2007

January 18, 2009
San Jose Camera Cinema Club
Vietnam / USA
Vietnamese
97 Minutes
Drama / Romance
Stephane Gauger

10-year-old Thuy runs away from her mean (but not too mean) uncle’s bamboo blind factory and heads for Saigon after he yells at her when she makes a production mistake. She breaks open her piggy bank, gives away some items to friends, and is on her way. She shows up in the bustling city with one outfit and a pink princess backpack containing her two beloved dolls. She falls in with the other kids who try to make a living on the street, selling postcards, food, or roses. No one she comes into contact with is particularly sinister and all have advice for the new girl in town: “customers can’t say no if you have a good story.”

Meanwhile, a flight attendant checks into her regular room at a rather-nice hotel. She is 26 and attractive, with a good job. But she finds herself meeting a married pilot for an afternoon of non-feeling sex. Of course, he’ll never leave his wife. Lan knows this, but she falls back into easy patterns of behavior. “I’m not good at dating” she tells a setup over dinner after she sneaks out the back way. The people she comes into contact with can’t seem to figure out why she’s single.

Across town, at the Saigon City Zoo, Hai tends to the animals, especially his favorite young elephant who has been sold to a zoo in India. Hai was recently dumped by his beautiful, high-maintenance fiance. “She just changed her mind” he says. When asked why he’s single, he replies that he’s not the type of man women like. Hai gets more enjoyment from the animals, having grown up living at the zoo while his father worked as a zookeeper.

We know that somehow these three intricately drawn characters will cross each other’s paths. But before they do, we already care what happens to them. It’s the weirdest thing. We fear for the young girl’s safety in the big city, of course, but we also want Hai and Lan to be happy almost from the moment we meet them. Their loneliness is written all over their faces. In fact, the runaway little girl seems to be happier than the two adults.

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The film is shot with hand-held cameras which take us right into the crowded alleyways and shops of the city. We’re in traffic with the characters, we experience what they experience. The city is every bit as big a part of this film as Mumbai was for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE.

The anchor of the story is young Thuy. A non-professional actor chosen for the part with just two days to learn the lines before shooting, it can’t be overstated what a screen presence she is. Her open, trusting face and her ability to carry us along with her as she meets every challenge with calm thoughtfulness. She is given a crash course in sales by the other children. She never complains about her fate; “I’m used to sleeping on the floor–it’s good for the back.” She seems genuinely touched when someone shows her a kindness. And the first adult to do so is zookeeper Hai. He lets her feed the elephants sugarcane, he explains the hidden dangers of some of the animals. She follows him around as he does his duties, he offers her lunch (which she needs to protect from his pet Orangutan). She doesn’t talk in the way of wise-beyond-their-years child actors that we’re used to. She seems to suck everything in and digest it before speaking. By the same token, she isn’t afraid to ask questions of her adult friends. A favorite is “why are you alone?” which is typically answered with “you ask too many questions, sometimes.”

Thuy meets Lan while trying to sell her a rose as she eats alone after another miserable date. Lan sees something in the young girl. An honesty, perhaps. A girl who isn’t so different from Lan when she was 10. Or maybe Lan just needs something to live for; something to protect. Whatever the cause, a simple sharing of some Pho turns into an offer of a roof over her head. Thuy is beside herself with appreciation. Lan is happy for the company, even when Thuy applies Lan’s makeup while she sleeps to see what it’s like to be a grown-up.

Young Han Thi Pham inhabits the role of Thuy as if she’s living her life in front of our eyes. Part of that is probably due to the hand-held cameras which captured what was happening without lengthy setups or too large a crew. Thuy sees that what both of her adult protectors are missing is each other. She mentions them to each other and finally tries to arrange a meeting at a restaurant. The scenes of the three of them, each adult holding one of Thuy’s hands, is nothing short of magical.

There are something we know while watching OWL AND THE SPARROW. The uncle will search, the authorities will find out she’s a runaway, there will be a scene in a (pleasant) orphanage, tears will flow, children will be ripped out of arms. But the ending is never in doubt. The zookeeper’s lower status, the flight attendant’s far-away job, and the girl’s relatives are all merely speedbumps on the way to the inevitable. And I loved every minute of it.

OWL AND THE SPARROW is being self-released and is playing in pockets of California now.

8.5 IMDB

OWL AND THE SPARROW

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Written by Michael W. Cummins