Monday, February 28, 2011

TV Bites: Vertical Ray of the Sun (Mua he chieu thang dung)

Cha Ca Ha Noi (Grilled Fish Hanoi-Style w/Rice Noodles & Herbs)

Well, I made it to Vietnam.

There are some films that change your life, sometimes in big ways and sometimes in small ways. For at least a year after first seeing Vertical Ray of the Sun (also known as Summer Solstice, and/or At the Height of the Summer), I began adding to my morning ritual listening to Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes" first thing as I did my morning stretches as do two characters in the movie. I was having a particularly stressful bump in my life and the harmony I found in that ritual truly helped smooth it out for me. I still occasionally return to it as a great song to greet the day. So I thank Tran in that way for making this film.

Vertical Ray of the Sun is available for purchase @ Amazon.


Kien: "It's about an encounter. Usually, that happens at the beginning or in the middle. But here, it's at the end. The protagonist meets a woman. I want to write it concisely and end abruptly."

So speaks the character of Kien, an author, in Vertical Ray of the Sun. But it is clearly the voice of the filmmaker describing to us the story we are watching.

Tran Anh Hung's first film the Scent of Green Papaya won him the Caméra d'Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar, both honors immediately established him as a filmmaker to watch. His second film Cyclo won awards at the Venice Int'l Film Festival in 1995. Vertical Ray of the Sun is considered the final chapter in his "Vietnam trilogy."

It is a meditative film, by which I mean it is both itself a meditation - to watch it is to give yourself into it. Breathe in to its rhythms, breathe out in its spaces, feel the vibrations of its colors, and take the pleasure in savoring each camera angle, each sound, each phrase - but also it is a meditation on life that is its theme. What it's all about is Hanoi. It is the rhythm, the spaces, the colors, the breath of Hanoi - as Tran experiences it and hoped to communicate in the film.

He has said of Vertical Ray of the Sun, that he wanted it "to feel like a caress."

"I begin a film only when I feel the rhythm in myself. None of my films began with an anecdote or a desire to tell a certain story," Tran noted. While shooting his film Cyclo, he took some time off and experienced Hanoi - which was a revelation to him. "I was seduced by Vietnam's capital," he wrote, "by its very specific sense of propriety, its sensuality and its intimacy. Hanoi is the only place I know that makes me feel that relationships between men and women could possibly benefit from real nonchalance.... I had a glimpse of potential harmony in Hanoi. I knew that I owed this city a film."

"I found something I could not feel in Paris," the Parisian-raised Tran continued, "the possibility of harmony that comes from the fact that people are available. I can sit with a friend in a cafe in Hanoi and not say anything for an hour because we have time."

"Some time after my first visit to Hanoi," he elaborated elsewhere, "a natural, effortless progression brought me back to the afternoon naps of childhood. Hours of dreaming. Soothing hours.... Scorching, motionless afternoons, rocked to sleep by the buzzing of insects, intoxicated by the odor of rotting fruit fallen at the foot of a tree. Sometimes, in spite of this calm and this torpor, a tiny anxiety would settle in my heart: My parents had been arguing. However, their history, as they tell it, is a tale of unbroken harmony. In fact, ‘Harmony,’ or ‘The Keeping Up of Appearances,’ could be the title of this story."

The film, as mentioned above, does have different titles as its Vietnamese title can be translated as all three names: "Vertical Ray of the Sun," "At the Height of Summer," and "Summer Solstice."

And Tran is also quick to point out that Hanoi, like any city, can take on different appearances to an observer. "In Hanoi, there are all types of lives. For example, the one that I made in 'Cyclo' was a difficult life, but in [Vertical Ray of the Sun], the lives are easier. These are the intellectuals and the artists. In spite of the fact that Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam, it seems like a little village, where everybody knows everybody. In Hanoi you can be yourself, there's not the stress to be somebody other than you are, it's not become as modern."

"In order to create and impart a physical sensation of this illusion of harmony and the characters' quest for happiness (while remaining faithful to those first impressions of Hanoi that reminded me of the siestas of my childhood) I needed a style that could suspend time, a rhythm that would allow for motionlessness," Tran said. "The harmony [the images] convey has a particular beauty, a beauty tainted by bitterness and melancholy."

"The film is built around three women. They lend a gentleness to the film, and at the same time, a certain violent and passionate undercurrent," he said.

