After two celebrated short films (La Femme Mariée de Nam Xuong and La Pierre de l'attente) the Vietnamese born director Tran Anh Hung burst onto the international scene with his debut feature, 1993's The Scent Of Green Papaya. A Camera d'Or Cannes prizewinner, the film also earned the director an Academy Award nomination in the Best Foreign Film category. Cyclo, the much anticipated tale of the ardors of a rickshaw driver, brought Hung further attention in 1995, culminating in the film's Golden Lion award at Venice
After seeing an internationally cast co-production about a modern day Christ flounder under the weight of funding problems and the implications of such a project, we've had a six year weight for Hung's latest confection, At The Height Of Summer. The film typifies Hung's singular approach to imagery and texture. It also marks something of a new direction in terms of the director's exposition of character and narrative. kamera.co.uk's Jason Wood spoke with him about it.
Your description of the film as having a comic element confused me. It is a departure for you in many ways but I certainly didn't see a comic element to the film.
It has nothing to do with the film as it exists today. There is a slight mischievous nature to it but you're right, it couldn't really be described as a comedy. I had a child at the time and my little girl may have loosened my tongue because I certainly set out to make a film with more dialogue because my first two features were almost totally silent.
The new work is certainly more dialogue driven.
I wanted to have long moments of silence followed by scenes that were in terms of narrative very rich and laden with dialogue. And as I was writing them I discovered that what you need to do is make the characters say something simple which seems to hint at something, a truth, for instance, that actually may be quite deep. I also wanted the dialogue to be very sincere and without local colour. I rejected all local colloquialisms to arrive at a dialogue that had a certain naivety and innocence.
Continuing the theme of dialogue, there seems to be a distinct sense of rhythm to the way the actors speak.
I wanted the actors to reach a certain musicality and sense of melody when they spoke and we worked very hard together to achieve this. We made sentences longer to enable the melody to naturally blossom.
Known primarily for the visual splendor of your work (which is again in very much in evidence), did you enjoy this process of playing around with the dialogue?
Oh yes, very much. Of all my films, At The Height Of Summer was the most pleasure to make. To really search for a character's breath and to find a way to make a character come to life on screen was very thrilling for me.
I think you were aided in this regard by your cast, many of whom you'd worked with previously. Was your previous relationship with them a defining factor in your decision to cast them again?
It was a big factor, yes. Absolutely. They inspire me and even when working on the other films together, they would perhaps do something that would cause me to think 'that is not right for this film, but for the next one...'
You have always used contemporary music in an interesting way. In Cyclo you used the anthemic Creep by Radiohead, At The Height Of Summer uses work by The Velvet Underground to commentate on both character and narrative. You also make use of more indigenous music. It's fair to say that music is important to you.
There are always three types of music in my work: American, which is something that touches me personally in my own life and which we cannot escape from; there's Vietnamese music and then there's the music composed for the film. I always know all the pieces of music I wish to use before the film even starts shooting. For example I am currently working on an English language project in the States, which uses the music of Jimi Hendrix. This film will use twelve pieces by Jimi Hendrix and hopefully they will make people listen to Jimi Hendrix in a way they have never listened to him before. I always think musically, what I desire most for a film is that there should be a certain rhythm; I can only begin to write a script if I feel the rhythm of the film within me. I may not even know the story or the theme; the theme must give a physical sensation to the spectator and nourish the spectator. The image must of course make sense and it must also be tactile which is why many of my scenes are rather long and possessing of a certain fluidity, in terms of the camera movement, to give a sense of presence to the spectator. This is the hardest thing to create in cinema; I want to conjure a feeling of anticipation with my images.
The images in your film certainly stand alone. You are also very good at capturing texture and sensuality. Everything seems so striking. This is certainly true of the scene in which the sisters prepare the ritualistic meal.
In the scene you mention I think that this is also down to the actresses who have a natural grace, the grace is there and so it is not too hard to capture it. They are also extremely expressive which complements the images I use.
At The Height Of Summer seems to hint at the complexity of relationships.
It certainly focuses on the partial revelation of secrets. For the couples in the film it has to do with desire and infidelity. What interested me was to look at the idea of the couple in the context of Confucius, for example how to communicate to the spectator a difference without too clearly explaining it. In the film, where the photographer tells the truth to his wife, she cries because it is painful to her. It is at this moment that I choose to cut. I go back to them only when she is proposing a solution. What I cut is actually very precious in western cinema, that's to say the confrontation. In the west confrontation is dynamic, in Asia it is not necessarily so, it is the moment when each character asks, which part of this pain shall I keep within myself. What I love is to show things that move me and what moves me is that in Vietnam there are men who do nothing and women who do everything. But in Vietnam the women do everything with pleasure, it's the opportunity to talk and discuss sex and men so that's what I show with this film.
You mentioned that your next project was to be set in America. Is this something that particularly excites you or do you fear that your work, which is visually very poetic, could in some way be diluted?
I'm looking to go beyond cultures and work on the specific materials of film art. There is still so much for me to explore. What worries me with my next film is how an image will appear, that is, how to prepare the actual image and how it will work with the music of Jimi Hendrix. That's what really excites me.