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Secret Worlds

Tran Anh Hung's beautiful meditation on family ties and family traumas, The Vertical Ray of the Sun, marks a captivating new chapter in the career of the writer-director who gave Americans their first glimpse of Vietnamese filmmaking. In 1994 Tran's The Scent of Green Papaya made its way here, and it was nothing less than a revelation -- a brilliantly observed study of a servant girl who goes to work in Saigon in 1951 and develops a unique relationship with each member of the employer's household. Drenched in rich colors and profound yet submerged emotions, the film opened a door to a world most of us had never imagined.

Tran's new film has the same serene surface and deliberate pace as Papaya, but by degrees the subject matter proves to be more discomfiting. As personal secrets are revealed, each person we meet must deal with life-changing decisions.

In the beginning all is bliss. On the anniversary of their mother's death, three lovely sisters gather in the Hanoi café operated by the eldest of them to prepare a memorial banquet. While washing chickens and cutting shallots -- simple scenes that unfold in sensual profusion, thanks to the director and to cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin -- the women begin reminiscing about their parents' seemingly perfect marriage. A mystery remains about a man named Toan, who may or may not have once been their mother's lover. In time this discussion acts as a trigger, making way for startling insights into the sisters' own lives and the lives of their men.

Nothing is quite what it first seems. As in Papaya, appearances are slowly supplanted by realities; when the banquet is done, veils are delicately drawn away from the family to expose its mysteries and truths.

The youngest sister, Lien (Tran Nu Yên-Khé), lives with their brother, Hai (Ngô Quanq Hai), and is drawn to him in a rather unsisterly way. "We were made for each other," she says, half in playfulness, half in lament. By the end Lien must confront her fantasies and leave childhood behind. The middle sister, Khanh (Lê Khanh), learns she is pregnant and tells only her husband, Kiên (Tran Manh Cuong), a blocked novelist. Intrigued by the story of Toan, Kiên travels to Saigon and is promptly tempted by a beautiful stranger. Upon his return Khanh discovers the indiscretion that spurs him to finish his book. This trouble seems insignificant compared to that which befalls the eldest sister, Suong (Nguyen Nhu Quynh), and her mate, a seemingly self-satisfied and superficially dull photographer (Chu Ngoc Hung). Both of them are conducting serious affairs, and he has an entire second family hidden away.

If devotees of Tran, the quietest, most fastidious of filmmakers, are searching for something uncharacteristically explosive (as they startlingly found in his absorbing 1995 film, Cyclo), this is it. Beneath the placid surface of Vertical Ray lurks betrayal and the suggestion of great violence. But not even these traumas -- or the crushing admissions of guilt that go with them -- seem to perturb Tran. His films are rife with warbling birds, gurgling waters, and contemplative closeups of trembling green leaves, the visible signs of nature. But he suggests that the hidden traumas of life also are phenomena of creation, the untidy products of our troubled human nature. The constant, nearly silent collision of the visible world and the turbulent, unseen world is a bewildering but deeply satisfying paradox. One might argue that this lies at the heart of Tran's ravishing magic and is the quality that makes him one of the world's most fascinating filmmakers.

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Bill Gallo

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