BackArts & Culture » Film & TV » Review: In 'Đêm Tối Rực Rỡ!,' Watch a Fraught Family Disintegrate During a Funeral

Review: In 'Đêm Tối Rực Rỡ!,' Watch a Fraught Family Disintegrate During a Funeral

If a family is like a broken leg, does healing it require a more painful break? Đêm Tối Rực Rỡ! (The Brilliant Darkness!) grapples with this question by thrusting characters into a situation that exposes festering wounds in desperate need of attention. 

Trigger warning: domestic abuse and violence.

Inspired by a movie adaptation of the play Long Day’s Journey into the Night by Eugene O'Neill, Đêm Tối Rực Rỡ! takes place over the course of a single evening as a Saigon family gathers for their grandfather’s funeral. Revelations of the father having squandered their fortunes emerge and his children must confront decades of trauma as loan sharks threaten to collect what they are owed, in money or blood, by sunrise. The film proceeds to throw audiences “into the crazy world of Vietnamese funerals and families,” director Aaron Toronto explained, where the stakes couldn’t be higher. 

Toàn (in blue), the family's patriarch, faces the consequences of his decisions.

The film won Best Story and Best Female Performance (for lead actress Nhã Uyên) at the Sante Fe Film Festival in the United States where it was first screened in February, though it has always been intended for Vietnamese audiences, who will be able to see it when it opens on April 8 across the country. Saigoneer sat down with Toronto several weeks before the Vietnamese premier to learn about the making of the film and the response he hopes it receives.

At its core, Đêm Tối Rực Rỡ! examines how individuals are affected by years of physical and emotional abuse. Eldest daughter Xuân Thanh, her elder brother, Kim Hoàng, and younger sister, Kim Bảo, have all coped and responded in their own ways to suffering through childhoods filled with mental and physical violence at the hands of their father Toàn, and the funeral forces them to face their pasts and one another as never before. 

Behind the scenes.

The film is set during a very southern funeral ceremony with raucous singing, performances, drinking and gambling juxtaposing the somber matter of death. Even though the production team consisted of many southern Vietnamese, they had to do significant research to ensure that all the details surrounding funeral traditions and family dynamics were accurate. The need for deep and truthful depictions of people and customs was especially important given that Toronto is American and, despite speaking Vietnamese fluently and having lived here for more than a decade and a half, anticipates some pushback from audiences about the ability of an outsider to faithfully capture Vietnamese society.

Uyên, Toronto’s wife and Đêm Tối Rực Rỡ!’s lead actor, served as co-writer of the film, which resulted in a productive “yin-yang” dynamic wherein Uyên was able to draw on her own life experiences, along with the entire Vietnamese film crew, to “fill the glass” created by Toronto’s knowledge of scriptwriting and experience filming and producing, he says. He notes that a good actor like her “will know the character better than the director,” and indeed her fantastic performance serves as the emotional core of the movie, highlighted by one particularly graphic and drawn-out scene. Without giving away any spoilers, Toronto said it was designed to make viewers feel “trapped and threatened,” consistent with the entire movie’s ability to make viewers understand what it is like to experience mental illness.

Director and co-writer Aaron Toronto on set (left) and leading actress and co-writer Nhã Uyên between shots (right).

“They’re always criticizing, always hitting and calling it love,” Xuân poignantly says midway through the movie when describing her family. Such a statement will resonate with many viewers, as recent data from 2019 suggests that two in three children in Vietnam face physical abuse from family members. But until recently, the subject was rarely discussed in public discourse. Several high-profile domestic abuse cases seem to be changing that, and the release of Đêm Tối Rực Rỡ!, which was filmed in 2019 but delayed by the global pandemic, gains added relevancy in that context.

Physical violence depicted in a flashback scene.

The film also portrays mental health in a nuanced and responsible way. Xuân’s mother’s claim — “depression is just a sickness in your head, you gotta be strong and just get over it” — not only contrasts with what we know from observing Xuân’s behavior, but aligns with old-fashioned but unfortunately persistent beliefs regarding mental illnesses. Acknowledging violence and mental health more openly is necessary to remove the stigmas that stand in the way of addressing the issues, and works of art like Đêm Tối Rực Rỡ! are amongst the most effective means of doing so. 

A spoiled, materialistic eldest son who takes advantage of his role in the family; a daughter who escapes her past and home literally and figuratively; and a husband who treats his children like pawns in a divorce: the characters in Đêm Tối Rực Rỡ! could come across as caricatures if not so carefully crafted and convincingly acted. And audiences may react to them and the film’s plot developments in different ways depending on their own experiences. For example, if a viewer does not have a man in his or her life who resembles the abusive, gambling-addict father, they may view him as a simple villain deserving of punishment. But if they see him as he was written, as someone similar to the people they might have in their families, the responses become more nuanced and complicated; he might become a person worthy of salvation, not simple condemnation. 

A scene of abuse that may be all too familiar for audiences.

Toronto admits that, for him, a message is the purpose of storytelling: “It's why we watch movies; its why we’ve told each other stories for thousands of years…we listen to stories to learn how to be a good human, how to live a good life.” Đêm Tối Rực Rỡ!’s intentional lessons regarding what splinters and what mends families do not relegate the movie to the category of a Disney-esque fairytale, however. Rather, the complex characters with flaws and virtues reflective of real-world individuals help Toronto and Uyên point a mirror at society, while also revealing what positive changes are possible. He explains, “The key is showing it, and showing it in a way that is believable, and saying ‘this is life.’ And as long as you can show life in a believable, realistic way…It won’t feel didactic, it won’t feel preachy.” 

While Toronto and Uyên have had various roles in film and theatre productions, this is the first work that they say feels like “ours.” Self-produced with funding from investors outside the film industry, it will allow the couple to “live or die based on our aesthetic, based on our artist decisions, based on our work of art. And this is it, this is us, this is the best that we have to offer.” 

Saigon adds poignant texture to the film.

Success for Đêm Tối Rực Rỡ! would mean that they will be able to make another movie, as “all filmmakers make their first film as a calling card to open doors,” Toronto says. Success might also mean that some viewers feel that a voice is being lent to what they have been unable to say or to hear. One thus hopes that this is just the first of many works they release, alongside other notable Vietnamese movies that continue to explore realistic and important real-world subjects with grace and urgency.

Official movie poster via Đêm Tối Rực Rỡ!'s Facebook page.

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