Dir: Tran Anh Hung. France. 2000. 112 mins.
Prod co: Les Productions Lazennec. Co-prod: Le Studio Canal Plus, Arte France Cinema. US dist: Sony Picture Classics. Int'l sales: Le Studio Canal, (+33 1 4429 2598). Prod: Christophe Rossignon. Scr: Tran Anh Hung. DoP: Mark Lee. Prod des: Benoit Barouh. Ed: Mario Battistel. Music: Ton That Thiet. Main cast: Tran Nu Yen Khe, Nguyen Nhu Quyn, Le Khan, Ngo Quong Hai, Chu Hung, Le Juan Anh.
Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung's third film, after the critically-acclaimed The Scent of Green Papaya and Cyclo, is a disappointment. Some at Cannes found it poetic, and there are, it must be said, moments of impressionistic verve. But A La Verticale D'Ete is so in love with its own prettiness that, to this reviewer at least, it ended up saying very little.
Character and plot are subordinated to production design and photography. The former paints a glossy picture of suburban Hanoi as a place of cool repose where exquisitely brushed and stippled wall colours set off exquisitely-placed bowls and works of art; the latter concentrates on framing this decor, and its inhabitants, in a series of painterly tableaux. When a woman's feet leave faint prints on the buffed gold texture of a wall they have been resting against, the camera moves in hungrily to dwell on the effect.
What story there is centres on three sisters who are running a bar-restaurant after the death of their mother; each conceals sentimental secrets from the other two. The oldest is having a passionate affair while her husband spends more and more time with another, secret family, on an island that just happens to be highly photogenic; the middle one is happily married to a writer who is - she worries - too good to be true; the youngest isn't really sure what she wants, but this hardly matters because she looks great, especially when prowling sensually around the muscular brother she shares a flat with to a soundtrack of Lou Reed.
The preparation of food, escapist images of oriental mystique, and erotic conjunctions of beautiful bodies are three very marketable flavours in the West - especially on cold, damp winter evenings. In France, where Tran Anh Hung lives and works, and in other European territories, A La Verticale D'Ete may well be a huge success. But it will not have earned its praise like the energetic, engrossing Cyclo.