The Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung’s first two features, ”The Scent of Green Papaya” and ”Cyclo,” were partly inspired by the lives of his parents. The first, shot entirely on a soundstage in France, conjured an elusive dream of Saigon in the twilight of French colonial rule. The second, filmed in present-day Ho Chi Minh City, was a brutal, surreal nightmare of third-world urban life.
In his new film, ”The Vertical Ray of the Sun,” Mr. Hung moves north to Hanoi — a city whose pace of life seems languourous and stately — and examines, with Chekhovian decorum, the lives of three sisters whose parents have recently died. The film is an oblique, vaguely sorrowful study in domestic emotion, structured around the small eruptions of feeling — tenderness, anger, and joy — that punctuate the slow serenity of daily life.
Mr. Hung, working with the cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin, who shot Wong Kar-wai’s gorgeous ”In the Mood for Love,” composes scenes of such delicate beauty that you almost want to climb into the frame. The dark greens and pale yellows of the city’s foliage and its sunlight have an almost tactile density, and when the scene periodically shifts to the countryside, the sudden widening of perspective and the altered quality of light produce a kind of awe.
At times, though, the lives of the characters seem obscured rather than illuminated by the film’s visual beauty. As they arrange themselves in artful tableaus of faces, limbs and hair, the actors seem to be obeying a choreography of forms and shadows rather than the impulses of action or emotion.
This may be the point, since Mr. Hung is to some extent concerned with the tension between the forms and rituals that govern daily life and the passions half submerged beneath its surface. The three sisters — Lien (Tran Nu Yen-Khe), Suong (Nguyen Nhu Quynh) and Khanh (Le Khanh) — have an easy closeness, but their other relationships are more troubled.
Suong and Khanh, the elder sisters, are both married to moody, artistic types, a photographer named Quoc (Chu Ngoc Hung) and a novelist named Kien (Tran Manh Cuong). Neither marriage is perfect, and the quiet tones of disharmony that sound almost subliminally between each couple soon swell into muted melodrama. Lien, the youngest sister, lives with her brother, Hai (Ngo Quanq Hai), in a sun-drenched bohemian apartment and feels a quasi-incestuous bond with him, creeping into his bed at night and speculating that passers-by who see them together must mistake them for a couple.
One might wish that Mr. Hung had woven the threads of his narrative more tightly or allowed the emotions of his characters to blaze occasionally rather than flicker. But the delicacy of ”The Vertical Ray of the Sun,” which is its most memorable quality, might be disrupted by the slightest shift in emphasis.
Each morning Lien and Hai wake up to mopey Western pop songs, notably Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. At first, songs like ”Linger On” and ”Coney Island Baby” sound incongruous or arch in Hanoi. But after a while the music and the film itself feel like expressions of a single sensibility: gentle, enigmatic, and sad.
Subtitles:English + Chinese sub/idx and English CC srt