Cu li Never Cries (2024) Berlinale 2024

February 20th, 2024
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Pham Ngoc Lan | Cast: Minh Châu, Hà Phương, Xuân An, Hoàng Hà, Cao Sang Vietnam / Singapore / France / Philippines / Norway 2024 Vietnamese, Subtitles: English

This lyrical black & white drama from Vietnam explores the nation’s past and present from the intergenerational perspective of a young woman and her widowed aunt who has just returned home after living in Germany. In her luggage Auntie Cu li carries a Pygmy Slow Loris, an indigenous primate from the Vietnamese rainforest, inherited from her dead husband. One strangely touching scene sees Cu Li dancing in a bar with a waiter and the Pygmy loris, the tiny animal seems to embody the essence of this proud nation, fiercely defending itself while remaining graceful to the end. 

Cu Li’s young niece, who lives with her, is preparing for her wedding. The two argue bitterly about the usual intergenerational conflicts. Meanwhile her kids and the monkey look on, a picture of guileless vulnerability. Another contrast between the strength and vulnerability of an oriental nation that has born the brunt of many conflicts. 

“The present keeps bringing us back to the past” opines Cu li.  She quotes the 1960s communist president Ho Chi Min (1945-69) known as ‘uncle’ who said of the Black River (that runs from China to North Western Vietnam): “We must transform the water from foe into ally – our final purpose is to tame the river”. At this point Cu li is pictured scattering her husband’s ashes into the raging waters.

While the young couple anxiously ponders their uncertain future together (Cu Li’s niece is already pregnant with another child), Cu li invites the waiter to be her partner at the wedding, offering him money. The waiter is concerned about being seen as her toy boy, and the Pygmy Loris once again appears to echo all this anxiety – a tiny but potent little animal capable of killing with the toxin that spurts from its elbows when in danger, while outwardly exuding grace and innocence.

A brief running time plays to the film’s advantage along with a simple soundscape of exotic birdsong and imaginative outdoor locations captured in DoP magical monochrome camerawork. In his enchanting feature debut Pham Ngoc Lan expresses the hopes, fears and regrets of his homeland in an often surreal, understated and tender gem. @MeredithTaylor


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