Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Owl and the Sparrow (Annam Films, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

Our film at the library last night was Owl and the Sparrow, an intriguing 2007 production from Viet Nam (of all places) written and directed by Stephane Gauger, whom I’d assumed was a Frenchman making a film in France’s former colony but whose Wikipedia page (apparently written by himself) describes him as “Born in Saigon, South Vietnam to an American civilian contractor and his Vietnamese wife, Gauger was raised in Orange County, California and graduated from California State University, Fullerton in theatre arts and French literature.” Gauger apprenticed under cinematographer Matthew Libatique at California State University, Fullerton and got jobs in the business working up from clapper loader to cinematographer and directed a short called Seabirds (1998). He also hooked up with Viet Namese-American filmmakers Tony and Timothy Bui and got jobs as a lighting technician on two of their films, then made his feature-film directorial debut with Owl and the Sparrow, filmed in 15 days for a total cost of $50,000.

Owl and the Sparrow is hard to get into at first, partly because of its relentless pace and because Gauger, acting as his own
cinematographer (on a shoestring budget he was hardly likely to pay somebody else to do something he was fully qualified to do himself!), shot much of it hand-held and on the fly, moving the camera around at an almost dizzying pace and locating his central characters almost accidentally in the crowds around Saigon, where the film takes place. (Incidentally, the city is referred to as Saigon throughout the film
even though the current government of Viet Nam, after winning the war in 1975, officially changed it to “Ho Chi Minh City,” ostensibly to overcome its reputation as a center of decadence and corruption. Charles compared it to the German city of Chemnitz, which was renamed “Karl-Marx-Stadt” by the East German government but whose residents continued to use the old name until it was officially restored after East Germany was absorbed by the West and ceased to exist in 1990.)

In any case, the film eventually focuses on three people: Mr. Hai (The Lu Le), a worker at the Saigon zoo assigned to maintaining the elephant enclosure; Ms. Lan (Cat Ly, top-billed), a flight attendant who’s growing increasingly uncomfortable with her relationship with a sugar-daddy airline pilot and is being chased by a man listed in the dramatis personae only as “The Magician” (an ironic handle due to his utter inability to do the “pick a card, any card” trick) and played by Le Nguyen Vu -- and ends up attracted to Hai; and Thuy (Han Thi Pham), a 10-year-old girl whose parents have died and who’s essentially been turned into a slave laborer by her uncle Minh (Nguyen Hau), a factory owner in Bien Hoa who in the opening scene tears into Thuy for miscutting a batch of wood stalks, which is the final straw that prompts her to run away. She ends up in Saigon and ekes out a living selling roses on the street (where does she get them?), spending many of her nights sleeping on the river bank. She’s taken in by Lan, who takes pity on her and puts her up in her room, and hooks up with Hai after he’s been thrown out of the apartment of his previous girlfriend Phuong (Nguyen Kim Phuong) by a young man — it’s not clear whether he’s a relative or a romantic rival — whom I frankly thought considerably sexier than The Lu Le even though we only see him in that one scene. Hai sees Phuong at her workplace and buys a bouquet from Thuy, telling her to give it to Phuong and find out whether or not she’s started seeing any other boyfriend. Phuong tells Thuy she isn’t but Thuy tells Hai she is — because she’s already decided that Hai belongs with her protector Lan.

A not especially interesting domestic drama suddenly develops weight and sinew when Thuy is captured by a patrol officer and taken to an orphanage — one of six in the city, we’re told — where she’s held until her uncle can come fetch her and bring her back. Hai and Lan try to get her out of the orphanage by posing as her parents — a ruse the orphanage director (Bui Thi Noan) sees through at once because not only do they not have any documents but they’re clearly too young to have sired a 10-year-old girl — and Uncle Minh takes Thuy, only she runs away again. Eventually Hai tracks down Minh and offers him a deal; he’ll get Thuy a job as his assistant at the zoo, she’ll live on the premises and Minh will get money for allowing this to happen. Just where Hai is going to get the money to pay off a factory owner remains a mystery, but the way Minh’s eyes light up when Hai mentions a payoff is a marvelously subtle bit of acting by Nguyen Hau.

Charles noted that Owl and the Sparrow seemed reminiscent of a Warner Bros. movie from the 1930’s — which it does not only in the, shall we say, venerability of its clich├ęd plot devices but also in the sheer decorousness of its plot: in a modern U.S. film on the same premise the little girl would have run away because her uncle was sexually molesting, not just economically exploiting, her, and the young leads would have rescued her from a life of child sexual slavery instead of simple homelessness. Charles also pointed out that the orphanage is clean, bright and visibly well-run, and suggested the Viet Namese government wouldn’t have allowed the filmmakers to depict it as the Dickensian hell-hole we expect movie orphanages to be like — just as they probably wouldn’t have allowed Gauger to show child sexual exploitation or depict Lan as an out-and-out prostitute instead of a semi-“kept” woman.

Owl and the Sparrow is a competent piece of filmmaking (though all those vertiginous camera moves and the many shots of characters with their backs to the camera make a lot of it hard to sit through) but it’s hardly the piece of exotica one would expect from a film both made and set in a locale as terra incognita to American movie-goers as modern-day Viet Nam (indeed, Charles said he could readily imagine it taking place in any U.S. city with a large Viet Namese immigrant population); instead it’s a sort of “comfort movie” (as in “comfort food”) whose whole appeal lies in its familiar plotting and its inevitable (commercially, not dramaturgically) happy ending.