Lucid Transitions: A Conversation with Pham Thien An

"Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell," the Vietnamese director's stunning debut, challenges notions of spirituality and form in Asian cinema.
Lukasz Mankowski

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An, 2023).

All too frequently, the reception of recent Asian arthouse films at international festivals showcases an ambiguous predicament. When encountering new films—usually in the sidebars of Cannes, Venice, or the Berlinale—Western critics tend to resort to a repetitious discourse, conveniently labeling the films and making easy comparisons to the canon of the 1990s and 2000s. The pattern goes like this: meditative sonic sequences or notions of reincarnation become instant echoes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work, any neon extravaganza immediately points to Wong Kar Wai, and Tsai Ming-liang is a recurring reference whenever a film abounds in still long shots. In a sense, these touchstones and comparisons are all valid—these older filmmakers conceived cinematic miracles and attempted to redefine the boundaries of film art, and therefore have influenced many artists of the next generation.

However, it isn’t difficult to find this labeling tendency to be ectypal Orientalization. Reception of these new films can become determined by a specific discourse in which critics’ views align around limited perspectives and cultural reference points. It creates a devaluating scenario—a criticism that diminishes the essence of a filmmaker’s intrinsic vision, or superimposes a supposed connection with someone else’s work, even though the similarity might be superficial. That said, it can be difficult not to have this perception of repetitiveness when many new films are designed to be similar to past arthouse successes because their funding sources require the talent to think about cinematic language through a specific formula. One way or another, the influence appears as though it is inevitable—either because of the industrial ecosystem or the environment of film culture. Growing up as a cinephile in Southeast Asia most likely means being exposed to the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Tsai Ming-liang, so absorbing the features of their work is somewhat natural. But while some new films share similar elements (stylistically, thematically, philosophically) with their influences, it’s also crucial to pinpoint their organic values—if they have them. 

These values are most obvious in contemporary representations of locality. It is thrilling to see a work that manages to foreground something that stands as valid and essential—a commentary on modernity, as seen from a local perspective, submerged in the underrepresented point of view. Such an approach is embodied by Pham Thien An, a Vietnamese filmmaker who received the Caméra d’Or at Cannes for Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell. Unlike many other films from the plethora of recent Asian arthouse titles, Pham’s debut is a maverick in its own right: a spiritual journey of an individual striving to reclaim one’s faith, rendered through a seemingly discordant poetics. 

The dissonance is found in the quest of Thien (Le Phong Vu), Pham’s protagonist, who seeks the figure of the Catholic God while the film plunges us into the realm of what would otherwise stand as Buddhist poetics of cinema. With particular attention to rhythm, the floating movement of the camera, elongated shots that evoke a sense of timelessness, and a tendency to stage events outside the frame, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell reflects the transience of a fleeting world, revealing a wide spectrum of transitions that make up the phenomenon of human life. Echoing throughout Pham’s narrative is the vital possibility of a spiritual change that grounds the soul of the individual in the aftermath of a loss. While the temptation is strong to oversimplify the film’s cinematic dialogue with movies by Bi Gan or Apichatpong, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell possesses its own identity. In fact, it is not unlikely that in the future, young filmmakers may turn to Pham’s film for their own inspiration. 

The story begins in the city, in Saigon during the Vietnamese summer of 2018; in a wide shot, the camera captures a conversation between three men who drink and talk, as the noise of a football match echoes from a nearby field. They chatter about a variety of things, a drunken talk we’ve seen many times—about eternal life, the meaning of humanity, the pointlessness of religion, and the usefulness of PlayStation 4. The conversation’s focal point is Thien, who expresses the utmost ambivalence as he explains the lack of religion in his life. It’s not that he doesn’t want to believe; it’s that the rational mind says there’s no need. The men’s talk could continue endlessly, but a traffic incident outside of the frame breaks the idyllic ambiance. The camera reveals the accident site—someone has died—but life goes on. 

In the next scene, Thien and his friends are already at a local spa. Mid-massage, the session is interrupted by a call. “It’s a call from God,” laughs Thien. He’s not exactly wrong—someone calls to say that his sister-in-law has died in an accident, and that his brother has been missing for several years; because of this, Thien needs to take care of his nephew. For Thien, his journey to his nephew becomes a chance to revisit his past; for the audience, it is a chance to delve into the phantasmal landscape of Vietnam.

