Sensation is diffuse, so that the sensuality of rain is inseparable from that of flesh, and a woman washing her husband's hands feels as erotically loaded as a kiss. Vertical deals with seduction and romantic infatuation in the course of its storytelling, but it treats other instances of sensuality, too, like eating, bathing, preparing a meal, teaching a small child to swim and waking to a new day.
A director fascinated by the activities that occur between the "action" scenes, Tran Anh Hung luxuriates in the minutiae others might regard as a preamble to the meat of life. Some may not have the patience for Tran Anh Hung's lingering, self-consciously artful perspective. Others will be intoxicated.
The atmosphere of Vertical Ray is as heady and intense as the illicit eros in Wong Kar-Wai's recent In the Mood for Love (which shares a lethargic moodiness and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin), in which rainfall suddenly seems like the weight of two lovers' repressed desire pouring down from above.
Water is used to similar effect, as a sensual conductor, in Vertical Ray as when three sisters slowly wash their long, jet-black ropes of hair, a fisherman's junk bobs in an undulating green sea, a couple is trapped in a rain shower, and the remnants of a heavy rainfall leave Hanoi's streets glossy with sheets of water.
The often peripheral narrative core in this largely visual, sensory film is a family of three sisters (and their assorted husbands and children) and a brother, who, as the film opens, are carefully preparing a memorial meal to mark their mother's death. In one arresting, subtly queasy scene, the sisters bow like the three graces to meticulously clean and prepare a chicken for the feast. In a circle of soft, white light, the women work over the animal's body -- peeling away the dappled membrane that covers its feet, popping the shells from its claws. That Tran Anh Hung can find the aesthetic in that grotesque preparation is indicative of the reverent approach he brings to life in general, where there is a sense of poetry, ritual and grace more commonly associated with religious ceremonies.
After the feast, splinters of narrative break off. The middle sister Khanh (Le Khanh) learns she is pregnant with her first child and begins to suspect that her husband Kien (Tran Manh Cuong) is having an affair. Suong (Nguyen Nhu Quynh), the oldest sister, conducts a strangely ritualistic affair in a man's apartment, refusing to speak to her lover, as if to indicate the unspeakable nature of the relationship. Lien, the youngest (Tran Nu Yen-Khe, the director's wife and frequent muse), flirts with older brother Hai (Ngo Quanq Hai), who shares her apartment.
Throughout the film, Tran Anh Hung's camera observes with that same sensual, artful vantage, photographing people and objects as if they were the advantageously displayed gems in a jeweler's shop window. The film itself embraces a muted, seductive spectrum of color -- jade green walls, diluted blues and the occasional shock of pomegranate red -- that does much to enhance the film's calm, elegant unfolding. Tran Anh Hung's perspective seems to come closest to that of Suong's unhappy husband, Quoc (Chu Ngoc Hung), a photographer who takes exquisite photographs of plants and flowers.
"In these pictures there is a tranquility you can't find in a face," Quoc tells his brother-in-law Kien, a writer trying to finish the last 17 pages of his first novel.
"It is tranquility I look for in a photograph," Quoc continues. And it seems, tranquility, too, is what Tran Anh Hung is searching for, in his meditation on all the shadings of beauty in life.
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