Any young director is faced with a steep challenge when shifting his or her focus from the realm of short films to that of the feature length. Suddenly, the economy required in the storytelling takes on an entirely different facet, with the director now having to let his characters breath a little more. Vietnamese director Cuong Ngo arrives on the international stage with his first ever feature-length movie following two shorts, The Golden Pin and The Hitchhiker Project, which both saw the light of day in 2009 and each an exercise within familiar genres, not to mention that they utilized some Canadian talent. The result of his efforts for this latest endeavor, Pearls of the East, is unquestionably skewered towards a different audience. Curiously enough, even though the movie is 103 minutes long, has actually made an anthology film, hence remaining in his comfort zone.
By the nature of its construct, Pearls of the Far East follows no direct plot. Instead, it proposes an exploration of the effect the passing of time has on the relationships between various couples, with the gender focus put a bit more on the side of the women than the men, with the occasional spotlight on a male character or two. The actors differ from one chapter to the next, with each episode spending time with completely different characters at different geographic locations and, of course, at different periods in the human life cycle. The only real logical bond between the shorts is the chronological order in which the characters appear in terms of age, with the first concentrating on two childhood friends and the concluding story being a window into the personal musings of an single elderly lady’s appreciation, or lack thereof, of how time has treated her. The images are supported with a lengthy score which is heard nearly throughout the entire film.
Director Cuong Ngo’s film is ambitious and very artistically inclined, to the point where it makes for a difficult recommendation. For one, as previously stated, any facile, recognizable narrative is entirely absent. This applies not merely to the the movie as a whole, but to the individual pieces as well, which either withhold information from the audience so as to keep them guessing just who certain people are and why they are where they are, or consist of a series of very quick scenes occurring in different locations feature contrasting visual styles and events as if the director has given them birth out of a highly personal stream of consciousness. In essence, the chapters themselves are, even for experienced movie goers, sometimes a little bit complicated to figure out very quickly. Think of the films from David Lynch, but the ‘light’ version of that director’s inclinations. With that in mind, there is a sizable portion of the movie going public that will immediately shun Ngo’s efforts in favour of something simpler and more digestible for their palettes. Ngo is clearly aiming for the art house here, make no mistake about it. That is perfectly fine in of itself, but curious film goers need be forewarned just in case.
‘Ngo is clearly aiming for the art house here, make no mistake about it. That is perfectly fine in of itself, but curious film goers need be forewarned just in case.’
It is hard to blame them however, given how Pearls does indeed move along at a slower pace than most films. Additionally, the chapters themselves are, even for experienced movie goers, sometimes a little bit complicated to figure out very quickly. Compiling shorts as director Ngo has done here always bring with it the risk of failing to allot the required run time for certain episodes to resonate fully. For comparative purposes, one could liken a film like Pearls to a major ensemble movie from Hollywood in which a bountiful amount of recognizable players co-star but in not all get their chance to fully shine because the story has to bounce around to somebody’s tale. There is a lot to admire about the film, and those aspects shall receive their due attention, but it should be noted that Pearls does suffer from a couple of significantly disappointing missteps that can easily irk even the most accepting of art house movie lovers. The first, perhaps the less worrisome, is the aforementioned issue of not every chapter’s emotional punch coming to fruition. This, however, is almost to be expected in a film made up of seven shorts which really differ in tone and style. As the old saying goes, ‘You can’t make everyone happy.’ The second of these pitfalls director Ngo stumbles into, this one potentially being more critical than the first, is that the film feels ‘precious.’ Yes, the one thing serious film buffs by and large tend to shun more than anything is one of the picture’s most prominent tonal aspects. Admittedly, this preciousness does not permeate in every one of the seven episodes, but a few, most notably the first and third, are definitely overflowing with that familiar (and for some people very annoying) feeling of deliberately trying to be cute and actually proud of it, or ‘content’ with such an aim.
Let not those unfortunate qualities dissuade people from giving Pearls a fair chance however. Cuong Ngo has created a unique garden where some provocative ideas, images and sounds live and breath with seemingly endless liberty. For one, a round of applause need go to the director and his cinematographer, Mikhail Petrenko, who have produced a beautiful film. Nay, an incredibly looking film. No, that still does not do their work justice. Pearls is an immaculately shot piece of cinema. Regardless of what one may think about the resonance of one story or another, all of them, without exception, are filled to the brim with eye candy. The lighting, the perfect camera angles, the close ups on gorgeous faces, the wide shots of unforgettable landscapes, the set designs, literally everything visual was handled with the greatest of care. Some may describe the look as reminiscent of body wash or perfume adds, with many of the younger cast members sporting the looks of either drop-dead gorgeous women or perfectly sculpted men working in the modeling industry, but who are movie critics to bemoan actors because they simply look good? Ngo is offering style, not realism, and what a style it is.
‘…a round of applause need go to the director and his cinematographer, who have produced a beautiful film. Nay, an incredibly looking film. No, that still does not do their work justice. Pearls is an immaculately shot piece of cinema.’
Not ready to let the cinematography take center stage, the musical score is equally powerful. Composed by the Canadian duo of Alex Pauk and Alexina Louie, the music offers a uniquely classical sound to support the strange, dreamlike interpretation of Vietnam Ngo has to offer. By classical, it is the sounds of vintage Hollywood scores which are being referred to, sounds which elicit a sense of romanticism that existed once in a bygone era of American movie scores. In fact, there is not very much dialogue in the picture, with some of the shorts coming across as semi-silent films, augmenting the importance of the score, which hits home many of the emotional beats as much as the quality acting. Pearls is a case for which the music is definitely part of the whole experience, which can inadvertently result in people docking off even more points if one’s film tastes include an instinctive inclination towards all that is subtle.
For all its visual and aural splendor, it should not be forgotten that Cuong Ngo and the writers have concocted a vista of stimulating dissections of what shape love takes at given moments in a person’s life. It is all a little bit strange to take in at first, given how the varying elements at play are seemingly contradictory, what with wonderful pictures and sounds lifting the audience’s heart while doing by telling some secretive, cryptic stories. The film probably will never gain much of an audience, which is a shame, for despite its shortcomings, it is a special gift to watch it unfold, provided one is in the mood for this sort of thing of course.