Berlinale 2024 review: Cu Li Never Cries (Phạm Ngọc Lân)

“A peculiar but enthralling story of identity and grief.”

Under the shroud of nightfall, an old woman returns home to her small but homely apartment in working-class Hanoi. Having just arrived back in Vietnam, she comes bearing two peculiar items – the ashes of her estranged husband, and his beloved companion, a slow loris, both of which she has taken ownership of despite not quite knowing what to do with them. This is the foundation of Cu Li Never Cries (Cu Li Không Bao Giờ Khóc), the feature directorial debut by Phạm Ngọc Lân, who weaves together a peculiar but enthralling story of identity and grief in this offbeat drama which is far more complex than we initially imagine based on a cursory glance. It is not consistently the most logical in its perspective, and some aspects may feel like they are veering towards being intentionally vague, but the overall premise suggests that there is something much deeper simmering beneath the surface that relates to the social and cultural landscape which the director explores in vivid detail. We are taken on a journey into the ambiguous space between the past and the present, and given unfettered insights into Vietnamese culture as seen through a few different perspectives that work together to create a holistic image of a country continuously caught between a challenging past and a promising future.

The narrative approach to Cu Li Never Cries may appear to be somewhat unorthodox at the start, since it presents two storylines that occur concurrently, while still being connected. The exact nature of the story is not made immediately clear – we do not understand the relationship between the main characters for several scenes. This refusal to immediately establish a strong narrative foundation, and instead reveal the story as it goes along, is a tricky approach but one that contributes to the general intentions of this film, both narratively and thematically. Much of the film focuses on memory, with the voice-over narration and discussions between characters inevitably circling back to the past, whether references to Vietnamese history or recollections of one’s personal past. The recurring appearance of the slow loris is not coincidental or just an attempt to draw our attention – using one of the only poisonous mammals as a plot device offers an interesting perspective, especially in the role it plays in the narrative. This creature, which is small and unassuming on the surface but contains a toxic bite that emerges only when it is provoked, could be viewed as a motif to represent the remnants of the past that these characters carry throughout the story. Whether it is a woman grieving the death of her estranged husband, or a young couple finding themselves trying to plan their wedding while burdened by traditions that they cannot escape, Cu Li Never Cries makes several fascinating observations about the past and how we are constantly trying to reconcile it in an effort to move forward.

In his endeavour to capture every intricate nuance of these characters as they undergo their overlapping existential odysseys, the director makes some fascinating stylistic decisions. We come to realize very early on in Cu Li Never Cries that this is not a film in which plot or character development is the most vital component. Instead, it is a film that is driven by the tone and atmosphere. This is clear in the several long, static black-and-white shots of cityscapes (usually glimpsed at night) or the natural world, or how the camera sometimes lingers on a particular frame for a few beats longer than usual, inciting a reaction that is somewhere between curiosity and tediousness. This evokes an almost dreamlike atmosphere, and the film often seems like it is circling around being slightly surreal, at least in terms of the visual compositions and how they relate to the overarching narrative. Lân intends to create an image of Vietnam, both in his native Hanoi and the jungle into which the character eventually ventures, that is very different from what is normally seen in these films. Visually, we find that he crafts a film that looks very different – the bustling, crowded streets of Hanoi are inexplicably missing from most of the film, which is austere but never entirely bleak. The ambiguities that flow throughout the film become integral to the plot, and weave together with the striking images on screen to create something peculiar but profoundly fascinating.

Cu Li Never Cries joins a steadily growing movement to showcase Vietnam as the home of some truly poignant, gifted filmmakers, and it is closely related both visually and thematically to films such as Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell and Glorious Ashes as poetic character studies that are tied together by their approach to merging the past and present in sometimes unconventional narratives. This film is a fascinating and insightful experiment that aims to unsettle the status quo in terms of both form and content. The director achieves this by taking a layered approach to the narrative, combining the grit and candour of domestic social realism with dreamlike existential ponderings, both of which make exceptional use of the cast, with Minh Châu being particularly notable as the matriarch reflecting on the past and navigating the challenges of grieving someone with whom she had a contentious relationship. It is never so dense that we struggle to comprehend what it means, but it requires the viewer to actively engage with the images on screen, both in how they relate to the specific story being told and what they represent in terms of the deeper historical context. Beautifully made and bold in terms of both its story and what it represents, Cu Li Never Cries is a fascinating endeavour that gives revealing insights into the past, particularly in how it influences and guides the present moment, either clarifying or complicating the inevitable challenges of modern life.

Image copyright: Cadence Studio