Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell
October 3rd 2023

Patience is a spiritual discipline. There is no faith without devotion, no maturity without time; to wait is to trust that something is coming. In Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (2023), the debut feature from Vietnamese filmmaker and graphic novelist Pham Thien An, patience is a requisite for enlightenment. At the heart of a night market, just outside a stadium hosting the 2018 World Cup, Thiện (Lê Phong Vũ) catches up with his friends, one of whom has pledged to sell his earthly possessions in favor of a quieter, spiritual lifestyle in the highlands. Thiện, who left the countryside of his upbringing to join the bustle of Saigon, where he works as a wedding videographer, interjects with his doubts. The pair philosophize briefly, before the crunch of a nearby motorcycle collision interrupts them. Half a dozen bikes pass the scene before anyone attends to the bodies.

One man dies on impact; a woman, with a child in tow, is rushed to the hospital, where she is discovered to be Thiện’s sister-in-law, and the child his five-year-old nephew, Dao (Nguyen Thinh). Dao’s father—Thiện’s brother Tam—disappeared years prior, so Thiện must accompany the boy to Di Linh for the funeral processions. What follows is a transcendental trek into the highlands, thick with fog and perennially green. In Di Linh, Thiện encounters old and new acquaintances, including his former girlfriend Thao (Nguyen Thi Truc Quynh), now a Catholic school nun. Shot in 110 days over a two-year span—an act of patience in itself—Yellow Cocoon Shell asks us to assume the shape of our faith: is it hiding inside nurturing gestures? In our memories? The trees?

The cinematographer, Dinh Duy Hung, and the sound designer, Xander Toh, pay critical attention to nature’s contingencies: plinks of rippling water, breezes, soft cawing. Some have likened this meditative mode of filmmaking to the Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul—leisurely, naturalistic, spectral—but the most transfixing sequences of the film appear in the first hour, before Thiện has even left Saigon: a suspended sensual massage session, a crowded banh mi stand, the pediatric ward of a hospital where Thiện watches his nephew through thick glass, like a parent nervously eyeing their newborn. There’s a sophistication and assuredness which thins out in the second and third acts; as Thiện leans closer to his faith, he seems to pull away from, rather than expose himself to, the audience—whether this is narrative unevenness or the cost of finding your god is cleverly inscrutable.

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell screens tonight, October 3, and throughout the New York Film Festival, its U.S. premiere. Tonight’s and tomorrow’s screenings will be followed by conversations with the director, Thien An Pham.