killed in a tragic accident, leaving her young son, Dao, alone and in the hospital. It is up to Thien to make the funeral arrangements and bring the little boy home to Thien’s rural village.

This begins a series of journeys for Thien, first bringing the boy home to family. Then he sets out to find his brother Tam, who may have abandoned the boy and his mother. There is also a story of the woman he left behind and the life he might have had. It is a spiritual journey, too, for Thien as his return home sparks a new view of his own life and future.

There is a lot to unpack in writer-director Thien An Pham debut feature. If you are patient and can get past the youthful exuberance of a first-time filmmaker – every inch of film is gold in a new filmmaker’s mind – you will find a thoughtful story of discovery, and re-discovery.

The director-writer also puts on display his Roman Catholic roots as we watch the Vietnamese version of the religion’s pomp and circumstance. We were in Vietnam years ago and I was surprised how a predominantly Buddhist culture is also the home for a goodly number of Catholics. And, you get a good sense of the country’s culture and tenacity. As I said, there is a lot to unpack.

Kino Lorber released “Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell” in NY on 1/19/24.  It will be available on VOD on 3/19/24 and upcoming theatrical dates may be found here.