Go backBack to selection

Cutting Costs in Black and White: Phạm Ngọc Lân ơn Cu Li Never Cries

A middle-aged woman dances with a younger man who has a primate on his left shoulder.Cu Li Never Cries

Unfolding in a Hanoi of twisting alleyways and cramped apartments, Cu Li Never Cries follows a half-dozen intertwined characters whose lives are in upheaval. Mrs. Nguyện (Minh Châu), a widow, has been gifted with a pet slow cu li, a tiny primate that may be more trouble than it’s worth. Her niece Vân (Hà Phương) helps run a day-care center on the verge of bankruptcy. Her fiancé Quang (Xuân An) has doubts about both their wedding and his future. The film’s glistening black-and-white imagery and soundtrack of patriotic anthems evoke a timeless world rarely seen in Western cinema. At the same time, director and co-writer Phạm Ngọc Lân revels in deadpan humor that would feel at home in a Hong Sang-soo or Aki Kaurismäki movie.

Lân’s earlier shorts have been shown at Berlinale, Locarno, and Sundance. Cu Li Never Cries is his feature debut. It won the GWFF Best First Feature Award at this year’s Berlinale, where it appeared in the Panorama section. It screens on April 9 and 10th at New Directors/New Films. Lân spoke with Filmmaker at Berlin and later in video meetings.

Filmmaker: Why did you decide to shoot in black-and-white?

Phạm Ngọc Lân: That actually wasn’t planned. The two leads, Hà Phương and Xuân An, were in a motorcycle accident on the first day of shooting, so we had to divide the schedule based on who was available. The problem was, we had already booked and paid the crew for the whole month, and not everything was available as we expected when we got back to production. We had to cut costs, which is why we did it in black-and-white. We actually shot the movie in color, but by converting it to black-and-white I saved a lot of money on production design. Background colors, for example.

Filmmaker: You still managed to include several complicated shots. 

Lân: The duration of the shoot was 38 days. Technically there weren’t special problems, except for the fact that we had to split the production into different shoots. I collaborated with some actors from my previous films, so it didn’t take long for us to figure out how to work together. We’d do a few trial takes at first. I found the hardest part was finding the right rhythm with the pacing of the camera movements and the actors.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about casting? You used both professionals and non-actors.

Lân: I wanted a mixture of kids, adults, the elderly and animals. 

Filmmaker: What were you looking for with Vân’s role? How did you explain her to Hà Phương?

Lân: During the writing process I wasn’t thinking of a disabled person for that role—only for some extras, but not for the protagonist. I found Hà Phương’s photos in a newspaper. During our casting session she shared with me that this would be her first film. Previously she was very shy, an introvert. Her family encouraged her to try modeling so she could be more confident about her body and herself.

Our casting session was really just an intimate conversation to get to know each other, then we tried a simple scene to see how she would interact with a male actor. I also asked her to come up with something that would make her feel comfortable and left the room for a few minutes. When I came back and saw her practicing yoga, I recognized this aura about her that convinced me to work with her. 

During the shoot our process was the same as with the other actors, although everyone was aware she might need extra help now and then. What I found interesting emerged only during rehearsals with props and shooting. There’s a point where her boyfriend Quang brings her to an archery range. Of course, she couldn’t hold a bow and arrow by herself, so he has to help her. I felt like it added another layer to their relationship.

Filmmaker: On the other hand, the widow Mrs. Nguyện is played by a veteran performer, Minh Châu.

Lân:  Back in 1997 I saw The Eleventh Child by Dai Sijie, a French-Chinese director. It was shot in Vietnam with a French and Vietnamese cast and crew because it was rejected in China. I don’t remember the story as much as the impression I got from Minh Châu. She had this intense gaze that stayed with me a long time. She carries such emotional weight. I’ve worked with her for years now, since my first short in 2016.

Filmmaker: The music in your film is phenomenal, especially the patriotic songs you use. Did you know them growing up?