While in Cannes, where the film premiered in the Quinzaine des Cineastes, I had the chance to meet with Pham and discuss his approach to storytelling and cinematic language, as well as untangle what exists inside the yellow cocoon shells.

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: Could you explain what the title of your film, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, conveys?

PHAM THIEN AN: I come from a place in Vietnam that is known for its industrial farms. I was born and raised in a family of farmers—throughout multiple generations, we have been dealing with crops, mostly cotton. Back in the day, we wouldn’t use the industrial way of farming, so everything would revolve around symbiotic circulation. In that sense, we were growing strawberries so that we could feed them to insects that were eventually essential to growing cotton. It was the world that meant everything to me; this is where I grew up and this was the environment that shaped me. The title stems from my roots—it points to the local culture in which I was immersed from the early days of life. On the other side, the phrase encapsulates a phenomenon that I find as a miracle of living. Inside the cocoon shell, there’s this magnificent transition—a larva becoming an exquisite butterfly. Before that happens, though, there needs to be happen a huge transformation that stands as a fascinating phenomenon in itself—one that reflects the path of the protagonist of the film. Thien also needs to go through such a transformation, and banish his physical form, as well as the material world. Only then, he will become able to experience something spiritual.

NOTEBOOK: When you mention these notions of physicality, I instantly think about the physical presence in your film, emphasized through the meticulous movement of the camera. It’s both fluid and steady, but the camera’s gaze responds to the presence of characters. With the fluid movement of the camera, I feel that I can sense their presence more, and that feeling grows bigger and bigger with every second.

PHAM: That’s indeed something that reappears in my film—usually, I start from a wide shot, only to propel the camera into motion, so that it can come closer to the characters. A wide shot reveals the specificity of the environment, where the scene is set, while the proximity of the camera translates to a feeling of intimacy with the observed character. I strive for an emotional connection—when my camera comes closer, I want the audience to also become closer to their emotional perception. To achieve that, you need time. That’s why the scenes unfold with time, that’s why there’s movement of the camera and the motion of coming closer.

I’ve been staging scenes like that since my short film, Be Ready and Stay Awake (2019). I felt a sense of mystery was born, as well as a sense of curiosity that accompanies the spectator throughout. It’s quite easy to become repetitive, though, and such storytelling might feel daunting. Therefore, I always deem it necessary to put myself in a constant process of searching within the relationship between camera movement and the physicality of my actors. There’s a lot to derive from that connection and it can be translated onto the act of staging. That’s why in some of the scenes, there is a camera that follows the characters, but sometimes there are the people who come near the camera and the spectator’s gaze. I want this relationship to be ongoing and dynamic; it’s like both sides are constantly following each other.

NOTEBOOK: Aside from the long shots, you also minimize the number of cuts. There’s a lot of attention to single takes in your film, which has a significant effect on the rhythm of the camera. It seemed to me, that you just want to leave the space so that the audience could breathe, while the camera’s gaze could be in a constant state of drifting. What’s your relationship with film editing?

PHAM: I think a lot about how many shots I’d like to have in my film. If you decide to have many cuts, you directly influence the perception of time and space, diminishing the organic capacity of the environment and its space-time continuum. With more cuts, there’s a strong possibility that your impact will influence the connection between the audience and the characters. A particular attention toward the long shots might result in a feeling of timelessness—that the audience might forget about notions of time during the screening. You can immerse yourself in the imagined world completely. While the characters experience their stories, the audience becomes the witnesses. Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell consists of 67 shots. From the very beginning, I knew that it had to be that fluid movement of the camera—that at times is drawing near, only to be pulling away from somebody in the next scene—that could deliver all the necessary information about the characters and the world they inhabit in the most effective way, with the minimum of shots required.

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: In one of the scenes, Thien comes very close to the camera. For a moment, he comes down to the ground, leaving the frame completely. He gets up with a little bird; the frame is filled with the lush redness of his shirt, and we can feel the fragility of the animal against the backdrop of the color. When I saw the scene for the first time, I blinked for a second when Thien was reaching for the bird; opening my eyes, I felt he disappeared completely, evaporated—he was gone. There’s no cut in that scene, but my head made it when I blinked.

