Bui Thac Chuyen’s Choi Voi (Adrift)

I just saw Bui Thac Chuyen’s film Choi Voi (Adrift) at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Bui Thac Chuyen is the director of Song Trong So Hai (Living in Fear, 2005), which is a terrific movie about a South Vietnamese veteran in Viet Nam after the war whose only way of making a living is to dig up buried landmines. After every successful de-mining, he’s so thrilled to be alive he has to make love to his wife. You can see the trailer and read more about it in Vietnamese or in English. Living in Fear was a visceral movie that presented a view of the war and its after effects seen rarely in Vietnamese cinema and never at all in American cinema. The same talent is on display in Adrift, but the look of the film and the narrative are very, very different. Adrift is about a mismatched newlywed couple: the young husband, taxi driver Duy Khoa Nguyen, a mama’s boy, and his wife, Do Thi Hai Yen (seen in The Quiet American and The Story of Pao), not yet aware of her sexuality until she runs into the Vietnamese/Viet Kieu hearth-throb Johnny Tri Nguyen (getting better with every film).

The film reminded me of Tran Anh Hung’s Vertical Ray of the Sun– meditative, beautiful, and tightly focused on the emotional, romantic, and sexual lives of men and women in Hanoi. Chuyen captures the look of Hanoi, from cramped working-class family apartments and gangster gambling dens to the middle-class dwellings of artists and cosmopolitans. The film may be slow going at first, but Chuyen builds momentum as the husband and wife gradually realize how ill-suited they are for each other, and find comfort elsewhere. This is New Vietnamese Cinema–technically on par with Korean, Hong Kong, or Japanese cinema, not a whiff of war or politics to be found, determined to show the complexity and contradictions of urban life in Vietnam. Highly recommended.

And DVAN member/diaCRITIC Nguyen Qui Duc has a cameo in the film, too, as a Japanese tourist!

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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  1. I would say Chuyen’s moved on. He’s working on a ghost film now (no ghosts of/from war.) Like other filmmakers, writers, artists, Chuyen’s been saying the war is far away. Concerns with “modern” Vietnamese society, sexuality, cultural repression seem to be the topic of the day (wait til you see Phan Dang Di’s new film. Frontal nudity, sex scenes, hopeless and useless men… It’ll be interesting to see how the film is cut for domestic consumption.)
    I did see two scripts, and a couple of novels (being translated and developed into film script, by Vo Thi Hao, Viet Linh and others) that has much to do with the war, the onset of the agrarian reforms…
    The anniversary of the “liberation of the South” was all over town this past April — but again that’s government information machine focusing on victory (and claiming moral authority). It didn’t engender much discussion among the young or the thinkers. As Bao Ninh says, so many have died for him to have a book (Sorrow of War). He can’t write more about it.

    Viet: my cameo in Adrift was about 30 seconds, and I was hoping to kiss some beautiful actress. The director selected my own real-life girlfriend. The kiss was real. And the director thought I was drinking water from the vodka bottle for the beach scene. Little does he know.

  2. I would guess that he’s “just interested in different scents and senses of postwar life.” Unless I ask someone about the war, or go looking for its evidence, it’s unlikely to come up as a topic in Vietnam. Not to say that the characters in the movie haven’t been shaped by the war or have memories of it, but since the film can choose to look only at them from the exterior, those memories never have to be addressed. I’ll look for a DVD when I’m in Vietnam this summer.

  3. Thanks for this flash review. I’m jealous of all you California Viets who get a chance to see films like this in theatre, and not on some janky boot-legged version as I inevitably will, if I do at all, 2 yrs from now! Not in Wisconsin. (Tho I did *finally* see A Village of Versailles in the Wisconsin Film Festival. We have them too, you know.)

    Question: I’m wondering what you–or other folks who have seen the movie(s)–think “Adrift” conveys together with “Living in Fear.” If the stench of war and politics can be smelled, as it were, in the earlier more visceral film, then what’s the latest film doing by removing that smell? Is Bui Thac Chuyen suggesting that contemporary urban life in VN covers up the smell of war and politics? Or is he just interested in different scents and senses of postwar life?

    I wish I could watch both movies now. Anyone know how I might get their hands on a DVD?


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