Review of “Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell” – A Stunning Contemplation on Belief and Mortality through the Lens of Slow Cinema

Estimated read time 3 min read


The meaning of the title and the movie remain ambiguous, making this feature debut from 34-year-old filmmaker Thien An Pham a remarkable achievement. Born in Vietnam and now living in Houston, Texas, Pham creates a slow-burning masterpiece set in Saigon and the remote, beautiful central highlands. The journey is both dreamlike and weightless, drifting towards an unknown destination and possibly transcending even that. With echoes of directors Tsai Ming-liang and Edward Yang, this film is a touching, personal, and enigmatic exploration of spirituality.

The film Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell has a peaceful, naturalistic style with many extended shots from a medium distance, with few closeups. The use of flashbacks and a dream sequence are consistent with this style, creating a disorienting effect as the past and present converge. Despite its lack of overt emotion, there is a particularly intense and sensual kissing scene, as well as a moment where a young woman expresses her love for the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life and laments the lack of similar movies today. It’s easy to imagine director Bob Rafelson making a similar film in 1972, with a similar storyline revolving around a middle-aged man’s crisis and regret, though possibly with a shorter runtime.

In the bustling city, Thien (Le Phong Vu) is having a leisurely conversation with his friends at an outdoor cafe about religion and the meaning of life. Suddenly, they are shocked by a loud motorbike crash nearby. During a later visit to a massage parlour, Thien’s peaceful moment is interrupted by his smartphone ringing. Tragically, the crash victim turns out to be his sister-in-law, Hanh. Her five-year-old son, Dao (Nguyen Thinh), is the only survivor. Now, Thien must fulfill his duty of transporting Hanh’s body, along with Dao, in a rented van to her village for burial.

Thien must confront his past in his own hometown, where his brother Tam, the husband of his wife Hanh, abandoned them both years ago. He also faces the task of reconciling with Thao (Nguyen Thi Truc Quynh), a former flame from the same village who may be able to assist him in helping young Dao, who is suffering from the loss of his mother. Thien also grapples with finding his estranged brother and deciding what to do next – should he inform him of the tragedy, use it as an opportunity to mend their relationship, or gain clarity on his own existence in a vast, uncaring world?

The camera slowly follows the movements of the characters, similar to an aircraft carrier. Sometimes the characters will leave the frame and continue talking off-screen until the camera catches up and they are back in view. At times, a still shot will gradually zoom in or out. Thien has memorable interactions with an elderly man who fought in the Battle of Vung Rô and a mysterious old woman. There is a scene where Thien’s perspective is shown as he drives on his motor-scooter in silence, with the headlights of oncoming traffic creating a blinding effect on the screen.

Is Thien experiencing a breakdown? Or are these recent, sorrowful occurrences simply bringing attention to a possible breakdown he was already having? If Hanh had not passed away, would he have continued with his unsatisfying, anonymous life in the city and never reached out to Thao or Tam again? The vast perceptiveness shown in this movie is truly impressive.

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