The earlier-mentioned theme of "keeping up of appearances," permeates all the characters in the film. "In a way the three [sisters] represent three moments of marriage in the life of a woman," Tran explained. "The youngest is just discovering men and sex. The second has just gotten married and is expecting a child, so she's living a luminous moment when she believes nothing could possibly harm her. The third sister has accumulated conjugal problems - there are issues of desire and fidelity."

"The idea from the beginning was to show a film that just had the problems of couples - of desire and infidelity. But, I wanted the audience to feel the environment of this culture and this environment is Confucianism - what is important is to find harmony. And what I wanted to do was to show that even in spite of the problems, the audience could feel the harmony above the problems," he stated.

And as I mentioned in the introduction, the music of the film led to a change in my life. Tran is very conscious of his musical choices.

"There are always three types of music in my work: American, which is something that touches me personally in my own life and which we cannot escape from; there's Vietnamese music and then there's the music composed for the film," he explained. "I always know all the pieces of music I wish to use before the film even starts shooting."

"If I put in American music, it is because in Vietnam we listen to American music, and also it adds a trace of modernism that is in this town," he said.

And like the visuals, Tran "wanted music that would convey a mood at once vague and poignant," he wrote, "a sympathetic look at the human drama unfolding before our eyes. The music is not there to emphasize the action, but rather to cast a benevolent glance full of humanity at these characters tangled up in their unsolved problems. The music doesn't cling to the action, it comments on it, confirms it, contemplates it and expresses a point of view about existence. During the action, the music looks on. After the action, it expresses and shares its emotion. The music is the expression of the viewer's soul; it cleanses the vision. The Vietnamese and English-language songs have a different place in the film. With their slow, progressive development and the repetition of certain phrases, they help to create a rhythm that slows the pace almost to immobility."

Finally, Tran has noted that he sees himself in the story, as well. "There's a character in the film.... He's between two women, and that's me suspended between two countries. The sense he has of holding his breath all the time and not quite being able to live his life, that's my situation. I live in France, but part of me is always in Vietnam. Yet being this sort of nowhere man forces me to reflect, to question all the time. It's become very important, in a way. I feel uncomfortable, but lucid."

Oh, and by the way, Tran Nu Yên-Khê, who marvelously plays the youngest sister, Lien, is also the director's spouse.


If Tran, the film's writer/director, reads this post, I wish he would offer to show me this "motionless rhythm" he found in Ha Noi, because I never found it. I walked from one end to the other end and I'm convinced his version of Ha Noi is some kind of mythical wonderland. The city is a cacophonous maelstrom of nonstop movement. The only people who walk in Ha Noi are tourists, who take their lives into their hands every time they try to cross a street. Sidewalks, by the way, are not for walking. They are for eating, selling, and mostly parking scooters and cars. It is frightening (there are way too many idiot tourists who have brought their toddlers to this city and probably emotionally scar them for the rest of their lives) but for me it was awesome and I am a Zen master of moving through eight lanes of two-way traffic on my two feet. I grew up in NYC, so I've had some practice, but no place I've been to compares. There are some traffic lights, but they seem to be entirely optional.

The thing about Vietnam and maybe the main reason for my wanting to come (besides for the food) was that I was a child of the Vietnam War. Pretty much since I saw my first TV news show, I watched the war unfold on my screen as I grew. My destiny, like most kids of my era, was that you would grow up and if you couldn't figure out a way to avoid the draft, you would probably be sent to die in Vietnam. So many kids I knew who were just a few years older than me never came home. And if they did, they had left part of themselves there and were like walking dead. One of the very first images I remember of world events ever seeing, was the monk who lit himself on fire in 1963. That was one month before JFK was assassinated and a few months before I first heard the Beatles. Yesterday I visited the monastery outside Hue where that monk came from. They have the car he drove to do it preserved as a memorial.

But Vietnam today is a country of young people. The median age is 27 (compared to the US which is 36). I highly recommend watching this PBS documentary, Vietnam: The Next Generation, to get a feel for how it is there today (and it's even more so as the film was made just about a decade ago now). Especially in the cities, it seems like everyone is under 30, riding around on their scooters and texting like crazy. Mind you, it is illegal to use Facebook in Vietnam, and the government has a block from accessing it (though Twitter is not, which struck me as odd).

