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Happy Father’s Day: Review of Father and Son (Cha Cõng Con)!

Father and Son's familiar tear-jerking story mostly appeals to older audience but everyone should check it out for the stunning cinematography and nostalgic elements.

Out of all the Vietnamese films I saw at this year's LA Asian Pacific Film Festival, the only one stood out was Father and Son (Cha Cõng Con). The other three films were rather tamed in my opinion. This article was written back in May immediately after I watched it in theater. I've wanted to hold off on it until father's day. Father and Son's familiar tear-jerking story mostly appeals to older audience but everyone should check it out for the stunning cinematography and nostalgic elements.

I won't dive into the story as I think it's the least interesting part. As common in Vietnamese films, the simple plot is bleak. Although the actors are adequate, the best character is the setting. The first portion of the film takes place in a tranquil mountain region. This is the best part of the whole film. It gives us a good sense of place and time. Our characters are surrounded by a vast environment of forest, hills, and rivers. Director of photography Ly Thai Dung's keen eyes present nature as nurturing and cruel. On one hand, he shows us beautiful shots of innocent children marveling at sun rays piercing through cloud, a raft floating on the shimmering surface of water, and golden blades of grass waving in the calm breeze during magic hours. On the other, there are allegorical master shots signaling the impending doom associated with the landscape, such as insignificant tiny human figures walking up a steep foggy slope. Several other visual compositions seem straight out of a Caspar David Friedrich's painting, showing a lonely figure facing a subliminal natural backdrop; a man sitting on a small fishing boat with his back to the viewers contemplating at the indifferent river water in the background.

Indeed, mother nature does give and take. Our main characters live off the land by fishing, but during rainy season, their belongings and often family members are swept away by flash floods. The flawed script succeeds in depicting the human inhabitants as resourceful but are still struggling. They are able to chop down trees to build a temporary shelter on higher ground but not having the hindsight to relocate their homes to a different area where flooding might not occur.

The director Luong Dinh Dung pays extra attention to the daily activities of his characters to give them human values.  When the father trades fishes for a sweater as a gift for his beloved son only to realize it's too big to fit. Another scene shows the boy's naive affection toward a baby chick that also serves as a plot device to get audience invested emotionally considering their eventual grim fates. There are a few other scenes in my opinion that touch on that nostalgic Vietnamese-ness. One is when the father sits by his wife's grave and consults her about the future of his son. A different one shows a group of kids hanging off the back of a seemingly giant man carrying a bike uphill. In the daytime, children playfully dash across grassy fields and roll in mud. At night, they fall asleep peacefully on the laps of their guardian elders who tell them magical stories regaling their younger days. These are the scenes that I find most alive in the film.

The color palettes compliment the development of the narrative. Forest green and golden hues are used for some of the brighter sequences in the beginning of the movie while a bluish-tint permeates across the night punctuated by warm umber gradient from fire pits. Later when we are in the city, the film switches to silver tone to bring out that steely and sterile sense of city atmosphere. There are a few outstanding moments approaching magical realism. One is when the father carries the son up the stairs of a high-rise, a swarm of wasps appears to be their obstacle. Another is when children gawk into the sky at an airplane that is intentionally framed to make it look out of this world. Overall, the film is a compelling journey from natural terrain to industrial landscape, from fantasy to reality, and from life to death.

The music appropriately oscillates from joyful carefree melodies to somber moody tunes. I like that the Korean composer Lee Dong June doesn't use any of the cliche traditional Vietnamese musical instruments. Dialogues are sparse. Particular stand-out is of the lead actor -  Ngo The Quan. His voice is coarse and subdued. He delivers lines in low volume with minimal lips movement implying a man who has lost and sacrificed much. I was told there are few trained actors, and most are locals. Regardless, the children carry the best lines - with a sense of childish wonderment. For example, the son asks his father "when can I grow as big as you?"

The film's simple emotional message is quite clear - life is all about the journey, not the destination. It also did a noble job with showing how Vietnam's modern society has alienated certain indigenous groups. However, I just want to return to asking the question of why people continue to live in flood zone? I feel this is something the film should have touched on more although flood is the second major conflict in the film; the first is disease. Is it because of their livelihood, which is fishing in this case? Or is it their ancestral connection to the land? Perhaps, their unwillingness to submit to the whim of nature gives them courage.

I'd wished that I could see it in better quality. The screening copy at the film festival was terrible. It looked like they showed the movie from a DVD. This is a film worth supporting if you love Vietnamese cinema. Anyhow, if you're interested in seeing another good film from Eastern bloc countries about paternal bondage, I highly recommend Andrey Zvyagintsev's masterpiece, The Return. Also, check out Sokurov's dreamy film Mother and Son, in which this film shares a kinship with. Happy Father's day!

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