Director/Screenplay – Nghiem-Minh Nguyen Vo, Based on the Short Story by Nguyen Ngoc Tu, Producers – Bao Nguyen & Nghiem-Minh Nguyen Vo, Photography – Bao Nguyen, Music – Inouk Desmers, Production Design – Truong Tung Dao. Production Company – Green Snapper Productions
Quynh Hoa (Sao), Quy Binh (Giang), Thach Kim Long (Thi), Hoang Tran Minh Duc (Thuy), Hoang Phi (Thanh)
It is the year 2030 where global warming has caused much of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta to become covered in water. Sao lives with her husband Thi on a hut in the middle of the water where his family land once was. After taking a new job, Thi is killed in what she is told was an accident. As Sao grieves, her memories come back to Giang, a visiting scientist who came to study the way the freshwater seaweed has genetically evolved to thrive in salt water, and how both of them were attracted. Giang now returns to further his research and reunite with her.
Nuoc 2030 is the first occasion I have had to view a Vietnamese science-fiction film and is, at least as far as I am able to ascertain, the first the country has made. (My impression of Vietnamese cinema, at least based on a cursory wander through the videostores in Vancouver’s Little Vietnam, has been of frothy romantic films and the occasional action work). It is the second film for director Nghiem-Minh Nguyen Vo who previously had a festival hit with The Buffalo Boy (2007), a film similar to this in charting complex relationships and concerning itself with changing ecologies.
The film opens with a title card explaining how climate change threatens to place much of Vietnam’s coastal Mekong Delta under water by 2030 (the title Nuoc 2030 literally translates as ‘Water 2030’). I was sinking in my seat as the film starts, where it promptly drops into the slow, sedate observation of the life of a couple living on a houseboat in the middle of the sea. This is what a good friend of mine who used to organise film society screenings would call Peasants in Rice Paddies Films. No disrespect intended to those who field rice for a living but he meant it to refer to a certain type of arts film that he was heartily sick of – one that specialises in the slow documentation of the minutiae of day to day life of peoples in remote regions of the world. It is a type of film that can be guaranteed to turn up at almost any festival and one that seems to go to painstaking lengths to obtain an authenticity frequently at the expense of anything dramatic or even interesting happening.
In this regard, Nuoc 2030 has a very slow first half as we watch Quynh Hoa and husband Thach Kim Long fishing, attempting to subsist on their meagre catch, to collect enough fresh rainwater to drink and wash, and so on. Later we watch her engaged in funeral preparations and then meeting up with her husband’s brother. All of this is slow and contains very little in the way of drama. On the other hand, it is not fully as easy to dismiss the film as that. In between all of this slow observation are little details that start to make an authentic science-fictional portrait of the world these people live in – fights over whether one is fishing on somebody else’s land or whether one’s property now being covered under water means that it is open sea; Quynh Hoa having her husband sealed into a metal coffin rather than cremated and then dropped into the sea because he wants to be buried on family land.
By about its halfway point, Nuoc 2030 starts to become somewhat interesting. The slow first half gives all impression of being yet another Peasants in Rice Paddies film but this is often punctuated by touches of the modern world – Quy Binh sitting using a modern tablet, the towers of wind farms protruding from the water – or the futuristic – a visit to a corporate boardroom where everybody has transparent laptops and start discussing the genetic modification of plantlife in the area. The rest of the film has been so slow that this is a jolt that reminds us we are actually in a future setting. Moreover, the scenes when Quy Binh is introduced bring a more romantic element to the story and the weaving back in and out of different periods of time gives the story a complexity that you didn’t anticipate from the outset. The film jumps into a full science-fiction scenario during its final section, although the elements of corporate espionage and skulduggery seem an abrupt left-field element at the last minute that never particularly suits the film’s slow pace. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the way the film eventually develops – I just wish there hadn’t been such a slow and draggy first half to get there.