“I see that sometimes my characters are so stubborn. They don’t follow my lead, they act as if they were living in real life: unusually, meaninglessly, instinctively. Their thoughts may come after action. Their sadness may come later than the separation” – Phan Dang Di
Director: Phan Dang Di, 100 mins
“Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories” from Vietnamese director Phan Dang Di collects snapshots of disillusionment within the twenty something generation in 90s Saigon. It does so quietly, often beautifully, and leaves you feeling as if a mood has been captured on the screen.
Vu the main character, played by Le Cong Hoang, threads the film together. He is a withdrawn photography student, living in makeshift housing on the Saigon river. He is only comfortable viewing life through a lense, only speaking if his words deliver some purpose. He epitomises the quote above. Throughout the film he tackles with pressure from his father to become established into a higher social class and marry the woman he has picked out for him. Vu’s own issues are far more prescient for him though. He is stuck in his head. He discovers a new kind of love for his male friend.
His father would like more for Vu then he had for himself. Worried about his son’s love for his friend, the father forces his female servant to ‘make him a man’. There is a generational divide between them that underpins the film. The father can see a future for Vu in modernised Saigon that he didn’t have. Vu can see the same future and it is one he doesn’t want. The Saigon of the film has friction, it is tense and bubbling underneath and mirrors the father – son relationship. Amongst over-population and economic trouble, it represents a recently industrialised country coming to terms with a ruthlessly modern world. Phan Dang Di shoots the city as its voyeur, through door frames, arches, and cracks in floorboards. The effect of this removal emphasises vacancy and the viewer senses a collective atmosphere developing around the characters. This building atmosphere results in all of them having the desire to break out of the issues of the city- poverty, depression, protection from gangs. None seem to air this desire but there is an unspoken agreement amongst them.
The film concludes with them acting on their desire to leave these issues and separate from the past generation. In a tragic role reversal between the father and son, Vu, at the age of 25, lies about having two kids in order to get a vasectomy. In doing so he receives the money from the hospital that he needs to escape his life in Saigon with his new lover. The father, on the other hand, having raped his servant also in her mid-twenties, is now in his old age faced with becoming a father again. This ironic ending highlights the divide between new and old Saigon and sums up the films masterful skill at evoking this tension.
Phan Dang Di has made a strong social document for the youth of Saigon. Vu’s apathy is a modern condition that rings true across the developed world but leaves the older generation bemused by it. He is always looking for an escape route into something better. A life that is not seen in his initial periphery but framed through the photos he takes. The film ends with a montage of the photographs he has taken throughout the course of the film. The Saigon he shoots is not one we see in the film but a manifesto of his future, a world shot within his own image.