“Another City” dir Pham Ngoc Lan at Athens International Film & Video Festival

Vietnam (25 minutes)

Screened at: Athens International Film & Video Festival in Athens, Ohio (4/7/16)

I spent 3 days watching films for at least six hours a day at the Athens International Film & Video festival this past April, and although the program that this film was a part of was the least attended that I witnessed (only five others in the audience!) this film was my favorite. Pham Ngoc Lan takes his time with shots, they allow time for the watcher to really feel what is happening in the scene, to take in details like wallpaper texture or the way suds slides down a glass window when cleaning and allow these details to sink in.

The film begins in a white-roomed gallery setting; a middle-aged woman takes a hair dryer from her purse and begins to blow her hair dry, but then takes off her hair — it’s a wig — and continues to blow it dry in her lap. She then takes fruit out of her purse — she is meticulous and intent and aware of the camera. The shot is long. We are then transported to a private karaoke room where several mid-20 year-old’s are strewn about the room, one singing, another lying on the floor crying, another looking bored — all amidst flashing lights of nightlife karaoke. The song is dramatic and sad; we learn, through tears, that the man crying has just been broken up with after a long relationship and engagement. What then proceeds is a sappy love song, while all in the room are long-faced and silent, absorbed in their own thoughts while a  disco ball lights up their faces.

We watch the middle aged woman look out the window as her high-level apartment windows are washed by two men wearing safety harnesses and sitting on swings. This scene is silent and meditatively long; we see the window washers frantically moving contrasted with her stillness as she watches. Many thoughts arise while she watches at “crotch-level” of the male workers. This scene cuts and then we see a series of long take of suds sliding down the window at various speeds and the reflection of the buildings and city in the glass and water.

As the film proceeds, there seem to be non-sequiturs scenes, building a mood with a slight plot weaved in — or rather, a familiarity builds as we watch characters play out and form relationships and do things on their own. It seems that the main plot is of a relationship ending and another one beginning due to pregnancy. The middle aged womans role is somewhat ambiguous, at some points seeming like a mother, at other points seeming like a lover.

Even though a fractured plot emerges, that is not what captured my attention the most. What struck me about this film was the mood that it created: longing, awkwardness, sadness — created by such specific scenes of characters alone and with others. The fragmented plot is not bothersome, it is a collage of situations, of relationships, of feelings. The scenes are elaborate and specific, but sometimes the specificity is unclear or ambiguous as they don’t pertain to a plot, but rather a mood.

The ending is of a waterfall and all of the characters lying on a rock. It is a pan shot and we first see one character walking over rocks in a creek, and then the camera pans over in real time as he walks, to the big rock with all the characters revealed lying like beached whales. I felt that this walk through a rocky creek somehow represented their journey through life, which seemed painful and challenging, only to reach people who are living in their own worlds with difficulty connecting. I really loved this film. The colors, scenery, soundtrack and pacing were right on.

“Another City” dir Pham Ngoc Lan at Athens International Film & Video Festival