The New York Asian Film Festival took place from August 28th to September 12th. For more details, click here.
Right out of the gate, there’s a kinetic energy to director Tran Thanh Huy’s directorial debut Rom. It’s a movie that feels like it’s in constant motion from frame one. The verve is infectious and just immediately lures you in. So when the film reveals the poison at the heart of the world these characters inhabit, it hits like a punch to the gut.
The movie takes its title from our protagonist, an orphan who makes a living running numbers in his tiny Vietnamese tenement complex. He helps desperate fortune seekers pick numbers for the lottery and gets a cut of the winnings. But he’s been on a cold streak of late, and his rival, the slightly older Phuc, is making a play to become everyone’s runner of choice. The rivalry starts out as amusing, but becomes more and more vicious as the situation gets increasingly desperate for everyone.
Much of the film is based around Rom and Phuc in perpetual motion, running through the streets collecting numbers and handing out results. Their acrobatics and attempts to trip each other up take on an almost cartoony quality at first, and combined with the endless array of absurd methods Rom and the residents use to try and divine winning lottery numbers give the early portions of the film a healthy comedic sheen. The desperation is palpable, but played so broadly that the darkness of it all takes a while to sink in.
That all changes with the death of Ms. Ba, a kindly old woman in massive debt who finds herself the target of Phuc and Roms’ relentless entreaties to place a bet. They wear her down, and she does.
It is her last act on Earth.
It is the first moment where the movie pauses to take a breath, and the exact moment when the audience’s laughter starts to stick in the throat. Even though Thien Kim has scant screen time in the role of the doomed old woman, she makes it count, providing a glimpse of the warmth missing in pretty much every other character. Do the tenants mourn her? Yes. But do they cherish her memory enough to not try and hold a seance to contact her spirit for the sake of learning winning lottery numbers? That would be a no.
For his part, Rom shows at least a little remorse for whatever part he might have played in Bu’s demise… but not enough to even consider stopping. Which is better than the older, far more faithless Phuc, who immediately tries to turn the tenants against Rom.
Rom becomes the trusted errand boy to Mrs. Ghi (Cat Phuong), the woman in charge of the numbers and Phuc finds himself under the thumb of the Gangster (played with sadistic glee by rapper turned actor Wowy). Both have very good reasons to become the top runner, but then again, everybody who does awful things have their reasons. And desperation has a nasty habit of blinding people to the fact that game is, and always has been, rigged against them.
That constantly shifting dynamic between Rom and Phuc forms the erratic pulse of the film. It’s a seesaw battle to stay in the good graces of the tenants who depend on them for hope of improving their miserable situation, and just like with the lottery, the tide can turn in an instant. You’d think in the competition between a kid who looks like he’s barely out of diapers and a cynical teen who brags about having been stabbed and more than earns his phonetically accurate nickname over the course of the film, Rom would get eaten alive. But while he has his moments of youthful guilelessness, he’s hardly a fool, and can get downright vicious when the need arises.
Which happens… frequently.
Rom marks the first acting roles ever of Tran Ahn Khoa and Nguyen Phan Anh Tu as Rom and Phuc respectively, and while it could be a major risk to trust two completely inexperienced performers to headline his film, it has to be said that writer/director Tran Tranh Huy cast very wisely; they’re raw and present in every moment and navigate the tricky shifts between tragedy and comedy like old pros. In fact, the entire cast shines, working like a true ensemble to make their scrappy tenement feel entirely lived in, and finding the grace in the rare quiet moments, as in a lovely and ruefully funny scene where they gather celebrate a stroke of luck by having a joyful sing along to a ballad with some of the bleakest lyrics imaginable.
Of course, their victory, and all victories, tend to be fleeting. Which is why the ending, which I won’t reveal here, is so perfect in its refusal to satisfy. The fade to black comes far sooner than you might expect, and it’s hard to imagine that some people wouldn’t be disappointed by what happens, or doesn’t happen. But they’d also be missing the point. It was never about winning, or hope, or escape, because there is no escape, only survival. And in a world like the one in Rom, the only way to survive is to never stop running.