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Back Arts & Culture » Film & TV » Review: Despite Laughable Jump Scares, 'Bac Kim Thang' Is Surprisingly Smart and Topical

With lush landscapes of the Mekong Delta as the background, Bac Kim Thang is surprisingly wicked and intelligent, but most importantly, it provides feminist advocates a new way to topple the patriarchy: becoming a blood-spattered specter and haunting misogynists to death.

I remember too well the vivid sensations surrounding my five-year-old mind during the nights sleeping in my grandma’s cottage in Kien Giang Province, in the Mekong Delta's deep south. During the day, the delta is a land of sparkling waterways, towering coconut trees and vast, verdant paddy fields that stretch towards the distant horizon. It’s the land of bustling commerce and kind-hearted people who are just as emotionally rich as the rivers based on which they built the community.

Once night falls, however, everything seems to take on a sinister alter ego, or at least that was what my young self cooked up in his city-slicker brain. My grandma and her neighbors followed a habitual schedule of going to bed and waking up early, so as early as 8pm, the town becomes deserted. The expansive swaths of fruit trees become home to growling spirits; the rivers, opaque with alluvium, harbor monsters who are all too eager to pull one’s legs down — every rustling of leaves, every shift in shadows can be a misinterpreted as a sign of evil.

By capitalizing on stark difference in atmosphere, Bac Kim Thang, directed by Tran Huu Tan, seeks to subvert the common tropes associated with the Mekong Delta. In the movie, the friendly become calculated, the open-minded turn staunchly bigoted, the rich are riddled with social ills. It premiered at Busan International Film Festival in October in the A Window on Asian Cinema category and officially hit Vietnamese theaters on October 25. Despite a lack of big-name cast members, Bac Kim Thang was a commercial success for a mature-rated feature, raking in VND30 billion after three days since opening.

The title borrows from the name of a children’s folk song, which has a tragic and supernatural back story in itself, but the kicker is that some details referenced in the lyrics also mirror those in the movie, piling on yet another macabre layer that’s lost in translation in its English title, Home Sweet Home.

The plot is set during the 1990s, revolving around a noble family living in the Mekong Delta. Though the exact location is not specified, eagle-eyed fans would recognize the family’s mansion as one of Vinh Long’s famous old villas. Inside the majestic villa, built in the French colonial style, lives a three-generation household: Thien Tam (Trinh Tai), the main character, and his parents, grandpa, uncle, and two helpers. The uncle, a widower, has a daughter named Hai Lam (Minh Hy), whose existence and disappearance is the sole tension point of the narrative.

Minh Hy plays Hai Lam, a teenage girl who's mistreated by her family just for being female.

Both Trinh Tai and Minh Hy are fresh faces with limited experience in cinema, but were adequate in their roles, lending an air of innocence to the pair of close-knit cousins; at the time of filming, Hy was just 15 years old. Still, the characters don’t offer a lot of material for them to showcase their acting range.

Vinh Long appears on screen as picturesque as something out of a historical novel. To reach the house, one has to travel by boat across a canal lined with cajuput trees and their spidery roots. Cinematography is a sterling point in Bac Kim Thang, where the beauty of the villa and delta is captured with assured angles and nuance. Every detail of the building, from the imposing metal gate to balconies adorned with elaborate traditional motifs, evokes a strong sense of jaded opulence. The mansion’s condition itself serves as a metaphor of its inhabitants’ mindscape — after decades of prosperity, signs of rot have slowly crept up, subtle at first, but gradually slipping towards a climactic crash.

The set is based in an old villa in Vinh Long.

Even before the moral decay surfaces, the family had always been overt and unabashed in their hatred towards Hai Lam, all for something that she has no control over: her gender. The nauseating sexism is evidenced across the movie’s duration, from childhood flashbacks to current conflicts. If Thien Tam, as the family’s only boy, is coddled and fussed over, Hai Lam is brushed aside, emotionally and physically abused over trivial slip-ups. He’s also allowed an education, while her request to go to school was laughed at because: “why do you want an education when you’re a girl?” The most heart-wrenching scene occurs over a dinner with all family members present. Hai Lam, barely old enough to hold her own chopsticks, reaches for a chicken drumstick, but accidentally drops it on the floor. The mistake is met with a swift admonition — a brutal smack on the forehead. She’s also berated by her aunt, Thien Tam’s mom, for daring to touch something reserved for the family’s cháu đích tôn, or only true heir.

Sexism is Bac Kim Thang’s overarching theme, which is well-done with assertion and purpose. Up until the midpoint of the movie, the script is adamant in its quest to explore this ugly side of rural Vietnam, which seemingly drives Hai Lam to her demise. The injustice is so thick and astounding that I’ve never been this passionate in rooting for the “villain” in a horror movie, and I’ve seen my fair share of teen slasher flicks. Slash their neck and drown them in alluvium, sister! The movie did such a fine job in building my sympathy for Hai Lam and hence, for bloodlust for her abusers, that the latter half, when a twist happens, catches me off guard — no spoilers though.

From left to right: Thien Tam, his uncle (and Hai Lam's father), his father, and his mother.

Bac Kim Thang is the directorial debut of Nguyen Huu Tan, whose previous works are mostly television commercials and some shorts. It’s a considerable first effort, with sleek cinematography and a smartly composed script, albeit not without shortcomings. Most of the time, Bac Kim Thang seems to suffer from an identity crisis: it can’t decide if it wants to be a psychological thriller or horror film. This confusion results in mismatched expectations among movie-goers who came in prepared for two hours of entertainment with jump scares and mindless gore, especially after seeing its trailer.

What Bac Kim Thang turns out to be at the end is a cautionary tale against the dark facets of the human psyche — one that could disrupt the very fabric of a person’s grasp on reality or one, fueled by greed, that could drive them to the point of turning on their own blood. Sometimes, the horror lies within those to whom we’re closest. The twist is shocking, but well-written; those fond of Jordan Peele’s narrative curveballs might be happy to witness the final events unfold and every puzzle piece falls into place. This, however, renders the bloody scarecrows and ghostly apparitions doled out in the first half of the movie (and all over the trailer) rather meaningless and comically irrelevant.

The lush landscape of Vinh Long is captured beautifully in Bac Kim Thang.

If visuals are a huge plus in Bac Kim Thang’s favor, sound editing and mixing are glaring shortcomings. The film’s background music is like an excited puppy that hasn’t been taught restraint. It plows into scenes with vigor and doesn’t hold anything back. Emotional scenes are made cloying by a Korean drama-esque soundtrack, and every movement of the main character at night is accompanied by the ominous drone of dread. Any nuance in ambience-building is undermined by an over-reliance on sound effects that’s almost patronizing, as if the sound mixer doesn’t trust his audience to have the capability to detect emotional cues.

In a movie industry where local horror flicks are frequently dwarfed by their foreign counterparts, the commercial success of Bac Kim Thang is a sanguine sign, especially when Vietnamese-made horror movies are subjected to a much more stringent vetting process than imported features. The areas in which the movie falters, be it genre confusion or sound effects, could all be improved through training and better resources. Luckily, Bac Kim Thang has gotten one of the most crucial aspects of a good film right: a good script that challenges viewers intellectually and makes effective use of its roots in Vietnamese history and culture.

[Photos courtesy of PRODUCTIONQ via Tuoi Tre]

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