PHAM: In the initial version of the script, the scene was very simple—a man comes close to a spot, bends over; he gets up, holding a small animal in his hands. You point to something that foregrounds the strength of the scene—the comparison built on contrast. The size of the human body is juxtaposed with a tiny bird. In a sense, the animal feels too small, while the body seems to be too big. If I decided to emphasize the act of weighing the bird, I would have to resort to a cut, then make a close-up on the hands, then [go to] the wide shot again. But that’s not my film. I wanted to make it in one shot while emphasizing the presence of the bird in the moment of movement. I thought of the camera as a tree—standing somewhere in a lone setting. The animal is inside the tree, to which the character draws near, then the man takes the bird from the inside of the tree. At first, we can see a small character who grows bigger and bigger while he’s getting closer to a camera-tree, up until he fills the frame completely. Against the backdrop of his enormous body, we can finally picture a fragile animal. The contrast is simple, but it works. The background of the setting is also important. We can spot the hospital, traffic jam, speeding motorcycles, and movement of the cars. These elements build the context of the place; they become the layers emphasizing the contrast between what is far and what is near. At some point, this world will be gone too—once Thien fills up the frame with his body, in a sense, he will deny the existence of the outside world.

NOTEBOOK: You seem to be navigating between different modes of staging the scenes. At times it feels like being inside a dream; on the other hand, there’s a strong documentary approach in the way you incorporate local people or organic locations. How did you plan this? 

PHAM: My initial intention was to indeed achieve a documentary effect. That’s why I stick to non-professional actors, real locations, natural lighting (when possible), or long shots that would reflect the natural passing of time, wherein you synchronize the rhythm of the film world with the time in the cinema. As for the local people, I tend to do a lot of research and incorporate it into my stories. That’s how I found Mr. Luu, whom I found by chance in a video diary. It wasn’t easy to include his presence in the film, as he couldn’t memorize any lines, but after three weeks or so, we managed to capture his story—the remnants of the past, the memories of war, the experience of trauma. It’s very personal and intimate; his presence connects to the notions of life and death that are connected to the location we shot the film, as he is somewhat of a local hero who has dedicated his life to shrouding the deceased. 

NOTEBOOK: We’re discussing the poetics of the cinema and, I might be wrong, but it’s probably the first time in the cinema that I’ve seen Buddhist poetics used in the context of the monotheist Catholic religion. In a sense, these are the emblematic components of Asian slow cinema—the framing, image compositions, and the movement of the camera that imitates the fleetingness and transience of the world, or the long shots. While many arthouse films from Southeast Asia revolve around the concepts of Buddhism, your film tackles Catholic symbolism. Where does this atypical connection come from?

PHAM: It starts with the script. Initially, religion was just a background. The concept of faith and religious practice were merely a necessary act of everyday ritual—for example, the character would go to a church to pray for his sister’s soul. That’s it. During the process of writing, I felt that I needed to be honest with myself and bind the notions of fate with my system of values. However it might sound, I do believe that God has a plan for each of us. Of course, we—human beings—don’t have any access to it, nor do we know where it can guide us. We’re constantly preoccupied with what’s temporary. We tend to overwhelm ourselves with our ambitions, needs, desires. The checklist of what-to-do is constantly growing. Above all this, I have a feeling that there’s a divine plan. And this is what my protagonist needs to confront—a vision of the world where everything happens for a reason. Whether that be the death of his sister at the beginning of the story, or his long-lost love entering the monastery. It’s all a part of the plan—the acceptance of loss goes hand in hand with the process of reclaiming one’s faith. 

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: Faith is an important theme of your film, but the way you frame the story around notions of faith is very complex; Thien’s lack of a religious compass becomes a trajectory for the narrative to unfold. Could you say more about how you decided to depict faith in the film? 

