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Sam North reviews this summers most beautiful film

There is one there this summer that will restore your faith in independent film and art films in general.
At the Height of Summer (¿ la verticale de l'ÈtÈ (2000)

Starring: Tran Nu Yen-Khe, Nhu Quynh Nguyen, Le Khanh
Director: Anh Hung Tran
Production: Arte France Cinema, Lazennec Films, Le Studio Canal+, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen Distribution: Columbia TriStar, Sony Pictures Classics, United King Films Language: Vietnamese
Country: Vietnam, France, Germany

At The Height of Summer is a Vietnamese film and a follow up to the award winning
‘The Scent of Green Papaya' and CYCLO

by Anh Hung Tran and starring Tran Nu Yen-khe

I had seen his previous film in 1993 and had wondered what had happened to the Director (who had been forced to make this last film in France and Holland and amazingly convinced us all that it was an authentic Hanoi movie). The director has assembled another brilliant cast in Hanoi
(I hope it was filmed there - but I note that this too involves France and Germany). However, no matter, he has given us an insight to contemporary life in Hanoi now. This is no drug fueled thriller, no guns in sight, no Americans, no one puts the world to rights and ‘At Height of Summer’, like the title suggests is a languid stroll through the lives of three sisters. A kind of Chekhov Vietnam story.

It is beautifully shot with an exquisite eye for every detail, every frame could hang in an art gallery, but not for a moment is the film stilted or self-concious. The characters feel so real and well integrated it feels more like a docu-drama, yet it most certainly is a construct, a piece of artifice but such a fine natural theme with such real performances you long for it all to exist.

Two sisters are married, one, the youngest and ethereally beautiful Lien, is single. The littlest sister dotes on her brother and they live together in a simple but colourful apartment over looking the street. She flirts with her brother constantly, a young women desperate for a relationship, yet patient and controlled. Her brother determinedly, and patiently resists her, as a brother would. Their routine, which sets the rhythm for the film, begins each morning to a Lou Reed soundtrack as they wake and go through their exercises and we pick up the lives of the other sisters.

One, married to a gifted still-life photographer who is going through much anguish because he is having an affair with another , younger woman, unaware that his wife is also having an affair, assuaging her guilt by maintaining a vow of silence with her businessman lover. There is an extraordinary moment when her lover gives her a gift of a antique metal pot which when rubbed in contary directions causes the water to fizz. The simple pleasure of the giver and the receiver is a joy to watch.

The other sister is married to a writer who is blocked and one who perhaps is a little bored and not able to appreciate that his is married to the most beautiful and faithful wife. One who needs more affection that he is prepared to give right now. He seeks tempation and so leaves for Saigon for a few days.

We observe a month in their lives between the feasts for the dead mother and the dead father. Ancestor worship provides the structure of their lives and the reason for closeness of families. The more one watches Asian films, the wonderful Taiwanese ‘One and a Two’ or the Hong-Kong ‘In the Mood for Love’ one realises how much we have lost in our desire to live apart from each other. How easily and casually we throw the old in homes and the young girls leave home as soon as they can get pregnant. We recognise perhaps just how unspiritual our own lives are in this materialistic UK and what we may be missing.

‘At the Height of Summer’ induces a longing for these shared lives, perhaps the loss of privacy would be a problem, but we share their frustrations and expectations. The heat, the simple and professional way a feast is prepared and the hard rain that floods the streets of Hanoi provide a visual treat It is a luxury to stare out of window with them and see the artful composition of every shot through windows, a plant or tree or a pot-bellied pig rooting in the garden. The remote beauty of the hinterland coast.

(The cinemaphotography is by the former assistant to Chris Doyle who gave us the beautiful ‘In the Mood for Love’ and Chunking Express).

In a summer of appalling rubbish, here is a glittering jewel to be savoured, talked about, and more’s the point, enjoyed leisurely, like a hot summer afternoon.

© Sam North 2001
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