INTERVIEW: Ray of Light; Viet Nam's Tran Ahn Hung Cyclos His Way to "Vertical"

by Laura Phipps

(indieWIRE/ 07.09.01) -- Vietnamese-born director Tran Anh Hung doesn't play around. His debut feature, 1993's "The Scent of Green Papaya" won the French Cfésar for best feature and garnered a foreign film Oscar nom in the States. Although the "Papaya" takes place in Viet Nam, it was shot entirely on a prepared sound stage in France, where Tran was educated after emigrating there at age twelve. He followed "Papaya" with 1995's "Cyclo," a violent portrait of a rickshaw driver that won the Golden Lion at the Venice Festival.

Tran downshifts a few gears for his latest feature, "The Vertical Ray of the Sun." Shot in Hanoi, this visually sumptuous piece examines the lives of three sisters who are struggling with issues of fidelity and longing in their own lives as they commemorate the anniversary of their mother's death. Suong (Nguyen Nhu Quynh), the oldest sister, is carrying on a silent love affair; middle sister Khanh (Le Khanh) suspects her husband of cheating; Lien (the director's wife, Tran Nu Yen-Khé), the youngest, seems more interested in her brother than the man she's dating. Seeped in vibrant tropical colors, exquisitely choreographed and languorously paced, "Vertical Ray"'s trump card is its playful sense of humor.

indieWIRE caught up with Tran on the road. The soft-spoken, hyper-articulate director spoke about his eclectic sources of inspiration, what sets his new work apart from Wong Kar-wai's, and his national identity (or lack thereof). A sign, perhaps, of his gently persuasive directorial power, he managed to bypass the translator and steer the interview into French. The translation follows.

"When you walk down the street, at night when the light fades, there is a certain sensation of the sweetness of life. It's truly very beautiful, very powerful and very sensual."

indieWIRE: What was the inspiration for the film's title, and what does it mean?

Tran Ahn Hung: The difficulty with the title is that the title in French is not comprehensible in English, but gives only the ambiance. The French title is "A la Verticale de l'ffété" from a Japanese poem, and it doesn't say anything really, in reality. It is just a feeling of a certain vertical quality in summer, when the sun is very high in the sky, and there is a sense of heat. The English title was chosen by the distributor as the best thing for the film.

iW: The city of Hanoi inspired the film. Tell me more about that.

Tran: Effectively, it was Hanoi that suggested the idea of the film, because Hanoi possesses a rather particular quality, which is the heat, the slowness, and the formidable sensuality. In Hanoi, the insides of houses are very little, and people do certain activities normally done inside outside on the sidewalk. Under the communist system, there are little common water sources on the street which families share. So people go out in the street, to wash themselves, to wash their vegetables, to wash their clothes, and also to wash the children. So what happens is that when you walk down the street, at night when the light fades, there is a certain sensation of the sweetness of life. The smiles of women who wash themselves, things like that. It's truly very beautiful, very powerful and very sensual. There you go. That's why I made the film there.

iW: During the process of making the film, I've read that the actor's roles were inspired in part by the actors themselves.

Tran: Yes, that's right. I played a little bit with reality and fiction. Certain roles had similarities to the actors' lives. For example the oldest sister [Suong, played by Nguyen Nhu Quynh]: In her life she is an actress, of course, but she also works in a caf