A beautiful and sensual journey into the lives of three Vietnamese women.
What do you do when sadness overwhelms you?
The film follows three sisters and their love life between two important dates for them: the anniversaries of their deceased parents, separated by a month.
This kind of movie is not for everyone. The story is rather thin. It is all about a sensual experience. What it means is that it will trigger most of your senses, even others than sight and hearing usually associated with a movie. This is the kind of movie that you feel more than you intellectually understand. It is set in a Vietnamese summer in Hanoi. Everything is made so you experience the warmth and dampness of the place. With a simple glow of light reflecting on the sweating skin you are with the characters in this exotic weather. The cooking and eating scenes throughout the movies are enhanced but the attention there is in assorting light, color and texture so you can almost taste or smell the food. There is as well some intent to make the viewer feel always surrounded by nature. There is almost no shot without a plant in them or a window opened on a luxuriant garden. In the same way, the sound design is constantly filled with outside sounds like birds chirping, singing cicadas or even the falling rain. This makes it so that the people in the movie are not behaving according to some modern world speed and frenzy but actually slowing down synch with the flow of nature. This is part of what makes this film such a relaxing and wonderful experience.
The sisters in the film are always kept to basic tasks like cooking or cleaning. Strangely you never feel bad for them. Even though they have intellectual professions, the men are all portrayed as weak. They seem never in control of their feelings. They don’t really know what they want so the story remains focused on these women. The relationship between the three sisters is great as they all are at different stages in their lives. All these moments when they cook together are a like a bubble, a special time only for them to share. They speak of everything but mostly about the men in their lives without any taboo. All the small stories that we see or the characters tell each other are quite simple but so effective. Each little revelation about their life carries also an unsaid past that gets heightened at some point of the film.
The movie is punctuated by lethargic sequences with Lien and her brother waking up to the sound of Lou Reed or The Velvet underground. These sequences give the audience the sense of the passing time. They are, in a way the running, gag of the movie. Kien is always trying to spend the night close to her brother (without it ever being awkward) to the point he doesn’t sleep well and complains about it. It releases some of the tension or allows to restart the narrative with the rhythm of the music. The relationship between Kien and her brother is quite funny and they display amazing chemistry together. The choreography of their morning routines are a marvel to look at as it is absolutely precise, moving along with the camera but feels so natural.
Tran’s filmmaking is absolutely exquisite. The camera moves slowly and naturally to follow the rhythm of the life in this part of the world. Each shot is aimed at maximal efficiency, some take being quite long but never feeling that way through sensible movement. The framing is designed in a way to always stimulate the eye by a spot of color or a ray of light falls at the perfect place to highlight an element. This really is the kind of movie where you’d like to get the film and be able to look at each frame one by one and always be delighted. The director doesn’t hesitate to make a shot last but for good reasons. A moment of the film always comes back to my mind to illustrate that. We see a couple, Khanh (the middle sister) and Kien, together. The camera moves with subtlety from a wide shot to a close-up of Kanh and remains there. All the dynamic lies then within the face of the actress. We watch her watch her husband and all of a sudden a smile lights her face. You get that kind of rare and fleeting moment when you see someone in love for the person she looks at. What could be more beautiful than that? It really seems so simple and so evident but movies usually never take enough time for this kind of moment to develop.
The director of photography, Ping Bin Lee, made two movies that year that are quite alike in their beautiful imagery. The other one is In the mood for love. To me, At the height of summer is the better film as it doesn’t feel stuck in time like frozen. It’s the kind of reaction I get to all the slow motion shots in the Wong Kar-Wai movie. This is a perfect eye candy but Tran Anh Hung’s movie exudes life. You feel like you’re with the characters and want to be with them through their joys and heartaches.
I can’t go through all the subtleties of the story but there are so many beautiful things to discover for yourself, so I urge you: try and find a way to watch this movie, you won’t regret it.
Verdict: If there is such a thing as movie perfection, to me, this film comes pretty damn close.~
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 10/10
& Sensibility: 10/10
A la verticale de l’été (2000)
aslo known as At the height of summer (UK title)
or The vertical ray of the sun (US/International title)
Director: Tran Anh Hung
Writer: Tran Anh Hung
Tran Nu Yên-Khê – Lien
Nguyễn Như Quỳnh – Sương
Le Khanh – Khanh
Ngo Quang Hai – Hai
Chu Hung – Quoc
Tran Manh Cuong – Kien
Le Tuan Anh – Tuan
Le Ngoc Dung – Huong
review by @gbouqueau
Warning: I really appreciate the work done by Artificial eye (UK) to bring us such a gem on dvd so it pains me to say bad things about it. The dvd is just not good enough to adequately represent all the effort put into the visuals. The image seems soft and flat. I own the French dvd and the file size for the movie is twice the one on the UK dvd and it shows. I would advise to try and find another copy of the film (Columbia z1, for instance, or the French one if you are able to read French subs) to really get the full sense of the wonder it is, at least until we get an HD release one day.