His own memories, though, are less pleasing, more troubling. Pham layers flashbacks into the film so seamlessly that it’s easy to miss that they’re flashbacks. Thien remembers the moment his relationship with his girlfriend ended and when he found out that his brother had abandoned his family. But he also seems to remember long motorcycle rides down the road in Saigon, perhaps in his dreams.
Pham uses his camera in wide shots and slow, fluid pans and zooms, suggesting the presence of an all-seeing eye keeping tabs on Thien. But he leaves up to our imaginations the actual order and meaning of events. The point here isn’t to tell a straightforward story; at times it’s unclear if we’re seeing the present, the past or a dream. It’s to travel in contemplation, revisiting feelings and thoughts and doubts with new perspective, like the spiral of a shell. To that end, mirrors and reflected faces pop up constantly throughout the film, as if reminding us that nothing we are looking at is a simple surface — something always lies beneath.
Thien visits many people on his quest, some of whom sense that he’s searching for something bigger than Tam. People who’ve seen death speak to him in words that feel like riddles or conundrums. More important, though, messengers seem to arrive from nonhuman places. A tiny bird needing care finds Thien, and evokes the biblical idea that God cares for a sparrow and so, of course, cares for people. Dogs trot through scenes constantly. And by the end, a flock of white butterflies — whether they’re real or not barely matters by then — seems to have found Thien. They float on the edge of his perception, evidence of beauty and wonder that does not strictly fit within the bounds of human understanding.
Pham manages to float existential and spiritual questions into Thien’s consciousness and ours without trying to offer solutions, at least in language. The problem of evil — if a good God exists, then why do bad things happen — is raised, and remains unanswered. Thien’s quest for Tam, prompted by worldly concerns, starts to seem more like a hunt for salvation, and it’s noticeable. An older woman looks at him and straightaway diagnoses his problem: “Have you forsaken your soul?” she asks.
In this she is referring to the Bible verse that asks, what good does it do for a man to gain the whole world if he loses his soul in the process?”
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell
Not rated. In Vietnamese, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 59 minutes. In theaters.