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Review: Despite Laughable Jump Scares, 'Bắc Kim Thang' Is Surprisingly Smart and Topical

With lush landscapes of the Mekong Delta as the background, Bắc Kim Thang is surprisingly wicked and intelligent, but most importantly, it provides feminist advocates a new way to topple the patriarchy: becoming a blood-spattered specter and haunting misogynists to death.

I remember too well the vivid sensations surrounding my five-year-old mind during the nights sleeping in my grandma’s cottage in Kiên Giang Province, in the Mekong Delta's deep south. During the day, the delta is a land of sparkling waterways, towering coconut trees and vast, verdant paddy fields that stretch towards the distant horizon. It’s a land of bustling commerce and kind-hearted people who are just as emotionally rich as the rivers on which they built their communities.

Once night falls, however, everything seems to take on a sinister alter ego, or at least that was what my young self cooked up in his city-slicker brain. My grandma and her neighbors followed a habitual schedule of going to bed and waking up early, so as early as 8pm, the town becomes deserted. The expansive swaths of fruit trees become home to growling spirits; the rivers, opaque with alluvium, harbor monsters who are all too eager to pull one’s legs beneath the surface — every rustling of leaves, every shift in shadows can be a misinterpreted as a sign of evil.

By capitalizing on these stark differences in atmosphere, Bắc Kim Thang, directed by Trần Hữu Tấn, seeks to subvert the common tropes associated with the Mekong Delta. In the movie, the friendly become calculated, the open-minded turn staunchly bigoted, the rich are riddled with social ills. It premiered at Busan International Film Festival in October in the A Window on Asian Cinema category and officially hit Vietnamese theaters on October 25. Despite a lack of big-name cast members, Bắc Kim Thang was a commercial success for a mature-rated feature, raking in VND30 billion within three days of opening.

The title borrows from the name of a children’s folk song, which has a tragic and supernatural back story in itself, but the kicker is that some details referenced in the lyrics also mirror those in the movie, piling on yet another macabre layer that’s lost in translation in its English title, Home Sweet Home.

The plot is set during the 1990s, and revolves around a noble family living in the Mekong Delta. Though the exact location is not specified, eagle-eyed fans would recognize the family’s mansion as one of Vinh Long’s famous old villas. Inside the majestic home, built in the French colonial style, lives a three-generation household: Thiện Tâm (Trịnh Tài), the main character, and his parents, grandpa, uncle, and two helpers. The uncle, a widower, has a daughter named Hai Lầm (Minh Hy), whose existence and disappearance is the sole tension point of the narrative.

Minh Hy plays Hai Lầm, a teenage girl who's mistreated by her family just for being female.

Both Trịnh Tài and Minh Hy are fresh faces with limited experience in cinema, but were adequate in their roles, lending an air of innocence to the pair of close-knit cousins; at the time of filming, Hy was just 15 years old. Still, the characters don’t offer a lot of material for them to showcase their acting ranges.

Picturesque Vĩnh Long appears on screen as something out of a historical novel. To reach the house, one has to travel by boat across a canal lined with cajuput trees and their spidery roots. Cinematography is a sterling point in Bắc Kim Thang, where the beauty of the villa and delta is captured with assured angles and nuance. Every detail of the building, from the imposing metal gate to balconies adorned with elaborate traditional motifs, evokes a strong sense of jaded opulence. The mansion’s condition itself serves as a metaphor of its inhabitants’ mindscape — after decades of prosperity, signs of rot have slowly crept up, subtle at first, but gradually slipping towards a climactic crash.

The set is based in an old villa in Vĩnh Long.

Even before the moral decay surfaces, the family had always been overt and unabashed in their hatred towards Hai Lầm, all for something that she has no control over: her gender. The nauseating sexism is evidenced across the movie’s duration, from childhood flashbacks to current conflicts. If Thiện Tâm, as the family’s only boy, is coddled and fussed over, Hai Lầm is brushed aside, emotionally and physically abused over trivial slip-ups. He’s allowed an education, while her request to go to school was laughed at because, “why do you want an education when you’re a girl?” The most heart-wrenching scene occurs over a dinner with all family members present. Hai Lầm, barely old enough to hold her own chopsticks, reaches for a chicken drumstick, but accidentally drops it on the floor. The mistake is met with swift admonition — a brutal smack on the forehead. She’s also berated by her aunt, Thiện Tâm’s mom, for daring to touch something reserved for the family’s cháu đích tôn, or only true heir.

Sexism is Bắc Kim Thang’s overarching theme, which is well-done with assertion and purpose. Up until the midpoint of the movie, the script is adamant in its quest to explore this ugly side of rural Vietnam, which seemingly drives Hai Lầm to her demise. The injustice is so thick and astounding that I’ve never been this passionate in rooting for the “villain” in a horror movie, and I’ve seen my fair share of teen slasher flicks. Slash their neck and drown them in alluvium, sister! The movie did such a fine job in building my sympathy for Hai Lầm and hence, bloodlust for her abusers, that the latter half, when a twist happens, catches me off guard — no spoilers though.

From left to right: Thiện Tâm, his uncle (and Hai Lầm's father), his father, and his mother.

Bắc Kim Thang is the directorial debut of Trần Hữu Tấn, whose previous works are mostly television commercials and some shorts. It’s a considerable first effort, with sleek cinematography and a smartly composed script, albeit not without shortcomings. Most of the time, Bắc Kim Thang seems to suffer from an identity crisis: it can’t decide if it wants to be a psychological thriller or horror film. This confusion results in mismatched expectations among movie-goers who came in prepared for two hours of entertainment with jump scares and mindless gore, especially after seeing its trailer.

What Bắc Kim Thang turns out to be at the end is a cautionary tale against the dark facets of the human psyche — one that could disrupt the very fabric of a person’s grasp on reality or, if fueled by greed, could drive them to the point of turning on their own blood. Sometimes, the horror lies within those to whom we’re closest. The twist is shocking, but well-written; those fond of Jordan Peele’s narrative curveballs might be happy to witness the final events unfold and every puzzle piece fall into place. This, however, renders the bloody scarecrows and ghostly apparitions doled out in the first half of the movie (and all over the trailer) rather meaningless and comically irrelevant.

The lush landscape of Vĩnh Long is captured beautifully in Bắc Kim Thang.

If visuals are a huge plus in Bắc Kim Thang’s favor, sound editing and mixing are glaring shortcomings. The film’s background music is like an excited puppy that hasn’t been taught restraint. It plows into scenes with vigor and doesn’t hold anything back. Emotional scenes are made cloying by a Korean drama-esque soundtrack, and every movement of the main character at night is accompanied by the ominous drone of dread. Any nuance used when building ambiance is undermined by an over-reliance on sound effects that are almost patronizing, as if the sound mixer doesn’t trust his audience to have the capability to detect emotional cues.

In a movie industry where local horror flicks are frequently dwarfed by their foreign counterparts, the commercial success of Bắc Kim Thang is a sanguine sign, especially when Vietnamese-made horror movies are subjected to a much more stringent vetting process than imported features. The areas in which the movie falters, be it genre confusion or sound effects, could all be improved through training and better resources. Luckily, Bắc Kim Thang has gotten one of the most crucial aspects of a good film right: a good script which challenges viewers intellectually and makes effective use of its roots in Vietnamese history and culture.

[Photos courtesy of PRODUCTIONQ via Tuoi Tre]

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