Review: Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere (Nguyen, 2014) – SFIFF 2015

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

The San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) is full of interesting directorial debuts this year, and Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere, which won Best Debut Film at the Venice Film Festival, is no exception. Vietnamese director Diep Hoang Nguyen tells the story of young Huyen (Thuy Anh Nguyen), a university student, who finds out that she is pregnant by her sometimes affectionate, sometimes asshole boyfriend Tung (Ha Hoang). Unable to rely on her shiftless, criminal partner, Huyen desperately seeks the cash to pay for an abortion, finally–with the advice of her crossdressing best friend Linh (Duy Thanh)–making a foray into prostitution. She is fortunate in her first (and only) client, Hoang (Bao Son Tran), who is handsome, wealthy, and tender–everything, it seems, her boyfriend is not.

But Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere is no Pretty Woman. Set in heat-stifled Hanoi, the film, permeated by scenes of casual violence, has an undeniably dark quality. Though Huyen seems curiously unbothered by it, her world is difficult and sinister, peopled by lecherous professors, heartless nurses, and thieving boyfriends. Hoang seems to be her only stroke of good luck. But his appearance in the movie marks a sharp change in the film’s tone–from gritty realism to sordid fantasy. On their “dates,” Hoang makes Huyen feel beautiful and treasured, but he also brings her to eerie, unreal-seeming places. (In one scene, they float together in a large plastic sphere in the middle of a placid lake. Then, suddenly, she is in the ball alone.) Though nothing occurs that could be considered supernatural, there is still a dreamy (often disturbing) tinge to their time together.

The film never suggests that Huyen is actually inventing Hoang–so much of her “real” life (with Linh and Tung) refers to him–but he clearly represents an element of Huyen’s psyche, one bogged down (or lifted up?) by impossibly romantic thoughts of escape. Unfortunately, from a plot perspective, the introduction of Hoang and the subsequent scenes feel a bit disjointed and random and wilfully naive. (Aside: I am always made uncomfortable by glorifications of prostitution; they seem irresponsible to me. On the other hand, I would hate for art to be censored by any kind of morality police…)

Though not altogether successful, director Nguyen’s experimentation marks her as a bold talent, one who is not afraid to innovate and to obscure. And, if nothing else, we can take pleasure in her lush, visually compelling cinematography. For an unconventional film with the courage to aim high, check out Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere at SFIFF this year. Screenings are at Japantown’s Sundance Kabuki theaters on Saturday, April 25; Monday, April 27; and Saturday, May 2.