Monday, April 27, 2009

Review: Nostalgia for the Countryside

Nostalgia for the Countryside (1995, Nhat Mihn Dang)

In a very small, quaint farming and agricultural village lives the 17 year old Nham and much of his extended family. The community is for the most part kind and closely knit. His mother for instance has never even left the boundaries of the village during her entire life!

Life is pretty hard since the working hours are long, but there are deeper, more emotional impacts afflicting these characters. Nham is a bit of a dreamer who enjoys writing, most notably poetry, but never finished school and wonders what the future has in store for him. His sister-in-law Ngu is anxious to receive of her husband (Nham’s older brother) who has gone away to earn some money. In all their married life, Ngu’s husband has only shown up a to the village a few times. She and Nham are particularly close and keep each other company at home and in the fields. Things become complicated one day when Nham’s slightly older and beautiful Quyen cousin returns to the village after many years of working and living abroad. She has returned to see her family and friends again and, for all intents and purposes, to satisfy her nostalgia for the Vietnamese countryside where she grew up. After so much time with her husband away, is it clear that Ngu has begun to take a certain liking to Nham, but the latter clearly has his eyes set on Quyen, who arrives with a different fashion sense, different values and different experiences, not to mention a great smile.

To put in bluntly, this movie is quiet. It is calm, it takes its time to soak up many things for there are many things the viewer can take away and appreciate, whether they be on a more surface level or hidden thematic cues. Nham himself is an intriguing character. As I’ve mentioned earlier, he left school at an early age in order to assist his mother with the family business of agricultural. He has spent almost his entire life in this small village and is a diligent dedicated worker, but he finds his world changed just a little bit with the arrival of Quyen. What I liked about this storyline was that the film never attempted to drive home some kind of ‘country boy must choose between the country with family or the big city with the girl’ plot. Or at least if it did I felt it was handled in rather subtle and mature fashion. There are many little, quiet moments of awakening for Nham, who I believe is at once infatuated but also just interested in Quyen. She is beautiful, but she is also so different. He opens up a little to her, but never fully. Quyen in return appreciates Nham’s company and enjoys following him around. We don’t know if she unequivocally has started to really like him, but it is clear she fancies Nham to a certain degree. It’s all underplayed. Nobody gives in to great moments of passion, thus infusing the film with some added melodrama. It’s a case in where each character knows their own place in the world and where they belong, but at the same time are enjoying these new special encounters (or rekindled encounters I guess since Nham and Quyen had, as the movie points out, known each other as children). The role of the bitter character goes to Ngu, who is fed with rumours that her absentee husband has abandoned her anyways. Add to that the Nham is a fine young man himself and we have the making of a love triangle, but one that always plays itself delicately, as if beneath the surface. The hints are all over the place that a love triangle is building up, but as I mentioned before, nothing ever explodes. I felt that was a very respectful decision by writer/director Dang towards his characters. He understands what the stakes are and, given the social context of the characters, knows what buttons to push and how.

There are a slew of other great moments involving other characters such as Nham’s uncle, his little sister who wants to partake in the school’s beauty contest and his mother. Many of these characters are easy to identify with. Every character here feels like he or she is based in reality, which I liked very much. None play major roles in the development of the plot I'd say, but they all add their own flavour to the culture, lifestyle and tone of the region where the film is set.

From a technical standpoint, both the visuals and the score are excellent. Dang captures the potential beauty of the North Vietnamese countryside aptly. Sometimes it’s muddy, other times it’s cloudy, but it always looks good in this film. Coupled with the score, which in my opinion is very soft, sweet and romantic, I imagine one could argue that Nostalgia for the Countryside, while portraying realistic characters, also offers a bit of a romantic vision of work and life in general in the agricultural fields. Maybe, maybe not. The movie, via the panoramic and naturally lighted shots as well as the beautiful score, certainly makes working in the fields look like an okay experience to me. Then again, we see characters sweat, we see them tired, we seem them work overtime in the evening, we see them having to wake up in the wee hours of the morning to make a trip to the city market so they can sell off their produce. I felt there was a fine balance between the romantic vision and the perhaps more difficult, realistic vision of life in the countryside. A little of influence from Days of Heaven maybe?...

If I were to fault the film on one account, it would be with regards to the event that propels the story into the final act. I won’t give it away (which may weaken my argument) and I’m not arguing that it is impossible either, only that, after so many natural, realistic scenes, this one felt forced. Director Dang wasn’t entirely sure of where to go with his story and therefore came up with this ‘event’ that I’m just not sure the movie needed. It’s something that can happen, I simply didn’t understand why this story, at that particular moment, required it. It’s a shame because I feel the final 20 minutes or so aren’t as good as what came before because of that.

All in all, Nostalgia for the Countryside is a very nicely put together film with engaging characters and superb visuals. If it weren’t for the final 20 minutes, I'd happily claim it to be one of the best films I've seen in recent years. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. Still, I think I'll be re-watching this one very soon.

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