The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
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It is a relatively simple task to describe many, if not all, of the things that happen over the course of the two-hour runtime of Bui Thac Chuyen’s Glorious Ashes. But the whys prove to be slightly more elusive… possibly by design, possibly by ignorance. Still, it’s a potent piece of cinema that accomplishes what it sets out to do…mostly.
The film opens at the wedding of Nhan (Phu’O’ng Ahn Dao) and Tam (Ngo Quang Tuan), a pair of gleeful young newlyweds, overjoyed at the prospect of starting their new lives together. Significantly less pleased is Duong (Le Cong Hoang), a sulky guest who gulps down shot after shot, barely seeming to acknowledge the relentless chattering of his ostensible date, Hau (Bao Ngoc Doling), who even in recounting to him the moment she fell for him, manages to slip in a couple of digs about his itinerant nature.
Somehow, against all odds, this leads to a drunken tryst on a boat that qualifies as one of the most pitiful sex scenes in the history of cinema, a soul deadening spectacle that starts with Hau removing Duong’s headlamp, blinding her as he pumps away, and ends with her hilariously rolling out of the boat and disappearing under the water after Duong calls out Nhan’s name and starts crying as he climaxes.
And, to be clear: these two events take place roughly twenty seconds apart.
As we all know, sex that terrible can only have one result, and nine months later, a daughter is brought into the world. Duong and Hau, who have since gotten married, delve into parenthood without having resolved any of the issues underlying their cursed union. Duong deals with things by constantly retreating to his hideaway on the sea, while Hau becomes increasingly obsessed with Nhan and her happy marriage. But if her jealousy proves unhealthy, then she shouldn’t worry; eventually, fate conspires to give everyone absolutely terrible coping mechanisms.
From its very opening moments, writer-director Bui Thac Chuyen signals the curiously opaque nature his film is going to take; it is not a work that is overly at pains to meet you halfway. The dialogue, when it occurs, trends towards the unilluminating, even when they’re saying things that should feel illuminating. The opening wedding is a perfect example: when we watch Hau and Duong, the dialogue and the body language are both saying different things. And then their faces are saying something else on top of that… which itself changes from moment to moment, making it tricky, if not impossible, to find one’s emotional footing.
We might think we can tell what they’re thinking. But we can never be sure. And lingering in that liminal sense of unknowingness casts a spell that’s difficult to articulate, but equally difficult to deny, if you’re willing to give yourself over to it.
The Not-Quite-Quadrangle of Nhan and Tam and Duong and Hau is Not Quite Contrasted with the… complicated story of Khang and Loan.
Khang (Thach Kim Long) has just returned to Thom Rom after serving time for the attempted rape of Loan, an act which the villagers believe caused Loan (Ngo Pham Hanh Thuy) to have a mental breakdown… though her response when she overhears some of her fellow villagers discussing the situation, while it reads one way in the moment, becomes far more ambiguous upon later developments.
Unable to face the villagers (or Loan specifically), Khang hides out with The Monk (Mai The Hiep), an old friend who is, in fact, an actual monk. It remains unclear exactly why Khang has returned to a place where it will be impossible to put his past behind him. At one point he claims to want to be a monk, but only in the context of him talking about how he is failing to live up to the standards expected of him. And things become no more clear for him or us when Loan starts showing up on the Monk’s front door, in search of…well, it’s not even clear that she knows.
It’s not entirely surprising to learn that the basis for Glorious Ashes comes from two short stories Tro Tan Ruc Ro and Cui Muc Troi Ve (both by Nguyen Ngoc Tu), because if nothing else, the film certainly has the texture of two short stories: aside from taking place in the same village, they don’t connect in any meaningful way. The Nhan stuff is domestic melodrama that takes a turn for the tragic, and then the somewhat inexplicable. Ultimately it’s about people who can’t let go of the past, and fail to find non-destructive ways to come to terms with their present. While the way the Loan subplot resolves itself, or fails to resolve itself, almost makes it feel like something akin to a shaggy dog joke, or (to be more charitable) a koan in cinematic form. Which is not what one might expect from the weighty themes on display.
But instead of making the movie feel disjointed, it somehow just adds to the mystique of it all, providing a lighter contrast to the somehow simultaneously feverish and matter-of-fact chain of events in the main story.
I won’t pretend that watching Glorious Ashes was an easy experience; as many moments as I found mesmerizing or compelling, there were an equal amount that were just confounding or obtuse to no benefit. And, as always in these situations, I have to be open to the possibility that there’s a cultural disconnect, and I’m projecting a sense of cryptic-ness that simply wouldn’t be there if I were more informed on the comings and goings of Vietnamese society. But overall, I cannot deny the spell that watching it cast over me. For every moment I mentioned here, there are ten more I wish I had the time, space, and presence of mind to try and unpack.
The filmmakers have taken what should be a simple story, and complicated it not by adding more story, but by really and truly playing into the idea that the human psyche is a complex, inexplicable mechanism that not even the owners have a grasp of. It’s a high risk, high reward strategy. And for me at least, it was rewarding.