One of the many reasons that causes me to like more foreign films than American films is that foreign films are made without the added ‘creative interest’ of the American studio system. Sometimes, it’s hard to define what this means specifically to a film, but, in the case of ADRIFT, I can tell you that it most likely means no film executive spent great time reworking the script in order to woo major film stars to the vehicle; it means that no production executives spent great lengths trying to incorporate clever product placement strategies into the film’s visual landscape; and it means that no creative personnel contributed countless hours of ‘rehash’ to the completed projects. Simply put, it means that “what you get is what you see,” and what you see with ADRIFT is a fantastic character drama built against the backdrop of a people at a cultural crossroads.
I’ve read (elsewhere) that the film – hailing from Vietnam – has been termed an “erotic drama,” and I’ll admit right out of the gate that I believe that’s a bit of a mischaracterization on everyone’s part. To me, that’s a Hollywood convention – bill it as “steamy & erotic” to get more butts in the seats! – but that’s as close to Hollywood as the film gets. Certainly, the central story – Duyen’s marital fidelity comes into question early in her relationship when her disinterested husband forces her into the arms of a “dangerous and provocative suitor” – explores the issue of physical angst in relationships, but, so far as the passion and steam common to Western films, the film is quite tame. In fact, there’re really only two scenes (one of a near sexual assault, and one of ‘forced seduction’) that pushes the boundaries of even traditional eroticism. However, for Eastern films, ADRIFT does push the necessary buttons to be considered far more amorous than competing features.
However, ADRIFT delivers so much more than just a contemporary, cultural potboiler that methinks the mischaracterization may cause some viewers to tune out on the mild masterpiece that it genuinely is.
The story: as mentioned above, Duyen and her fiancé – she a few years his senior – are married (the film opens with Duyen almost coyly clinging her white lace wedding address to her bosom as she watches her new husband cavorting in the downstairs kitchen with his drinking friends). But Duyen rather quickly realizes that her young husband is less developed emotionally than she is; he spends his days as chauffer to a local gangster. At the prompting of a recently divorced friend (Cam), Duyen delivers a letter to an older illicit male who traffics in sexually awakening females as a hobby of sorts, where she’s nearly sexually assaulted. The encounter has the desired effect, and Duyen is awaken to desires of the flesh. Come the end of the film (in a brilliant juxtaposition to the opening scenes), Duyen quietly rides as a passenger in the back of her husband’s taxi dressed all in black with only hints of white lace. Before the picture fades, she’s seen gently touching the man on his shoulder.
It’s a moment that , in description, may mean very little to the reader, but a single touch proves immeasurably powerful in a story where everyone – including the scores and scores of people navigating Vietnam’s busy streets – all seem heading the same direction but never quite reach their desired destination.
There’s so much at work in ADRIFT that I was unsure of how to begin my review. There are some brilliant secondary plots involving Cam, Duyen’s grandfather, and several other players; but to go into great explanation would be to deny the viewer the discovery of this wonderfully-paced film. Suffice it to say, nothing in here wraps up neatly in a bow – nothing is necessarily meant to, as has been clearly defined by the picture’s title – and that’s the beauty of it all. What is worth knowing is that each and every character has made a choice (Duyen chooses to get married; her husband chooses to stay attached to his mother; Cam chooses to live out her existence smothered under her melancholy; etc.), and the story unfolds as a consequence of their various choices. It’s these various choices that set each of them ‘adrift,’ putting them well on the path to making a way in life. Is it the choice they wanted? Probably not. Is it the choice they’ve accepted? It would seem so.
It’s all about the subtleties here. Nothing is intended to hit the viewer over the head. Scenes are shot darkly with plenty of layers, and the performances are necessarily slim. This is the kind of filmmaking Hollywood used to be very good at, but, in the last few decades, Tinseltown has mostly cast it aside in favor of bloated vanity pics or star-studded period pieces. (The French are still very good at constructing this type of focused drama, but I haven’t seen a truly great one from them in a few years.) In this world, there are no easy answers; instead, there are only choices, and the characters are driven to make them regardless of the consequences of their actions. Also, the script doesn’t provide the viewer with all of the answers; a very concerted attempt – one that’s very successful – has been made to specifically avoid too many details in favor of allowing the characters to bring greater depth to the tale. Director Bui Thac Chuyen allows the cinematic canvass to embrace a narrative that relies on psychological complexity, meaning that the product that’s inevitably delivered has much more meat still on its bones for the viewer to enjoy … and enjoy it I did.
This is not to say that the film isn’t without a few flaws. Several sequences are shot fairly darkly – probably with good reason considering the context and subject matter. Also, several sequences tend to hang on a bit longer than absolutely necessary; again, it’s about the subtleties, but I’m not entirely certain that this 110-minute couldn’t have used a snip here and a snip there and STILL have delivered the artistic message. Casting and location are spot on, though; they’re so good, in fact, I think it’s very easy to forgive a few minor shortcomings.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the folks at The Global Film Initiative provided me with a screener DVD for the purposes of completing this review.