Lân:  Yes. Those songs are still being played not only on TV, but on loudspeakers in the streets.

Filmmaker: We have patriotic songs in the US, but we usually only hear them at baseball games. I don’t think people here really know them.

Lân: We have a similar problem, as you can see in the film. We were supposed to have a scene using footage from a show on national television in which a young person is asked whether she knows a particular song, and she answers no. But the censorship board made us change it to yes because they said the song is too important for anyone not to know it.

Filmmaker: Was that “The Ballad of Ho Chi Minh”?

Lân: Yes, it’s by the English folk singer Ewan MacColl. It was translated into so many languagues: French, Russian, German, Spanish, Japanese, Swedish and also Vietnamese.

Filmmaker: When Mrs. Nguyện goes to a nightclub, you use the song “Đôi Bờ,” or “Both Shores,” performed by Quốc Hưng.

Lân: That club is for the previous generation. Before 1990, before the economic reform in Vietnam, this type of ballroom dancing was quite popular in the city where I live. Now they’re for seniors looking for freedom and youth. Young couples probably wouldn’t go there.

“Both Shores” has a special history with Vietnamese cinema. It was originally a Russian folk song. It was used in the Soviet film Thirst (Жажда, 1959, by Yevgeny Tashkov). That was when the relationship between Vietnam and Communist countries was very close-knit, so “Both Shores” influenced a lot of Vietnamese filmmakers. The lyrics were translated into Vietnamese by an officer from the Vietnam Department of International Cooperation and a Vietnamese film director.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about working with music producer Trần Kim Ngọc?

Lân: I worked with Kim Ngọc, but she wasn’t the one who rearranged the songs. She collaborated with Minh Đạo, a musician/composer from the club scene in Vietnam before the 1990s. Kim Ngọc and I wanted it to have that kind of color, to remind the audience of that period. 

It took a long time for the three of us working together to understand what we were trying to do. Minh Đạo kept disagreeing with us because he felt the club music he used to make in the ’90s was outdated, not refined enough. But Kim Ngọc and I felt that Minh Đạo’s old style had become so iconic that we shouldn’t reject it.

Filmmaker: Your characters don’t have many options for the future.

Lân: I’m not so sure about that. In Vietnam, a family structured around a collective-based society used to be our foundation. But that structure is breaking down, and our society is going through a transition. It could be that we are becoming more Western, or we may just be following in the footsteps of other more developed Asian countries like Korea and Japan. What I wanted to portray was this emotional limbo that comes from being in a growing crisis. The other important thing was to show the innocence of these characters, something I think is crucial for survival. 

Filmmaker: In that transition the past is often lost, except for a nostalgia that might not be accurate.

Lân: I think a common thread among films from South East Asia right now is the speed of development. We should be careful about using that term because it can also mean destruction. Memories come not just from human interactions, but from the physical settings around people. That’s all being lost. Say you visit Hanoi and stay in a hotel. If you come back in a year or two, you might not even remember where it’s located, or what the neighborhood around it was like. The old theater where we shot nightclub scenes was demolished before we finished the post-production of this film.

Filmmaker: How does Cu Li fit into the film market in Vietnam?

Lân: Right now there are three categories: commercial movies, indies and state-sponsored movies. There is very little audience for the sponsored movies, but the state still puts a lot of money into them. The commercial sector is growing very fast. Vietnam has one of the two fastest-growing film industries, after Indonesia. The priority there is domestic drama. Also horror. We can’t really compete with American films in action and sci-fi. Indies have a near-zero market share, but we can’t deny that we still somehow benefit from the success of commercial movies. So, more and more indie films are being made.

Filmmaker: How did you finance your film?

Lân: The World Cinema Fund was the first to support my film financially. Their participation helped attract other funding sources. Being at the Berlinale is like revisiting an old friend. They believed in me before I even thought I could make films. Not only were my short films shown here, but the themes in Cu Li Never Cries have to do with East Germany. There’s a strong connection between Berlin and Vietnam. 

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham