Finding context the most challenging aspect: Director Phạm Thiên Ân on his award-winning movie

June 07, 2023 - 10:04
Freelance journalist Lê Hồng Lâm interviews Phạm Thiên Ân, director of movie Bên Trong Vỏ Kén Vàng (Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell) which won the Camera D'or award at Cannes Film Festival last month.
Director Phạm Thiên Ân at the 76th Cannes International Film Festival. — AFP/VNA Photo

Phạm Thiên Ân's movie Bên Trong Vỏ Kén Vàng (Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell) won the Camera D'or award at Cannes Film Festival last month.

Freelance journalist Lê Hồng Lâm interviews Director Ân about his journey and the cinematic style he pursues.

After a few years of pursuing your dream of making movies, how does this award affect you?

Winning Camera D'or (Golden Camera) was completely out of my expectations. The movie has gone far beyond what I could have imagined. When the movie was finished, I told my colleagues that we had succeeded. Being selected for the Director's Fortnight is so incredible and proud, and winning the award is unbelievable.

The award helps me affirm that this style of filmmaking is the right way for me. However, this award seems to come too quickly, and will significantly affect the next film. Therefore, I leave this award attached to the film and hope it will go further, but I will try to go back to the beginning to continue with my love of cinema.

The movie title evokes many metaphors and thoughts about the suppression that needs to be released from within. As a writer and director, can you suggest something about this title?

The essence of the golden cocoon is a metaphor for each person's cover in society, which is carnal, pulling humans into the hustle and bustle of society to find wealth and success. Inside the cocoon is the image of the pupa, symbolising the soul of each person.

Throughout the film, the main character is a forgotten soul, who struggles in the inner world to transform himself, get out of the shell of temptations and social prejudices, and become a new person of his true self.

What was the most difficult and what inspired you the most to be confident enough to be able to make a movie three hours long?

The most difficult thing is to find the right context because the context is what determines a lot about the movie. Based on the context, I can perfect the script, the setting, and the rhythm of the movie.

At first, when I chose to use long shots and limit the number of shots, the length of the film was inevitable. Actually, the original cut of the movie was 3 hours and 40 minutes.

What kept me going to keep making this movie is probably faith.

The creative team certainly made a significant contribution to the film's success, especially director of photography Đinh Duy Hưng, who along with you was highly appreciated by critics for his cinematic vision. Can you share more about them?

Making the film with a small group of friends made me feel really free and it is true that we learned a lot from each other.

At the end of the movie, people in the group told me that they learned a lot of things during the making of the film that they didn't realise when working on other projects. I am happy about that.

I believe that everyone has their own strengths and special energy to accomplish something miraculous. I think the film is successful when the people who made the film had made full use of their abilities and enthusiasm. Of course, in the process of self-improvement, there will be many difficulties and sometimes there are people who give up.

But now the rest of the group always feels lucky and grateful to have the chance to meet and work together. Even though we are amateur filmmakers, our youth and curiosity have helped us grow up in this project, and we realise we are on the right track to go further.

Duy Hưng and I have been close friends since childhood, we don't need to communicate much, but we understand each other very well through the language of cinema. We all share the same view that we rely on the actual context to create compositions and camera movement. We strive to be as minimal and natural as possible in every frame.

Cinematic language plays a big role in creating a director's personal style, especially for directors who pursue art-house films. With you, what role does the cinematic language play? Can you share more about your personal style?

From an artistic point of view, from the beginning, I set my ambitions by using long shots, slow motion, or still cameras, and using as few shots as possible to create the film. I always try to be as minimal and natural as possible in every frame.

The reason I choose this approach is because I want to create space and time for viewers to freely observe, choose, and wait. This allows the images to go deeper into the viewers' mind and make them forget the presence of the camera. Therefore, the characters and the story conveyed will come naturally.

Sometimes I also have to add lines and change the script of the movie during the "on-set" process to fit the context and due to limitations at that time such as weather, natural lighting conditions, materials, people, or all the random occurrences at that time. This expression allows me to show the contrast between man's position in relation to nature and the universe.

As for sound, for me, image and sound are equally important. The visuals let the viewers enter the world in the movie, the sound will push them deeper into the character's inner self.

With a visual approach using many long shots, I always had to find within each frame a key source of sound and a distinctive signature.

Sound comes from many different sources such as environmental sounds, footsteps, breathing sounds, musical instruments, object sounds, body sounds, and silence.

In a way, the sound is what immerses the viewers in the reality of the film, leading them through many levels of emotions.

Finally, the artistic view of the actor. My criteria for selecting actors are amateur actors, originating from the locality where I shoot, with a characteristic from voice, gestures, posture, body features, profession, and possibly memories of their own past.

Before the "onset" time I let them have plenty of time to get to know each other and build a relationship between them, I don't interfere too much at the moment.

When "onset", I give them a lot of time to practise in front of the camera, only then do I deeply intervene in acting such as voice, dialogue time, posture, gestures, body movements, facial expressions, and eyes.

In cinema, who is the director that influenced you the most?

I think I am influenced by many directors such as Luis Buñuel (Spain), Kenji Mizoguchi (Japan), Theo Angelopoulos (Greece), Bela Tarr (Hungary), and Andrei Tarkovsky (Russia).

I believe directors like China's Bi Gan were influenced by the same influence as me so we are all borrowed and repeated, cinema has been around for so long. — VNS