Silver Lotus winner impresses audiences
Viewers of The Moon at the Bottom of the Well, a film that won a Silver Lotus award last month at the 16th Viet Nam Film Festival, were reminded of how elusive happiness can be as they watched the emotional disintegration of the movie’s main character, the selfless wife Hanh.
Following a world tour to
Recognised for its artistry at international film festivals, the movie has also become a hit among local film buffs, especially youths whose hearts have been stolen by
Thus, it was not surprising to find a crowd of movie-goers scrambling for places for the one-off screening of the film at District 3’s Thang Long Cineplex at the 16th Viet Nam Film Festival early last month.
Many movie-goers, with or without tickets, were pleading to get into the theatre and had to be turned away.
Many of the fans were cinematography students who said they did not want to miss a film that had won accolades from abroad.
There was hardly an empty seat in the theatre. The film crew, including director Nguyen Vinh Son, author of the original story Tran Thuy Mai, and lead actor Nguyen Cao De and lots of fans, spilled out into the aisles.
To many members of the audience who believe in equality between husbands and wives, Hanh’s submission to her husband in the film seemed outrageous and sad.
Hanh’s unconditional love and endless sacrifice leaves her husband, Phuong, a powerful king and god, reigning in his own home. Her marital routines include bending down to unfurl a rolled-up trouser leg for her husband as he sits on his motorbike, and hand-washing her husband’s clothes separately.
Aware of her fastidious husband’s sophisticated likes and dislikes, she prepares a dish of fish sauce with chilli at every meal to titillate his tastebuds.
During the film, she says she doesn’t want her husband to "use his fingers to touch anything" and that she cannot stand "the quiet sadness on his face".
Hanh, who is infertile, unwittingly embarks on a path of self-destruction by first arranging for Phuong to have a son with a country girl, then divorces him to save his career and to counter allegations that he was having an affair.
She finally separates from him for good over rumours that she is stealing someone else’s husband. Left empty-handed, she loses her husband, a son that she loves as her own, and all her savings that she spent to build a home for her husband and his new wife.
Alone, she quickly falls into depression when she discovers that Phuong is so absorbed in his new marriage that he almost forgets her.
Disillusioned, she marries a hero in the supernatural world to regain balance. She lovingly serves meals and washes clothes for three statues that she brings home who represent her husband and children.
"It’s Hanh’s heartfelt lament for not having a true love in real life," says Mai, who wrote the original short story, which was inspired by a real couple and published in 2000.
In the story, Phuong and Hanh are two university professors, not high school teachers as in the movie.
"As an educated woman and teacher, Hanh should have been very well aware of all the risks of her deeds, so she deserves more criticism than sympathy," said Le Ho Minh Giang, 27, a teacher who saw the film.
Giang said she was more supportive of the country girl who married Hanh’s husband and managed to establish an equal relationship with Phuong and make him wash his clothes himself.
"But Hanh is strong enough to go against the law and colleagues’ opposition to seek happiness for her husband," Mai said, refuting the argument that Hanh was weakened by her blind love.
But many in the audience saw Hanh as weak because she yielded to her husband’s every desire, which ultimately ruined her life.
"The point, though, is that she devotes herself to her husband who does not deserve her sacrifices at all," the author explained.
While many viewers expressed doubt whether such a wife really exists, singer/actor Duy Khoa said his grandmother once took meticulous care of his grandfather so that he could do nothing but just read newspapers.
Khoa said he watched the film for the first time in
Hanh is by no means a role model, but she is characteristic of many Vietnamese women who are hard-working, selfless, devoted to their husbands and children, and compassionate.
She does not send the country girl away after using her, and every day she goes to the riverbank to feed a stray dog that she sees.
In the end, the supernatural hero turns out to be her true love whom she never loses, while her real husband becomes no more than an illusion.
"Your lot is a moon at the bottom of the well, which means you can see but cannot touch it," a fortune-teller tells Hanh. "The real becomes unreal and vice versa."
The movie is like a pond with occasional ripples: on the surface, it is quite, serene and placid, but powerful in its depth.
The dialogues are slow and deliberate, and action is nearly absent in the sleepy setting of a traditional wooden house with a small garden of lotus blossoms in the central city of
If the audience doesn’t pay attention, they could miss small details which the director focuses on by using long continuous shots that slacken the pace.
The viewer can follow every move of Hanh as she makes lotus tea from the garden in the kitchen, and the director is especially generous in filming Hanh closing an array of wooden doors over and over again for several minutes, which is indicative of Hanh’s patience and resignation.
"I want to make it gentle and moderate, so I do not push it to extremes," said Son, director of the film.
"It’s more challenging to incorporate dramatic details in a slow-paced film such as this, and lots of subtle details are just waiting for the audience’s exploration," he adds, citing the appearance of the two knives at the end, instead of just one at the beginning.
Singer Khoa said that after watching the movie for the first time he felt an urge to watch it again because he could not capture everything in the film at once.
"I’ve just discovered something new this time, like the change in the way Hanh and Phuong addressed each other or the way the story was narrated from the perspective of an outsider," he said. "I will definitely watch it again."
Apart from the controversial plot and excellent directing, the wonderful chau van ceremonial music that helped the fortune-teller reach an entranced state and communicate with Hanh’s supernatural genies makes the film even more memorable.