Cannes 2023 Review: INSIDE THE YELLOW COCOON SHELL, Extraordinary Debut Feature

First-time Vietnamese filmmaker Pham Thien An unspooled his stunning feature in the Director's Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival.

Contributing Writer; New Jersey, USA (@fuzzyyarns)
Cannes 2023 Review: INSIDE THE YELLOW COCOON SHELL, Extraordinary Debut Feature
For the longest time, we took it for granted that the canonical “greatest film ever made” Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, was also, stunningly, a debit feature.
It is remarkable that a new cinematic voice, in the first instance, came to us so fully formed and so well developed. Citizen Kane is not just a debut feature but a magnum opus.
There are a few other such films in history: François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, and so forth. Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, from first-time Vietnamese filmmaker Pham Thien An, is going to be added to such a list; it's a film so accomplished that it beggars belief this is a debut feature.
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell essentially invents another genre of the bildungsroman – or a coming-of-age story as we are used to seeing unfold onscreen. Through consequential events, we typically see the emotional maturation of a protagonist, moral, artistic, romantic, or even sexual. In Pham’s tale, we see the spiritual maturation of a young man Thien (Le Phong Vu) as he travels after many years from the city to the countryside, ostensibly to facilitate a family funeral. This odyssey initiates a confrontation with not just his buried memories, but with questions of faith and belief.
Directorially, Pham impresses us from the very first moments, staging an over five-minute unbroken shot to open his film. We begin on young men playing football at night at a local park. We then pan to a bustling open-air restaurant, where Thien is having dinner with his friends while having a conversation about spirituality.
The mis-en-scene is already striking in its confidence. Thien and his friends are perfectly centered, and all around them there are packed in dozens of other patrons eating, waiters hustling about, vendors selling their wares, and children playing; hundreds of extras are moving about naturalistically, all hitting their beats.
Thien’s conversation is readily audible over the loud din and chatter of a crowded city square. Suddenly there is rain and the crowd reacts very credibly, moving as one to find cover. We also suddenly hear a loud, crashing sound as an accident occurs off-screen. We pan to the bloody aftermath of a motorcycle collision as dozens of motorists zoom by. All of this in a single shot -– pay a thought to the coordination of hundreds of extras, vehicles, and the rain machine required to achieve this shot –- and this is just the opening shot.
The motor accident is the trigger that sets off the rest of the film. One of the victims is Thien’s sister-in-law (his brother’s wife), who dies on the spot. Thien’s 5-year-old nephew Dao, riding pillion with mom, surprisingly survives unscathed. Thien’s brother disappeared years ago. With no other near-of-kin on hand, Thien has to reluctantly assume command, take the dead body back to their native village for burial rites, assume temporary guardianship of his partially orphaned nephew, and locate his long-lost brother.
A lot of filmmakers throw in a lengthy one-take shot into their film to create an eye-catching opening or ending scene or have one stand-out sequence that shows off their directorial chops. For Pham, the “long take” from the opening is not a tool arbitrarily and capriciously applied, but part of his overall aesthetic for the film.
In a remarkable feat, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is composed of only 69 shots across its lengthy three-hour runtime, for an average shot length of about two and a half minutes. By comparison, the average Hollywood film features over 2000 shots and an average shot length of about three seconds.
Besides the opening shot, a dozen other shots last for five minutes or longer. Pham shows an extraordinary level of staging refinement, as it takes immense rigor and skill to compose such a lengthy film in such few shots. Filmmakers known for their masterful use of long takes, like Michael Haneke or Bela Tarr, were able to perfect their technique over several films during their long careers. And here you have a first-time director showing significant mastery in his debut feature.
The film’s most talked-about “long take” is sure to be the bravura 24-minute shot that begins 40 minutes in. Whenever a film switches from one location to another, the filmmaker has a quick and easy tool at their disposal to transport characters and viewers: editing. With a cut, you are in a brand new location. Some filmmakers, daringly, don’t take the simple route and have the camera physically move from one location to the next for the subsequent scene. We have seen films as diverse as Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void and Bi Gan’s Long Day's Journey Into Night employ this method to powerful effect. We now have Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell following suit.
During a lengthy conversation, Thien’s cousin tasks him to go and speak with the village shroud-maker, Mr. Luu. Thien’s cousin lends him his motorbike too to go see Mr. Luu. It would be easy to cut from Thien’s conversation with his cousin to his conversation with Mr. Luu.
Remarkably, after Thien finishes his conversation with his cousin and gets on the bike, Pham’s camera follows Thien on the bike, traveling behind him on the road, for the entire journey over mountainous terrain, until they reach Mr. Luu’s house and then, for good measure, the camera climbs from the outside into Mr. Luu’s house through the window and turns a full 360 degrees through the rest of the scene. It’s one of the rare times the movies still make you think to yourself, 'How on earth did they do that?!'
Pham isn’t dogmatic about his use of long takes, though. Among the 69 shots that comprise Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, more than half are shorter than a minute or mere inserts. So while the film primarily is shot in long shots, it is isn’t unreasonably done, and Pham feels at perfect liberty using shorter shots as needed for specific moments in the film.
Another feather in Pham’s cap is the absolutely stunning verisimilitude he is able to muster up on the screen. This is a filmmaker using his cultural heritage to powerful and transfixing effect on screen. All the vibrant life of Vietnam is packed into Pham’s carefully composed frames.
Interiors are detailed, cramped, and crowded, overflowing with objects and people. Exteriors pay homage to the rich beauty of the Vietnamese rainforests. These aren’t just mere wonders of great production design, these are real, living, breathing locations captured in all their vitality by a talented filmmaker. Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell overflows with life for a film superficially about death.
Pham never takes the easy route. His scenes often include children, animals, natural elements like rain and wind, and large crowds of extras, all things difficult to direct that first-time filmmakers usually avoid. Likewise, narratively, he takes the route less traveled as he sets his story within the Christian minority in Vietnam, showing their customs and beliefs in extended funeral ceremonies. This is a searching, grasping film, willing to engage with the mysteries that confound and beguile us.
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell will invite comparisons to Thai maestro Apichatpong Weerasethakul and for once these comparisons will be merited. This extraordinary, remarkable debut feature heralds a bold, accomplished new voice in Asian cinema, someone we are sure to encounter again on the biggest stages of the world.
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell premiered in the Director's Fortnight section at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.
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CannesInside The Yellow Cocoon ShellPham Thien AnVietnam

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