The narrative in The Vertical Ray of the Sun concerns the lives of three Hanoi sisters as they move one summer from the annual memorial of their departed mother toward the family gathering that will celebrate the memory of their late father. The central figure, if we must choose one, is Lien (Tran Nu Yen-Khe, the director's wife and star of his earlier films The Scent of the Green Papaya and Cyclo), a coltish young woman who works as a waitress in the restaurant owned by her oldest sister, Suong (Nguyen Nhu Quynh). Suong is approaching middle age, a mother of one who exhibits a serenity that hints at an acceptance of life's disappointments without a surrender to resignation. Her husband, Quoc (Chu Ngoc Hung), is a nature photographer, and his work takes him away from home for extended periods of time. Eventually, we discover that Quoc has a whole other family with whom he lives in a rugged rural setting. Suong, meanwhile, has a lover of her own, a gentle, caring man whom Suong treats rather more roughly than he deserves.
Lien's middle sister Khanh (Le Khanh) has a comparably complicated life, stable on the outside but volatile at it heart. Her husband, Kien (Tran Manh Cuong), is a writer at work on a novel he seems unable to finish. The trouble in his work seems to draw down a veil of emotional distance in his relationship with Khanh. She is pregnant but reluctant to tell him so, and shortly after she does, he departs for Saigon with the flimsy excuse of undertaking research which will help him finish his book. A seductress in a hotel bar spies Kien the way a wolf spots an antelope separated from the her, and, just as quickly, temptation rears its horned head.
But Lien's circumstances are more complicated and more erotically charged yet. Lien has a boyfriend who makes Hamlet look focused. Meanwhile, Lien seems to have a crush on her brother Hai (Ngo Quang Hai), a handsome young actor with whom she shares a small apartment. These two beautiful twentysomethings sleep in adjoined beds that are separated only by a diaphanous curtain. Morning after morning, Hai awakes to find Lien snuggled against him. When he complains (without about as much heat as a flashlight bulb) about her invading his space, she responds with languid excuses ("I was lonely" or "I was cold"), and the subject is dropped until the morning following.
Making sense of all this is no easy -- but perhaps no ultimately important -- matter. The three sisters share such a bond they seem the same person viewed at three different stages of life, each about a decade apart. Their talk is earthy and frank, their mutual trust so convincingly rendered we search the credits to see if the actresses might actually be sisters. As the sisters plan their father's memorial banquet, their conversation naturally turns to their parents' long and close relationship, the way they seemed so devoted to each other that the surviving father could not endure his wife's death and joined her in the hereafter only a month later.
Surprisingly, however, the sisters suspect that their parents endured a period of extramarital betrayal. And in this slender passing detail we find the thread that Tran employs to bind his narrative together. The power of the sisters' parents' love was far stronger than their inevitably corrosive sexual and emotional yearnings. To drive this point home, no two men ever seemed unhappier than Quoc with his lovely second wife or Kien with his Saigon siren.
Americans mostly know Vietnam from war movies where the climate is a torment and the jungle is a symbol of an America that has lost its way. In Tran's Vietnam, too, the rain is torrential and the humidity a wet garment worn always next to the skin. But now the rampant vegetation is a bursting example of life's stubborn, restorative richness. Everything is connected in this world. That which is not excusable can be overcome. I remain perplexed by the incestuous flirtations of Lien and Hai, and I found utterly preposterous a closing revelation that Lien is ignorant about the fundamentals of female sexual function.
But otherwise, The Vertical Ray of the Sun is as entrancing as a cold rum punch on warm summer afternoon. The film lulls you rather than propels you. And afterwards you remember it in pieces rather than as a whole, but always with a smile of pleasure for something usually hidden, momentarily revealed, still mysterious, ineffably beautiful.