Born in Vietnam and raised in France from age 12, Tran Anh Hung made an indelible debut as a filmmaker in 1993 with “The Scent Of Green Papaya.” A delicate, sensual film, where the patter of rain on garden leaves or the rustle of wind on mosquito netting was as prominent as its story of a servant girl in 1950s Saigon, “Green Papaya” put Tran on the art-cinema map in a big way, including a Camera d’Or award at Cannes.
His followup, “Cyclo” (1995), took the Gran Prix at Venice, and confirmed Tran’s talent. While as richly textured as his first film, “Cyclo” saw Tran moving into darker terrain, following a rickshaw driver in Hi Chi Minh City who falls in with a gang, and his drug-addicted sister, prostituted by the brooding gangster (Tony Leung) who loves her. Tran’s third film, “Vertical Ray of the Sun” (2000), was a languorous look at three sisters in present-day Hanoi, with a poetic style that harkened back to “Green Papaya.”
Tran reverts to the dark side with his latest, “I Come With The Rain.” It’s the first film he’s made that’s not set in Vietnam — it’s a Hong Kong-based serial killer/gangster/religious allegory flick — and also the first he’s made with stars, in this case, three of cinema’s most beautiful boys: South Korea’s Byung Hun Lee (“JSA”), American Josh Hartnett (“Sin City”) and Japan’s own Takuya Kimura of SMAP fame. The film wrapped some time ago, but Japan — notably — is the only market where it’s been slated for release so far.
Part of the reason for that could be that many fans of Tran’s earlier films may be unable to sit through “I Come With The Rain,” which just as easily could have been called “The Scent of Red Blood.” In a Tokyo interview with Tran, I mention this and he laughs lightly: “True, but the theme of my film is the agony of the flesh, and how one perceives that. The age we live in is full of terrorism and war; the reality is that lots of blood is flowing. I want my film to make you experience that in new ways.”
In Tran’s film, one would be hard-pressed to find even a minute where there wasn’t blood on the screen. Hartnett plays a detective, traumatized in the past by his experiences with a serial killer, who goes to Hong Kong looking for an industrialist’s missing son, Shitao (Kimura). Also looking for the missing Shitao is a Hong Kong mobster (Lee), who’s prone to beating people to death with a hammer. His girlfriend (played by the director’s stunning wife, Tran Nu Yen Khe) has gone missing, and he suspects she’s with Shitao, who turns out to be a vagabond with Christ-like healing powers.
Tran explains that “the casting took a really long time. The thing I was most looking for in the actors was, in addition to their talent, that the humanity of the characters would come across in their appearance.” Of course, shooting an English-language film with several actors whose English skills were questionable also made this a necessity.
The film features such lovely scenes as the killer taking a bite out of Hartnett’s arm, or Kimutaku — in an overblown Christ allegory — getting nailed to a cross by Lee. With lines like “the suffering of mankind . . . is there anything more beautiful?” it’s easy to suspect the director had a tormented Catholic upbringing, but Tran dispels the notion. But like his serial killer character, Hashford (played by Elias Koteas), Tran says, “I do think there’s beauty in suffering. Hashford is a man whose job is to express agony, but he needs material to realize this form of expression, so he kills people. But that isn’t his motive. His object is to get the material to create his work.”
The killer in the film creates a “gallery” of limbless torsos and a leg with teeth and a tongue embedded in the foot, artwork that brings to mind the meaty works of Damien Hirst; Tran cites the agonized forms of Francis Bacon as an inspiration. I ask Tran why is it in the movies — think “Se7en,” “The Cell” or “The Silence Of The Lambs” — serial killers are always portrayed as effete artists, whereas in reality — Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer — they’re fairly stupid, cruel people looking to get their rocks off.
“I can only speak for myself,” says Tran, “but I wasn’t interested in portraying a killer from the start, I wanted to portray an artist. All artists have one thing in common, I think: They’re not satisfied with natural beauty, as is, the world as it exists. So that’s why they turn to various materials to express beauty as they see it. For example, an artist can kill a rabbit and use its innards to express his vision of beauty; that cruel act is a means to an end. If they didn’t have that texture, they couldn’t create. Why that’s so, I don’t know, but that’s what makes an artist.”
Not the best example to spring on a rabbit owner like myself, and the feeling that the film is nothing more than gore shot with the beautiful ennui of a fashion ad is as hard to shake as the feeling that Kimutaku is even less convincing as Jesus Christ than he is as a brain surgeon in the new TBS drama “Mr. Brain.” The megaidol has almost no dialogue in the English-language film, and every scene he’s in consists of him convulsing and writhing like a man who’s eaten week-old sushi; not something likely to please his fans.
One suspects the eight-year layoff from filmmaking interrupted Tran’s flow; he explains how “after 2000, I spent 4 years working on another project, but it never got past the planning stage. So then I switched to this film, and between finding a producer and financing and everything, that took a while longer. It’s terribly frustrating. It’s not just time that I lost, but my youth, and the energy that comes with it. For example, if you try to make the same movie in your 30s, 40s, or 60s, it will wind up an entirely different film.”
Happily, Tran has a new project in the works, and it’s a corker: an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood” starring Rinko Kikuchi and Kenichi Matsuyama. It’s likely that Marukami’s melancholy is a better fit for Tran’s style than the Asian ultraviolence tropes of “I Come With The Rain.”
“Norwegian Wood” is currently in production, and shooting will commence soon in Japan. I ask Tran how he hopes to re-create 1960s Tokyo for the film, and he sighs: “We’re going to have to shoot every scene at different places, all over Japan. For example, there’s a scene with a pool, and we’re using a pool about an hour outside the city, because there’s nothing suitable in Tokyo. Tokyo’s always changing, and there’s almost nothing left that reminds one of the ’60s.”