by Richard von Busack
(Playing Mar 12 at 2pm in San Jose at the California Theatre.
Also playing at SF International Asian-American Film Festival: March 13 at 8:00pm (Pacific Film Archive Theatre – Berkeley), March 17 at 7:30pm (Kabuki Theater, San Francisco), March 20 at 6:00pm (Camera 12 Cinemas)
Bi, Don’t Be Afraid!, set in the outskirts of Hanoi, is all lyricism, and little plot. Dang Di Phan, who scripted the adult drama Choi Voi (Adrift) took advantage of the lifting of censorship in Vietnam to present adult material, with nude scenes, an instance of masturbation and sexual assaults.
Our lens into a troubled household is the six year old Bi (Thanh Minh Phan). His own carefreeness is disturbed by the arrival of a grandfather (Tran Tien) who has spent most of his life overseas on national business. The old man is mortally ill and not quite aware of the general dysfunction going on around him.
Father Quang (Ha Phong Nguyen) is drinking himself into oblivion every night and hanging around a massage parlor. An unmarried aunt, a substitute schoolteacher who lives with them, has an interesting sex life. She’s involved with a roughneck construction worker, but she has her eye on a student she met on the bus.
Bi’s heaven, his hell and his playground, is the local ice factory, a steaming, muddy place that produces a precious cargo. At the same time, it's guarded by an obese tattooed devil of a foreman (there's strong circumstantial evidence that the man is a pedophile, too). Ice is something wondrous in a place as tropical as Vietnam, where electricity and water shortages can leave people sweltering. This movie is a little easier to understand if you've ever lived anywhere seriously hot without air conditioning. Watching Bi admire the ingot-sized slugs of ice coming out of the machinery, memories came back of being in Oklahoma in the summer, basking in the cold from an open soft drink machine or loitering in a supermarket to inhale the deliciously metallic aroma of refrigerated air.
Water symbolism in Vietnamese film is a huge topic: bathing, swimming and boating plays a huge part of the movies that have arrived here. That's true of Bi, also, but it's ice itself that connects this covert, often solitary family. It unites the grandfather’s diseased body; his distended abdomen is soothed with an ice bag. It cools the aunt’s burning sex organ, when desire torments her at night; and there's an iceberg-sized chunk in the swamp cooler dripping away at the beer café, where Quang is drinking away his nights.
The margins of Bi’s world are a river wasteland, where he goes to search for flowers amid the weeds. There, young men have their own muddy world of pleasure, where they play soccer in the rain or play. It might be pushing it to call this filmmaker homoerotic, but it's clear which of the two sexes he prefers to observe nude.
Bi, Don’t Be Afraid is a sometimes bewildering film, co-produced by Anh Hung Tran (Cyclo, The Scent of Green Papayas) which also has moments that baffle the non-Vietnamese observer. I can’t pretend to have got every inflection or every reference to Vietnamese life and lore. Moreover, it seems to have been cut in a way to make the narrative more ambiguous. But the film's refusal to explain itself thoroughly makes it tantalizing. And compared to the over-explained, over-motivated cinema it opposes, Bi, Don't Be Afraid! has even more stature. It's ambiguity and languid scenes suggest the debut of a fascinating talent.