In the opening moments of Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, Thien (Lê Phong Vũ) bears witness to a miracle. Seconds earlier, he argued against the notions of “eternal life” as his friend spoke of growing closer to the divine. His other friend, finding the middle ground between the two, states that the “existence of faith is ambiguous. I want to believe, but I can’t.” Immediately after, a crash, as a woman and her young son collide with another man on a motorbike. The man dies instantly, the woman heavily injured, while the young boy stands right up, perfectly fine.
These opening sequences are some of the busiest in the film before Thien finds himself journeying on a tranquil odyssey. His sister-in-law dies in a motorbike accident in Saigon, Vietnam. Thien must bring her body back to her countryside hometown. Accompanied by his 5-year-old nephew, Dao (Nguyễn Thịnh), the film captures how the two perceive the world and its many wonders and questions. Thien’s trip soon turns into a search for his older brother, Dao’s father, which dissolves into a wider, quiet epic in the landscapes of rural Vietnam.
Directed by Phạm Thiên An in his feature film debut, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell delivers this meditation on life and death with a deft touch. Despite the heavy nature of the story and how it deals with our finite time on this planet, it’s never heavy-handed. Instead, there’s humor and wit, melancholy and mysticism. There’s a playful irony to the fact that Thien, the man with no faith, is obsessed with performing magic tricks, in control of the mystery of how a card or bell appears in his hands. In another clever bit of editing, the film transitions from planning a funeral to Thien cutting together footage of a wedding.
With loosely pieced-together sequences, Thien’s story is at its best in the first stretch of his visit to his sister-in-law’s hometown. The story finds its immense strength while bound to earth. Imagery such as small hands holding the body of an even small, deceased bird while lowering it into the ground stun. Later in that scene, a group of ducklings run while Thien leads his own, Dao, around. The green landscapes are overwhelming, nearly drowning Thien and Dao as they wander paths to local neighbors. Dao plays with friends while Thien meets an older man who fought in the Vietnam War. The man verbalizes his scars as he expresses what it means to have returned home when so many didn’t.
The way life and death intersect casts a transfixing glow around the film. It’s all so carefully considered, too patient at times, but the effect is undeniable. Dao poses impossible questions to Thien, asking him, “Where is heaven?” and “What is faith.” Thien responds that faith is something he’s searching for, starkly contrasting his initial response. The dialogue deals with finality. The cinematography and direction, though, always have a hand in the vivacious persistence of nature. Which, in and of itself, is too another reminder of our mortality. A woman tells Thien that the “brevity of suffering compared to eternity” is a blip. Soon after, Thien becomes drenched in an otherworldly cascade or rain, born anew, perhaps.
The direction often adopts odd perspectives. There are moments shot from a first-person vantage point as we walk down a path straight toward some water buffalo. In others, the camera holds still as Thien walks right up to it, ducking out of view to pick up a small bird, his chest at eye level with the lens. In moments of personal exploration, it pulls back, taking a God’s eye view. The direction fluctuates between being purely observation to an active player.
The second act tests viewers’ endurance, especially if they are not well-versed in longer-form films like this. The tonal dissonance, at times, can be jarring. Even just moving from ambient soundscapes in the score to jaunty interlude music that bookends pieces of Thien’s journey. But ultimately, the film is a gorgeous, poetic exploration of how we move through this world. Watching Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is to see the DNA of other masterpieces that came before it. From the cinematic minimalism of Tsai Ming-liang (Days, Goodbye Dragon Inn), to the natural worlds fantastical elements in works by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady, Memoria), to David Lynch’s tale of brothers in A Straight Story, there’s hints of greatness both past and present in each frame.
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is a mesmerizing debut from Phạm Thiên An. With its abundance of greens, the film delivers a confident examination of death and its impact on the living. Equipped with genuinely staggering visuals and a keen eye for natural beauty and strong compositions, the film might be tedious for some, but if you sink into its contemplative rhythm, the effect is striking.
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is in select theaters now.
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is a mesmerizing debut from Phạm Thiên An. With its abundance of greens, the film delivers a confident examination of death and its impact on the living.