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[whitespace] 'Vertical Ray  of the Sun'
Slow Dancing: Tran Nu Yën-Khê (left) and Ngö Quang Hai share an intimate moment in 'The Vertical Ray of the Sun.'

That's Life

Tranh Anh Hung's 'Vertical Ray of the Sun' offers a memorable slice-of-life

By Jim Aquino

VIETNAMESE DIRECTOR Tran Anh Hung's thoughtful, sensuous Hanoi family drama The Vertical Ray of the Sun opens with a doozy of a sequence that sets the film's lazy-summer-day tone. The moment doesn't mean much on paper, but in the hands of Hung and his cinematographer, the skilled Mark Lee Ping-Bin (In the Mood for Love), it's an entrancing opener: they keep the camera settled, in real time, on twentysomething movie actor Hai (Ngö Quang Hai) and his slightly younger sister Liên (sultry Tran Nu Yên-Khê, the director's wife) waking up, stretching and doing tai chi morning exercises while their alarm clock radio plays a song by their favorite singer, Lou Reed.

Repeated throughout the movie, each time with an amusing variation or two (the Lou Reed tune is different, Hai falls out of bed, Hai lights up a cigarette and Liên follows suit, etc.), the dialogueless waking-up sequences bring to mind that legendary 14-minute opening credits sequence from Once Upon a Time in the West, in which director Sergio Leone found both humor and drama in a situation as mundane and tedious as waiting silently at a train station for someone to arrive.

In fact, most of the first hour of The Vertical Ray of the Sun eschews conventional narrative and plays pretty much like a series of mostly mundane slice-of-life moments with no real connection. Vertical Ray has its slow spots, but give it a chance as it progresses: more patient viewers will be rewarded midway. The film follows Liên and her older sisters Suong (Nguyen Nhu Quynh) and Khanh (Le Khanh) as they commemorate the anniversaries of the deaths of their restaurateur parents, whom they all adored and who died a month apart from each other. As they begin to suspect that their mother had an affair, the sisters try to cope with their own relationship secrets. Suong is trying to sort out her marriage with her estranged husband, brooding nature photographer Quoc (an affecting Chu Ngöc Hung), while carrying on an affair with an out-of-town businessman. Khanh is happily married to novelist Kien (Tran Manh Cuong) and is expecting their first child, but Kien may be starting to entertain thoughts of infidelity. And Liên isn't sure what to make of her near-incestuous longing for Hai, whom she shares an apartment with.

All this may read like a lousy art-house soap/chick flick, but fortunately, Hung, who previously directed The Scent of Green Papaya and Cyclo, avoids that approach. He also finds humor in the unlikeliest of places, like in a potentially trite sisters-have-a-good-cry sequence. Perhaps The Vertical Ray of the Sun's greatest strength--besides Ping-Bin's gorgeous cinematography--is that it's as untidy and unpredictable as life itself.

The Vertical Ray of the Sun (PG-13; 112 min.), directed and written by Anh Hung Tran, photographed by Pin Bing lee and starring Tran Nu Yën-Khê, Nhu Quynh Nguyen and Ngö Quang Hai, opens Friday at the Camera One in San Jose.

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From the July 12-18, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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