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Missing in Action on the Side

Adrift (2009)

The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

Vietnamese director Bui Thac Chuyên’s second feature “Adrift” is an introspective and thoughtful study of loneliness, sexual desire and experimentation. Mismatched relationships lie at the heart of the picture, which centers around newlywed Duyen (an understated Do Thi Hai Yen) and her dalliances with her young disinterested husband Hai (Nguyen Duy Khoa), solemn friend Cam (Pham Linh Dan) and mysterious alpha male Tho (a rugged Johnny Nguyen).

Duyen is young, beautiful and newly married, yet her best friend Cam didn’t come to her wedding and she spends her wedding night looking after her paralytic husband while her meddling mother-in-law flitters around trying to take control. As it transpires, Hai’s driving job leaves him exhausted and seemingly unable to consummate his marriage, preferring to spend his time sleeping. Unsatisfied and seemingly stuck in a loveless marriage, Duyen seeks solace and advice from the jealous Cam who delivers her into the arms of highly sexed Tho. Phan Dang Di’s deliberately ambiguous screenplay ensures that it’s difficult to determine the motivations of his characters, particularly Cam and Tho, while Thai Dung Ly’s wonderfully rich photography lends “Adrift” a certain intimacy and every interaction a degree of subtlety and importance. Coupled with Mr. Bui’s leisurely pace of direction, it makes for compelling viewing.

As Duyen begins to see parallels between her own relationship with Hai and her grandparents’ apparently unhappy marriage, she explores her burgeoning sexuality by going away with Tho, perhaps against her better judgment. Hai meanwhile betrays his youthful innocence, rejecting the offer of a prostitute but enjoying the company of a young neighbor. As Duyen once again turns to Cam, it becomes apparent after sensing Duyen’s sadness that she utilized Tho as a source of sexual enlightenment. The contrast between Duyen’s and Hai’s explorations of their sexual desires is stark and emphasizes the fact that despite their marriage they are virtually strangers.

Tonally it’s melancholy and wistful, while a sparse screenplay, Mr. Bui’s deliberate direction and solid performances from an unassuming cast give the picture a measured feel. “Adrift” is well crafted; but more pertinently, it’s a beautiful and considered tale of the consequences of boredom, longing and a lack of fulfillment.


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