Behind The Scenes: Director Pham Thien An On Crafting A Three-Hour Cinematic Masterpiece | Vietcetera
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Jun 29, 2023

Behind The Scenes: Director Pham Thien An On Crafting A Three-Hour Cinematic Masterpiece

In a conversation with Pham Thien An, the director who won the Camera D'or at Cannes for his first motion picture, we talk about his personal journey and the filmmaking style he has been developing.
Behind The Scenes: Director Pham Thien An On Crafting A Three-Hour Cinematic Masterpiece

Director Pham Thien An. | Source: Ka Nguyen

“In ‘Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell,’ I sought to scrutinize the tangible journey of a man reconnecting with his past through his return to his hometown. This voyage unveils his inner struggle, torn between the neglected faith and a profound dissatisfaction with his present life.”

Did you expect to win the Camera D'or at Cannes when you were selected for the Director's Fortnight?

The Camera D’or victory was entirely unforeseen. The film has surpassed my wildest expectations.

I told my film crew that we had already achieved success by completing the film. So being selected to join this year’s Director’s Fortnight line-up was a tremendous honor for us, not to mention winning an award.

This award reaffirms my commitment to this particular style of filmmaking. However, this rapid recognition may greatly influence my subsequent work.

Hence, I associate this award with the film, hoping it will push its boundaries further. Meanwhile, I intend to revisit my initial passion for cinema and continue to nurture it.

As the writer and director of 'Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell,' can you explain the title’s meaning and significance?

The ‘yellow cocoon shell’ fundamentally symbolizes the societal exterior that each individual portrays - the tangible aspects that draw them into the relentless pursuit of worldly success. Contrarily, the caterpillar inside the shell symbolizes each person's soul.

The film’s narrative traces the journey of a forgotten soul who grapples with his internal world. He struggles to break free from the cocoon of societal temptations and prejudices, transforming into a new individual, authentic to his true self.

What difficulties did you face and what motivated you to make a three-hour-long film with confidence?

Finding the right setting was the most challenging part because it profoundly influenced the film. I could refine the script, scenes, and film rhythm based on the setting.

Director Pham Thien An. | Source: Ka Nguyen

Initially, when I decided to use long takes and limit the number of shots, the film’s lengthy runtime was inevitable. In fact, the film’s first cut was 3 hours 40 minutes long. But my unwavering belief kept me on track.

The creative team played a crucial role in the film's success, particularly DOP Dinh Duy Hung, who received high praise for his exceptional cinematic vision. Can you provide more information about the team?

Making a film with a small group of friends gave me a great sense of freedom. We learned a lot from each other.

At the end of the film, team members told me that they had learned so much from this project, things they hadn’t realized when working on other projects. That made me happy.

I believe everyone has unique strengths and special energy that can lead to achieving something miraculous. The film was successful because every person involved put in their best efforts and passion. Sure, the self-improvement process wasn’t without challenges, and some even quit along the way.

However, the remaining members of the team are grateful and feel lucky to have met and worked together. Although we’re not professional filmmakers, our youth and eagerness to learn have helped us mature through this project, affirming we’re on the right track and constantly moving forward.

Duy Hung and I have been close friends since childhood. We understand each other well, even without much verbal communication, especially when it comes to cinema. We both share the belief of using real-life settings to create composition and camera movements. In every frame, we tried to achieve the most simplicity and naturalness possible.

Cinematic language is crucial for directors, especially those dedicated to art films, as it helps shape their unique style. How does cinematic language play a role in your work, and can you tell us more about your style?

From the get-go, in my artistic approach, I’ve aspired to create my film by leveraging long takes, slow or static camera movements, and using as few shots as possible. Each frame is a pursuit of simplicity and authenticity.

This approach was chosen with a purpose - to provide the audience with space and time to freely observe, choose, and wait. This freedom allows the imagery to penetrate deeper into the viewers' minds, making them oblivious to the camera’s presence, hence delivering the characters and the story naturally.