PHAM: Thien’s life is an amalgamation of experiences of many sorts—losses, accidents, or events. Gathered together, they exist so that he can venture on a spiritual journey—one that will take place inside him. From one point of view, I can say that God has a plan for Thien and these experiences will guide him back on the path of believing. The death of one person might translate to something different for another—in this case, a birth of spiritual life. What bothers me most, however, is not a matter of faith. I’d rather think about the ambiguity of believing in the righteousness of God’s plan; I want to depict the capacity of faith which I think might resonate in the most beautiful and profound way in the film, while it doesn’t have to be necessarily overwhelming to digest. I also strove to show faith as something more than a mere narrative tool or conceptual notion. Coming back to your previous question—I didn’t want to capitalize on Catholic symbolism, simply because notions of faith become essential for my story to unfold. It’s the air of my film, its breath, its core.

NOTEBOOK: Sound plays a fascinating role in your film. You seem to focus a lot on different kinds of watery sounds: the flowing stream of the river or the droplets of rain. There were moments where I would close my eyes only to embrace the sonic landscape. Is there anything that you particularly focused on while working on the soundtrack? 

PHAM: Since I’m actually the main sound designer of the film, I insist on having control over different layers of sounds, which we create with my sound engineers. The post-production process was extremely important and I finalized it in Singapore. There’s always a lot to do in order to find the right balance between the sounds. Even more so, because I’m very sensitive to sound in general. During the shooting, I aim to capture the whole ambiance of the space and to provide the most detailed map of sounds. This is because I want to recreate the specificity of a space through its sonic landscape—for that reason, I record everything that makes sound in any way. If it has a sound, I will record it and then make sure to include it in the sound design.

NOTEBOOK: You end the film in water, gradually turning the sound down on the stream of a river. What’s the origin of that scene?

PHAM: In fact, I did it by accident! When one of my sound engineers readjusted the mic from the actor’s shirt so that the mic would be closer to the water, I realized there was a peculiar sound coming from the water. The moment of transition from the human body to watery environment seemed fascinating to me, because it appears as a symbolic transition between the two worlds. When we were working on finalizing the sound effect, the sound engineers overdid it and the outcome was somewhat of a simulation of the underwater environment. And I didn’t want that. The desired effect was to render something ambiguous or inapparent so that the listener would have difficulty to clearly determine the source of the sound. That said, I didn’t mean to achieve the effect of a complete sound immersion in a water environment; instead, I wanted to emphasize a moment of transition, a sound simulation of a liminal moment. From a physical point of view, the transition becomes about leaving the earthy environment for a watery one; metaphorically, the moment depicts Thien’s spiritual transition. The whole process of finalizing the sound effect was time-consuming because we couldn’t find the right feeling about the sound, but even though it happened through some randomness, it’s an essential conclusion to the story.

NOTEBOOK: You describe your film as some sort of a journey. Earlier on, you mentioned your roots and connection to your homeland, as well as your focus on Thien’s path through life. What was your journey to the world of cinema? 

PHAM: At some point in my life, I decided to move to Saigon. That became a formative moment. I left the rural areas to come to a city to study IT. I wanted to become an IT guy. During my four-year studies, I did some part-time work as a film editor. For some reason, I was leaning more and more toward a creative world. At first, I could navigate between the two worlds—IT and film—and editing made it a perfect balance. Soon enough I realized I’m all in the film world—I wanted to learn more. Images, editing, style, film language, poetics of cinema. I felt that cinema could give me something exceptional, something I couldn’t have from my work as an IT guy—I realized that cinema is a medium that enables this unique sort of togetherness. When people watch a film at the theater, there is a moment of happiness that people share. The collective reception of cinema absorbs me; the opportunity to share experience with others is bliss. I made a decision to be a part of it.

In Vietnam, there are a lot of competitions for young directors. I took part in one of these, where you have 48 hours to film something on a certain subject. I was a cinephile back then, so I copied some of my favorite titles, but despite this, I managed to win a main award. In a sense, it propelled my career because I could finish my next project. However, many years have passed since that moment, and up until recently, I wouldn’t say I’m telling my own stories. Since I watched many films—this is to say, stories of other people—I was able to sense someone’s emotions or states of mind, but mine remained silent. If you want to make films or tell stories, it’s like you create a cosmology of your own emotions and feelings that can finally be autonomously embodied in images or sounds. It is said that cinema transgresses boundaries—in my case, these were the boundaries of my emotional expression.

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