With two overdone sex scenes, Bi Don’t Be Afraid is easily one of the most controversial films in Vietnam recently and polarising critics’ opinions, but it offers more than explicit nudity to the artsy minds. An understated film that seeks to explore the decline of human connection amidst the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, Bi Don’t be afraid is not without limitations. The narrative is uneven, the sex scene looks creepy and the overuse of ice may be overwhelming at times, but they are redeemed by the raw energy oozing from well-crafted performances and impressive visual setting.
All the characters live in a Confucius influenced Asian culture on the way to disintegration, and that’s what makes their personal stories all the more poignant. Bi’s gravely ill grandfather has recently returned after years of estrangement. Bi’s mother is a subservient wife whose sexual desire is ignored by her alcoholic, disconnected husband. Bi’s aunt is a spinster by Vietnamese standard who fantasizes about her handsome and youthful student. Finally, the family’s maid is a not-always-silent witness to the crumbling of familial relationships. Ice is a recurring motif that connects the disparate lives. It’s used to prolong the beautiful leaves Bi collects from a nearby river, to mitigate the grandfather’s abdominal pain and to suppress the aunt’s sexual desire.
As a local Hanoi, I’m completely satisfied with Di’s realistic capture of old Hanoi on the verge of industrialization. Scant dialogue is employed on purpose to let room for the audience to feel the film through sensation. The scenes of binge drinking, greasy stir-fries and harmonious traffic flow cheek by jowl with meandering stairways, tiny alleys and yet to be spoilt riverside renders a relentless portrayal of the two sides of Hanoi. The use of the hustle-and-bustle sound of everyday life as the film score contrasts nicely with the escalating human alienation and the languid mood which the film exudes. Unaware of the implosion of his family and the jadedness of urban life, Bi ricochets from the ice factory to the wild grass at the riverside in a curious exploration of the world around him. While Bi’s innocent curiosity balances the heat-soaked panorama of human’s unspeakable desire, his unconsciousness of the familial dysfunction is subtly depressing. When you take into account the fact that there is no such thing as child acting profession in the backward Vietnamese film industry, Phan Thanh Minh’s refinedl performance as a child being exposed daily to the insipid world of the adults deserves the most praise.
As a debut of an ambitious director, Bi Don’t Be Afraid may strive too hard for arthouse recognition and fall into the style-with-inadequate-substance department. At times I wishes Di’s languid narrative would lift; I wish one of his adult characters showed some attempts to connect, courage, or kindness. Luckily, the authenticity, rich visual setting and nuanced performances are what keep the film from going downhill and assure enjoyment. Don’t worry if you get lost in some realist imageries or cultural barrier. This is a Hou Hsiao Hsien-esque film that emphasizes feeling over understanding and guarantees no lost in translation.