Cannes 2023 review: Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Thien An Pham)

“A debut feature that is an instant masterpiece is rare, but Thien An Pham has achieved this elusive feat by being in full control of what is on screen, and leaving the bigger questions about faith and existentialism largely unanswered, because he thoughtfully allows the audience to search their own faith.”

A film about the impermanence of life, faith, and memories relived, Thien An Pham’s remarkable debut Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is a mesmerizing work that will hypnotize audiences willing to invest both time and thought in a transcendent story that slowly morphs into something mystical. This is slow cinema at its finest, and it is easy to rattle off a number of names that Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell can be compared to: there’s a healthy dose of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a spoonful of Bi Gan, and even a few drops of Tsai Ming-liang. But Pham’s film is very much a thing of its own, both in execution and in mystery. A rough expansion of his award-winning short film Stay Awake, Be Ready (a warning call from the past concerning his debut, that would totally fit in Pham’s world, as we will see), which essentially is the opening scene of his feature-length film, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is a beguiling work with a rhythm one needs to adjust to, but once you have its pace down its many lengthy takes will be etched into memory.

The film opens with three friends discussing faith and existentialism at a streetside restaurant table. Two of them, a true believer and a sceptic, debate over higher powers and the ease of slipping into believing in them, when the third one chimes in, “I want to believe, but I can’t. My mind is holding me back.” Thien (Le Phong Vu), as the man is called, will embark on his own spiritual journey though, at the end of which he may just find the enlightenment he has longed for. As they discuss these lofty topics, two motorcycles crash into each other at the busy intersection adjacent to their table. As fate would have it, two of the victims are Thien’s sister-in-law Hanh and his nephew Dao (Nguyen Thinh), although he doesn’t realize this until he gets an urgent phone call from the hospital in a following scene. It turns out Hanh has died as a result of the crash, but his young nephew is alive and well, the film’s first miracle. Determined to bring Hanh’s body back to their village, Thien and Dao begin their journey. Once they reach the village and the many funeral rites (which seem to last for days) are over, Thien lingers and eventually resolves to find his brother, who mysteriously disappeared years earlier. Now his intellect preventing him from giving himself to faith will really be tested.

What will also be tested is the audience’s patience, because Pham likes to take it slow. In the film’s first segments, when Thien is still in the city, scenes follow each other in a more measured succession, but once he reaches the countryside Pham’s tendency to go for long takes becomes apparent. It’s as if the film adjusts to the speed of life outside the city, and any formalism or ellipsis goes out the window. Sometimes people having a conversation aren’t even on screen, such as in a take that runs well over 20 minutes: after Thien rides his motorbike in real time to the next village to honour the old man who shrouded his sister-in-law, once he arrives at the house he is asked inside by this Mr. Luu, and a conversation ensues, with Luu telling stories from his past (Luu plays himself, and the memories are his own). For a good portion of the scene both characters go out of frame, but once they reach the conclusion of their talk and Pham’s slow zoom on a window reaches its nadir, Luu is perfectly framed. Pham often uses these slow zooms to, quite literally, draw the audience into a conversation on screen. In one gorgeous nighttime scene the camera deliberately moves in on an empty vase while Thien and Dao talk about faith, and Thien explains that it’s akin to giving your toys to a friend, knowing you will get them back. Once the vase occupies most of the frame Thien, who has shown himself somewhat of a magician earlier when entertaining Dao by seemingly pulling playing cards out of thin air, pulls off some true magic by letting the vase fill up with water and conjuring up fishes inside it. This requires a leap of faith, not for the characters but for the audience. It is in these scenes that Pham comes closest to his most obvious comparison, Weerasethakul, who also often has these moments of magical realism.

What Pham also shares with the Thai master are sequences somewhere between being awake and dreaming, although the long shot-from-the-bonnet of a road at dawn is straight out of a Bi Gan film. The further we follow the road, the thicker the fog gets, as if to say that Thien is still grasping at transcendence. That moment will come later, as memory starts to bleed into the now. Thien meets a former girlfriend, Thao (Nguyen Thi Truc Quynh), who has given herself over to her faith and joined a nunnery that runs the local school where Thien intends to enroll Dao. Later, at an abandoned concrete monstrosity that feels entirely out of place in its lush green jungle surroundings, Thien is followed by a young woman who flits in and out of frame. This too is Thao, but a younger version, one that is in love with Thien. They share a moment of passion, but younger Thao pushes him away. She is Thien’s past haunting him, a memory come alive in the present. It is a stunning interpretation of somebody grappling with his past, interacting with a ghost of what once was. Thao has come into her own by finding God, and this is a path that Thien hasn’t walked fully yet.

These are scenes that leave a lot open to interpretation for the viewer, and Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell gives you ample time, although it is easy to get distracted by cinematographer Dinh Duy Hung’s gorgeous, mysterious images. In a poignant nighttime scene he shoots white butterflies coming to life in a tree. We had already seen the yellow cocoons of the silkworms they were before, and this moment in which they are liberated from that self-spun prison is a piece of true cinema magic, while also a beautiful metaphor for Thien’s journey. Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is a film that requires contemplation from its protagonist, but also from its audience. A debut feature that is an instant masterpiece is rare, but Thien An Pham has achieved this elusive feat by being in full control of what is on screen, and leaving the bigger questions about faith and existentialism largely unanswered, because he thoughtfully allows the audience to search their own faith.