Although I never found the Ha Noi of the movie (again, it was made just over a decade ago and perhaps that Ha Noi is all gone now), my five days in Ha Noi were pretty amazing. I ate lots of great food, survived a Ha Long Bay day trip, learned to make some great food, and even had a great night listening to live jazz at a smoky little nightclub. No complaints.


"This dish is named after the restaurant in Ha Noi that first popularized this method, Cha Ca La Vong," explains my friend, chef, and culinary guide Daniel Hoyer. However, people love it so much, and so it's fame has spread, and now there are many restaurants both in Ha Noi and all the way down to Saigon that recreate this dish, some better some worse, they say. There's even a mess of videos on YouTube showing you how to make it. I went to the nearby Cha Ca Thanh Long for my meal.

Big thanks to my friend Emily Swantner who introduced me to Daniel who is a former chef at Sante Fe's famed Coyote Cafe, besides writing books on Mexican and Mayan cuisine, he now lives in Ha Noi and has written a great book on Vietnamese cuisine (see below). If you're interested, Emily & Daniel are planning a big culinary tour of Vietnam later this year. Here's a link to the tour info (PDF), and Email her for more details....

Anyways, Daniel swung by my hotel (he also gives private street food/eating tours of Ha Noi, you can email him directly) and we went out for great night at a local bia hoi where you sit in kindergarten chairs on the street and drink pitchers of low-alcohol locally brewed beer and eat and eat and eat (here'a a little video of our ultra-hip waitress making us some spring rolls at our table).

While there are many dishes, including Pho Bo, Ha Noi Style (see video below), this is truly a dish invented in and beloved by the city. As always - cook, eat, watch & enjoy!

Cha Ca Ha Noi (Grilled Fish Hanoi-Style w/Rice Noodles & Herbs)
adapted from Culinary Vietnam, by Daniel Hoyer
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 4

2 teaspoons mashed fresh galangal or ginger (or 1 teaspoon dry powder)
2 teaspooons ground tumeric
2 tablespoon fish sauce (or 1 tablespoon shrimp paste)
2 teaspoons sugar
3 tablespoons plain yogurt (*see note)
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vegetable oil

4 (6 ounce) boned catfish, tilapia or other white fish fillets
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cups fresh dill, thick stems removed
a pinch of salt
4 scallions or chives (or both), green parts only, cut into 3" lengths)

1/2 cup coarsely chopped dry roasted (unsalted) peanuts
4 cups cooled cooked rice noodles (about 1/8 in. wide, mai fun, rice sticks, or rice vermicelli)
2-3 cups mixed herbs: various mints (peppermint, purple mint, Vietnamese mint, lemon mint), perilla, Thai (holy) basil, cilantro, culantro, sorrel, shredded scallions (white part only)

3/4 cup warm water
3-4 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup lime juice
2 teaspoons brown sugar
2-3 Thai bird chiles, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, peeled and sliced

(*= "The original recipe calls for sour rice, a fermented concoction that takes several weeks to prepare, but plain yogurt works well," says Daniel. If you can find fermented rice at your Asian market, you can add about 1 teaspoon instead of the yogurt.)

Combine marinade ingredients and toss gently with the fish fillets. Marinate fish for 30 minutes to 1 hour (up to overnight refrigerated).

For sauce, combine all ingredients and reserve.

Grill fish or broil until done, then cut into bite-size pieces (about 2" x 2"), cover to keep warm.

Heat oil in a skillet or wok and add dill, salt, scallions/chives. Sauté until fragrant and hot, then add fish pieces in and toss lightly to mix. Remove from heat.

Serve with the noodles, peanuts, herbs, and sauce for each person to combine together on their plate or in a bowl. (As you can see from the photograph, at the restaurant, they cook the fish at your table.)

Sony Classics' Official Vertical Ray of the Sun page
He's Not a Reporter, He's an Interpreter: An Interview with Tran Ang Hung, Los Angeles Times
100 Vietnamese Foods to Try @ Wandering Chopsticks Blog
Video Excerpts from Culinary Institute of America's Exploring World Flavors - Vietnam
Eating in Hanoi @ gas*tron*o*my Blog

The Vertical Ray of the Sun DVD
Culinary Vietnam, by Daniel Hoyer
Vietnamese Food, by Bobby Chinn
Lonely Planet World Food - Vietnam (Lonely Planet World Food Guides)
The Rough Guide to Vietnam (Rough Guides)

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