Director Pham Thien An. | Source: Ka Nguyen

Occasionally, I’ve had to supplement dialogues or adjust the script on set to suit the environment and any constraints present at the time, like weather, natural light conditions, materials, people, and all sorts of spontaneity that might emerge then. This mode of expression allows me to highlight the contrast between human existence and the natural world, the universe.

Sound, in my perspective, carries an equal weight as visuals. Visuals introduce viewers to the world inside the film, while sound leads them deeper into the character’s psyche. It could emanate from various sources like the ambiance, footsteps, breaths, musical instruments, objects, bodily sounds, or even silence.

In a certain sense, the sound immerses the viewers into the film's reality, guiding them through a spectrum of emotions.

With my approach of favoring long takes, I constantly search for a unique and primary sound source in each frame.

Lastly, my artistic viewpoint on casting. I prefer non-professional actors who are local to the film’s shooting location. They bring distinctive traits through their voice, gestures, posture, physical features, professions, and perhaps even their past experiences.

Prior to being on set, I allow them plenty of time to acquaint themselves and form relationships, with minimal interference from me during this period.

When we’re on set, they are given ample time to rehearse in front of the camera. It’s at this juncture that I delve deeper into their performances, focusing on their voice, timing of their dialogues, body language, gestures, physical movements, facial expressions, and eye contact.

Which art cinema directors have had the greatest influence on your work?

I’ve drawn influence from many directors, such as Luis Buñuel from Spain, Japan’s Kenji Mizoguchi, Theo Angelopoulos from Greece, Bela Tarr from Hungary, and Russia’s Andrei Tarkovsky.

I suspect that directors like Bi Gan have experienced similar influences. Hence, in a way, we're all borrowing and repeating, given the long existence of cinema.

Director Pham Thien An. | Source: Ka Nguyen

What deeper meanings are conveyed through the journey of the main characters, Thiện and his nephew Đạo, in this film?

To shed light on this query, I'd like to present an excerpt from a note about the film:

“I hail from a serene rural town where the main livelihood is industrial tree farming. The populace of this region typically starts their day early with a church mass. As dusk falls, they congregate to offer prayers, express gratitude to God after a day's hard work, and reserve some quiet moments for introspection.

I moved to Saigon for education and work in my younger years. Without realizing it, I got embroiled in a futile rat race, cyclically chasing money and success. The end result was an overwhelming sense of disappointment, confusion, and restlessness.

To break free, I recognized the need for wisdom, transformation into a new version of myself, and live authentically. I had to confront the hollow temptations that initially trapped me into this perpetual cycle.”

Source: Ka Nguyen

Through ‘Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell,’ I aim to illustrate how a man’s physical journey back to his roots helps him reconnect with his past. His homecoming uncovers an inner struggle - a dichotomy between the faith he has overlooked and his current life, brimming with dissatisfaction.

This journey mirrors various aspects of the human soul, the constant yearning for something we can never truly attain. It is interconnected with our aspirations, passions, and the inevitable reality of death.

In the face of the relentless pace of contemporary society, we all are drawn toward spirituality. Questioning one's place in this vast universe is inescapable regardless of faith or lack thereof.

How do Vietnamese culture and its backdrop influence your filmmaking?

Vietnamese culture and context play a significant role in all my creative endeavors. I consistently strive to explore and represent them in the most minimalistic and organic way.

The theme of my subsequent film will still revolve around faith, portraying different human circumstances in modern society. Through slow, extensive shots, I intend to highlight nature’s cultural beauty and sublime portrayal.

Lastly, what insights do you wish to impart to the budding Vietnamese filmmakers, particularly the independent and art film directors, who have to navigate through a myriad of challenges, sometimes even at their own expense?

My message is simple: if your films are crafted with honesty and enthusiasm, the film’s success will undoubtedly follow.