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'Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell' is a film where a big screen makes a big difference

Le Phong Vu plays Thien, a young man looking for answers in the Vietnamese countryside.
Le Phong Vu plays Thien, a young man looking for answers in the Vietnamese countryside.

I try not to be too dogmatic these days about telling people that there are certain movies they should see only on the big screen. That said, if there is one movie right now that you should see in a theater if you can, it's the transfixing new drama Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, from the Vietnamese writer and director Phạm Thiên Ân.

It's the kind of film that envelops you with its gorgeous images and hypnotic rhythms, and it requires close, wide-awake attention to work its peculiar magic. Give it that attention, and you may find it as overwhelming as I did — an experience that makes you feel as if you've been quietly transported to another world.

The story begins in Saigon in 2018, at a bustling outdoor dining area next door to a soccer game. Amid the crowd, three young men are having a meal and some heavy spiritual conversation. Two of them talk about matters of faith and destiny, while a third one, named Thien, mostly remains silent and looks none too interested in the discussion. Suddenly, there's a loud crash, and the camera pans sideways to reveal the wreckage of a fatal motorbike collision. Nearly everyone runs over to see if they can help — everyone, that is, except Thien, who remains at his table, lost in thought.

It's as if Thien, who's played by the actor Le Phong Vu, doesn't realize yet that he's the protagonist of this movie, or that his life is about to take a major swerve. A few hours later, Thien is informed that the woman killed in the accident was none other than his sister-in-law, Teresa. Is it some cruel coincidence that he was there when it happened, but showed such indifference? Was it an act of divine grace that spared the life of Teresa's 5-year-old son, Dao, who survived the crash with barely a scrape?

Either way, Thien must deal with the fallout by temporarily taking care of his nephew. And so begins a mysterious journey into the Vietnamese countryside, where Thien and Dao attend memorial services for Teresa, who was an observant Catholic.

Along the way, Thien reunites with old friends, including an old flame who's now a nun. He tries to find his brother, Teresa's estranged husband, who apparently hasn't been seen for years. But it gradually becomes clear that Thien isn't just looking for a person. He's lost, too — and now he's searching for himself.

The beauty of 'Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell' is the way director Phạm invites us to search alongside Thien. Most of the movie is composed in long, unbroken takes, to quietly mesmerizing effect.

The beauty of Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is the way director Phạm invites us to search alongside Thien. Most of the movie is composed in long, unbroken takes, to quietly mesmerizing effect: By refusing to cut away or break his story into easily digestible segments, Phạm leaves you feeling as though you're experiencing life through his characters' eyes.

There's one extraordinary shot that runs more than 20 minutes, in which Thien rides his bike down a dirt road, stops at the home of a village elder and goes inside for some conversation. You're struck at first by the jaw-dropping virtuosity of the camerawork, but after a while, you forget about the technique and are simply caught up in the older man's story. He talks about his lifelong efforts to perform acts of goodness and decency, in repentance for the violence he committed as a soldier during the Vietnam War.

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is deeply invested in questions of good and evil, mortality and immortality. But while the movie offers a fascinating portrait of Vietnamese Christianity, unfolding in village homes crowded with Jesus paintings and figurines, it never suggests that the truth can be found within one religious tradition or doctrine. Taking in this movie, with its stunning landscapes and soundscapes, I was often reminded of the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose films, like Memoriaor Syndromes and a Century, are steeped in his Buddhist worldview.

As Thien's journey continues, the narrative seems to slip between past and present, dream and reality, in ways that are baffling but also intoxicating. What matters here, finally, isn't whether Thien finds the answers to his questions; what matters is that, after so many years of apparent apathy, he's asking those questions at all. Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is an entrancing work of art, but it's also wise enough to leave its deepest mysteries unsolved.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.