An is the main character of the Doan Gioi novel Song of the South. The Vietnamese author tapped into the spirit of adventure when he wrote about a son’s quest to meet his father. The emotional journey has a very interesting backdrop: the strife between the French army and the rebel army. The new Netflix film adapts the novel and tries to create a cinematic equivalent of An’s journey, and it works in most parts, especially when dealing with An’s story.
The novel was the foundation for the TV series in 1997, which was quite a hit in Vietnam, and it’s no surprise that Quang Dung Nguyen has tried to tell the story again by directing this film. The film immediately reminded me of stories that are quite profound, usually because of the journey of the protagonist. The coming-of-age aspect of the film is reminiscent of films like Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. The film does not emphasize the loss of innocence as much as it tries to capture the spirit of adventure, which is evident in how the story treats An and Lam’s friendship.
The characters are introduced in such a way that it feels like we know them from before. That may be because of the fact that the TV series featured the same characters. But it didn’t feel jarring at all. Lam and An gradually became friends after An’s mother’s death, while the historical background was made clear to us. Lam is a thief, and he is shown to be such a vile fellow that he doesn’t miss the opportunity to steal from the dead, but the goodness in him does not allow him to abandon An. There is a Jack Sparrow kind of aspect to Lam, and he is portrayed brilliantly by Tuan Tran. A carefree attitude, manipulative tendency, and selfish nature are what make Lam an interesting character, at least for exploring on the screen. An is played by Huynh Hao Khang, who exudes innocence, or, let’s say, naivety, which is brilliant for the role, as his face resembles one of those kids who have been pampered a lot, protected from the harshness of the world. All that works for the character, as An was supposed to have grown away from the reality of what his father truly was—the rebel leader.
Apart from Lam and An, the other characters in the film aren’t that interesting, and they are embroiled in a totally different adventure, that of fighting the French army. The historical details are necessary for giving An’s adventure the required stakes, but they get too isolated from An. The connection between the rebels and An is his father Thanh, who appears at the very end of the film, when we get to find out that there may be a second part of this saga. The severance of Tieu’s story, who gets into trouble fighting the French army, is the part of the film that loses the spirit of adventure. The story becomes plot-driven as Lam and An start acting like typical Hollywood heroes in an action film, trying to save the day.
The movie feels emotionally engaging only when we are fully immersed in An’s journey. After his mother’s death, we started to care for the boy and started to root for him, hoping that one day he would meet his father. Lam becomes sort of his elder brother or friend, who teaches him how to survive in this cruel world. Because of the frivolous nature of Lam’s character, the film remains pretty light on its feet. It’s only when it pivots towards a darker tale of espionage, betrayal, and murder that it starts to lose the audience. The point of view shifts, and the darker events are not organically connected to An. I feel everything in the movie had to be tethered to An’s story, and the story suffers when it isn’t. Perhaps the pacing of the film would have made sense if the second part was viewed immediately, but in the end, there is a feeling of being shortchanged. It was the same feeling I had with Dune: Part One.
The effort taken to create an authentic portrayal of French-occupied Vietnam is commendable. There is enough attention paid to the joys of childhood and the activities kids would do in this period drama. That is a hard thing to remember in this age of iPads and smartphones. There are some mesmerizing shots in the film that wonderfully evoke the feeling of grief and its interpretation by the innocent children, especially An. The film uses some standard techniques, like making an object emotionally important, which later helps with all kinds of foreshadowing. The dialogue in the film is quite catchy, as it is precise and profound.
The journey is yet not complete, and the film explicitly mentions this. As a standalone feature, Song of the South manages to evoke the nostalgia of a time gone by, even though I have never been to Vietnam. It’s the universality of the growing-up years, when one doesn’t know what the future holds. The music by Duc Tri is befitting, as it works wonders with the swooning cinematography by Diep The Vinh. The action scenes in the film are very wisely used, which is why it never feels like an action thriller.
Song of the South is made with a lot of care, but it is rushed towards the end. The transition from the vagabond life to a life of discipline, symbolized by An’s friendship with Lam and then his tutelage under Tieu, felt unmotivated and forced. It looked like there was no way of finding a coherent way to tell the story through An’s point of view, which cost the film in the end. Those who are familiar with the world of the rebels and the French might understand or may even get thrilled with the rebels’ subplot. But for someone like me, I would have easily watched Lam and An find interesting ways to rob the rich and survive. I don’t know when the next part will be released. Perhaps the two parts seen together will have much more of an impact by juxtaposing the rebels’ story with An’s quest. But An is the soul of the story, and I would like to see things from his point of view as he faces the incoming challenges in his life.