Synopsis: A close relationship between two young women became complicated when one got married. The other was jealous and pushed her friend into the arms of a crude and sexual man. The woman could not resist his seduction. She discovers her woman instincts but at the same time is torn by traditional morality...
A one-dimensional portrait of Hanoi’s sexually dysfunctional working class.
Whilst the term “repressed Vietnamese eroticism” may entice international distribution partners (and, no doubt, sell film festival tickets), director Chuyên Bui Thac’s manifestation of the theme, Adrift, amounts to little more than a languid, inconsequential glimpse inside a cross-section of Hanoi’s sexually dysfunctional working class.
Fuelling the film’s interminable sense of anticipation and longing is the lack of boudoir action that curses newlyweds Hai (Duy Khoa Nguyen), a taxi-driving momma's-boy who drinks to dull his low self-esteem, and Duyen (Do Thi Hai Yen), a shy, strikingly-attractive young woman determined in her own (very) quiet way to sexually mature. Their new life together is already one of routine and boredom, despite them both being intrigued by different alluring influences – Hai is befriending a dreamy, lively girl from his neighbourhood, whilst the secretly-bisexual Duyen is fending off her homosexual ex-girlfriend (Linh Dan Pham) and growing increasingly curious about the silent, studly dream guy Tho (Johnny Tri Nguyen).
Each of the leads becomes entangled, though never quite in the way that one hopes. Representing a rather one-dimensional portrait of different sexual archetypes, none of the characters are particularly enthralling nor the actors especially engaging; so restrained is Duy Khoa Nguyen as Hai, when the character speaks in his sleep it is indistinguishable from his wakened state. Do Thi Hai Yen fares best as Duyen, though her inevitable sexual release (portrayed no further than the earliest stages of foreplay) is such a screamingly exaggerated performance it drew laughter from the audience.
That the central conceit should be so undercooked is doubly disappointing given that much of the local flavour and sense of place in the film is lovingly-handled. The influence of legendary DOP Christopher Doyle on the lush, steamy urban-jungle visuals employed by cinematographer Ly Thai Dung is obvious and welcome; the characters that populate the background of the film – an elderly, withering man who cradles his cock-fighting champion but abuses his daughter; Hai’s imposing mother; a bald stranger, mother to a hearing-impaired child, who shares her unrequited secret passion for Tho with Duyen – indicate that a broader tapestry of personalities may have once been Chuyên Bui Thac’s intention.
The film deserves recognition for addressing issues of sexuality – infidelity, homosexuality, even the mere portrayal of female gratification onscreen – that have been taboo in mainstream Vietnamese for so long.
There is artistry to Chuyên Bui Thac’s film, but its moribund early pacing and minimalist approach to character makes it very hard to engage with the work. As the film devolves into po-faced melodrama, the ending can’t come soon enough; when it does, the final frames seem to want us to believe that the marriage of Hai and Duyen may one day provide a happy ending. In every sense of that term, it seems unlikely.
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