At The Height Of Summer Review
Watching a Tran Anh Hung film you become immersed in the world he presents, in the lush, enveloping warmth of slowly unfolding scenes and languid pans of the camera. After the technicolour nightmare blitz on the senses of Cyclo (1995), At The Height of Summer (A la verticale de l'été/US Title: The Vertical Ray of the Sun) returns to the seductive meditation of the Vietnamese director’s first film, Scent Of The Green Papaya(1993).
Three sisters get together with their families to commemorate the anniversary of their mother’s death. The sisters are close and good friends with each other, however each of them has a secret they don’t share with the others. A month later, when they come to commemorate the death of their father, events have pushed these secrets to the fore and they can no longer be hidden. At the beginning of the film, they discuss whether their mother may have had a relationship with another man, but they decide not to investigate and pry any further. Some things are best left unknown. The same sense of propriety is applied to each of their lives – one sister who is having an affair will not even speak to her lover, as if refusing to speak to him will make the infidelity less real. Such is the nature of this self-delusion that the director has commented that several people working on the film refused to believe that married Vietnamese women would have affairs.
The secrets are revealed slowly at a leisurely pace. The slow languid procession of images is so beautiful that I found myself having to rewind the DVD on occasions because I found I had been swept along with the flow and feel of the film and had forgotten to read the subtitles. With some films this would be a disadvantage, showing that the plot is not holding you, but in this case it is simply that the film is very visual and relies as much on the pace and flow of images as in dialogue or the plot.
A frequent criticism directed against Tran Anh Hung is that his films don’t represent what it is really like to live in Vietnam, but this is clearly missing the point. The same criticism is never levelled against British or American directors - I’m sure no-one believes that life in Britain is like a Guy Ritchie film - so why should a foreign director be so constrained to depict political or social realism? Tran Anh Hung’s films are an impressionist vision of Vietnam (the director was born there, but lives in France) and it is one that has a certain resonance of heightened reality. As such, Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Li Ping-bing, whose stunning photography and colour schemes contributed to the impressionist feel of an idealised Hong Kong of the memory in In The Mood For Love, is the perfect choice to depict Tran Anh Hung’s vision of Hanoi.
The anamorphic 1.85:1 picture is almost perfect. The screen glows with colour and close-ups show fine detail. There is barely a mark on the print. I’m slightly disappointed that the subtitles are not removable, but this is a minor quibble as I doubt I’ll ever watch the film without the subtitles. As they are, the subtitles are well sized and readable and are not burned into the print.
The sound is straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0, which is fine and carries the soundtrack very effectively. A film like this however, that is absolutely drenched in atmosphere would benefit greatly from a surround-soundtrack (the French and Asian editions of the film both have Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks), so it is a little disappointing that we only have DD 2.0 on the UK release. The musical score, consisting of tracks by Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground and Arab Strap are perfect for the mood of the film and work well alongside traditional songs. This film sounds very, very cool and laid-back.
The Trailer looks fine and is presented in anamorphic widescreen. As usual with Artificial Eye releases, we have a useful and interesting Text Interview with the director and a Filmography. The Making Of Documentary is quite substantial. No explanations or interviews, just images showing the set-up and filming of certain scenes. I must admit though, I only watched 5 minutes and played the rest in fast-forward myself as I don’t see any need for showing how the film was made. Some people like this feature however, and as Making Of features go, it is better than most studio-produced back-slapping featurettes, so it is nice to have it included. Personally though, I would have preferred doing without the extras and having a 5.1 soundtrack on the film and removable subtitles.
Tran Anh Hung’s films are a bit of an acquired taste, but they are always worth watching. He doesn’t make films with conventional plots and pacing, but this gives his films a unique and distinctive character. Fresh, original and beguiling it may be, but there is nothing particularly inspiring about At The Height Of Summer. Certain images from the film linger long in the memory however, and it is a film that you are likely to return to to savour the atmosphere once again.