BIFF 2020: Oct. 27

Sister Sister (c) Truong Binh Thuong

I haven’t seen that many Vietnamese movies, but all the ones I’ve seen I’ve seen at BIFF, and I’m pretty sure all of them were about people of limited means, which I interpreted to represent the bulk of the population. Sister Sister, reportedly the biggest box office hit in Vietnam in 2019, is a decidedly different species of movie. It’s about the rich, or, perhaps I should say the new rich, since we are talking about a country whose communist government still has authoritarian powers over most of the population’s lives. At first, I found the story quaint in a way that perhaps revealed my prejudices about entertainment in developing countries, even those who already have created a 1% upper layer. Kim (Thanh Hang), the daughter of a wealthy real estate developer, hosts a popular radio talk show where she listens to callers discuss their family problems. One, a young woman having an affair with a married man who dumps her after he finds she’s pregnant, is a frequent caller to the show and has forged a kind of spiritual bond with Kim. When the woman, Nhi (Chi Pu), indicates she’s been a victim of sexual violence from her boss at the restaurant where she works, Kim meets her in private and invites her to stay temporarily at the mansion she shares with her husband, Huy (Lanh Thanh), an up-and-coming architect at her father’s company. Huy, as well as the couple’s maid, resent this interloper and are suspicious of her intentions, but Kim becomes more attached to the young woman, and it seems to have something to do with the fact that Kim recently lost her own baby.

It’s a pretty standard TV soap, but about halfway through it becomes something that could have been conceived by James Cain, and things turn pretty wild. It’s a fun movie that has some obvious structural and continuity problems, and in a sense it has the kind of glittery sheen that makes you wonder how much of it is supposed to be a joke. Certainly, the sex scenes are not supposed to be taken seriously, but it’s difficult to discern how much of director Kathy Uyen’s depiction of “traditional family values” are supposed to be critical. Initially, Kim’s peculiar brand of broadcast therapy is meant to seem progressive in that a soon-to-be single mother like Nhi is normally ostracized by good society, and Kim gets grief for it (but not by her employer, since she gets high ratings). But as the twisty, sordid plot reaches the home stretch, the cynicism toward not only acquired bourgeois attitudes but also the attendant soft-hearted Western liberalism feels like a feint. As it happens, Uyen is Vietnamese-American, born in San Jose, so she has a foot in both traditions. Her debut is canny and, for me at least, a bit too calculating in its effort to have its moral cake and eat it too. 

200 Meters (c) Alaa Aliabdallah

The family depicted in the Palestinian film 200 Meters is more conventionally “happy” in that their love for one another is solid. However, the social milieu they have to navigate is much more complicated, even absurd. The head of the household, Mustafa (Ali Suleiman), lives in the West Bank at his family home, while his wife and three children live in a house in Israel, on the other side of the wall, but only 200 meters away, meaning close enough so that when he goes to sleep at night he can signal to them his “good night” with a light on the roof. The director, Ameen Nayfeh, never fully explains why the family is separated, though one gets the feeling that Mustafa is not comfortable living in Israel. In any event, he has to work there, and thus must endure the grueling checkpoint process on an almost daily basis. 

This process becomes the movie’s leitmotif, a gauntlet of humiliation and potential danger that is stretched out almost interminably during the movie’s second half, when Mustafa, cut off in the West Bank over the weekend due to an expired permit, has to hire a smuggler to get him into Israel after his son is injured in a traffic accident. That 200 meters turns into a taut day-long journey involving switching cars, enduring the annoying peccadillos of strangers, and being stuffed in a trunk for hours as a life-and-death drama he doesn’t even know about is taking place only feet away. Though there are several implausibilities in Nayfeh’s script, he keeps the politicizing to a minimum and trains his dramatic firepower on Mustafa’s anxiety, which is all the more visceral because he is a good man, albeit an often impatient one. Even the ringer in the story, a young German filmmaker who tags along on the smuggling expedition to get some good footage, doesn’t feel gratuitous, even if some of the English dialogue sounds forced. And if the ending seems too faintly happy, the context gives it poignance. Mustafa is just going to have to get up the next day and do it all again. 

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