By Katherine Monk, Canwest News Service
Owl and the Sparrow ***
Starring: Cat Ly, Le The Lu, Pham Thi Han, Nguyen Hau, Hoang Long
Directed by: Stephane Gauger
Playing at: Mayfair Theatre, through April 19
Slums have never been more fashionable, so if you’re eager for another round of hungry street urchins seeking a happy ending, you may want to check out this Vietnamese film from Stephane Gauger that opens with a young orphan working in a broom factory.
Thuy (Pham Thi Han) is a tiny slip of a thing who just can’t seem to measure the bamboo sticks to the right length, and after getting a lecture from her uncle about how useless she is, she runs away to Ho Chi Minh City.
The teeming metropolis is surprisingly benign to the attractive preteen, and instead of turning tricks for touring pedophiles, she soon lands a gig selling roses to tourists and young lovers.
In the process, she hooks up with two equally lost souls in Lan (Cat Ly), a flight attendant having a long-term affair with a married captain, and Hai (Le The Lu), a zoo-keeper heartbroken over the looming sale of a baby elephant.
Everyone in this triangular drama is full of love, but without an adequate receptacle for their affections, the characters find themselves living half lives. Gauger brings added context to this notion of incompleteness by weaving in threads of political history, and Vietnam’s fragmented past. But even broken psyches can be mended with time and forgiveness, and this is very much the underlying message behind Owl and the Sparrow.
Set over the course of four days, the movie takes us from a state of isolation to a sense of community as the broken people find each other and pour their long-corked souls out to one another.
What saves the film from terminal sentimentality is the careful balance between well-placed emotional embellishments and moments of stark brutality, ensuring the film never feels entirely artificial — even when the plot rubs up against fairy-tale implausibility.
Unlike other recent ghetto-set successes, Gauger’s camera doesn’t pan the landscape seeking the most colourful bits and pieces of exoticism to please a western palette. The half-Vietnamese director allows the stink of car exhaust and tropical flowers to mingle before the lens, guaranteeing we get a pretty accurate view of modern-day Vietnam, and the current face of the former Saigon.
Owl and the Sparrow avoids absolutes and bobbles down the path of compromise, where things may not be as bold-faced or dramatic as Hollywood narrative, but where real life has a habit of landing — one way or another.