New Vietnamese film Rom has garnered comparisons to both Run Lola Run and Slumdog Millionaire, though it shares neither the gimmicky structure of either nor the icky colonialist underpinnings of the latter. But it is an absolutely propulsive narrative feature, a perpetual motion machine of characters constantly running — either to meet deadlines and deliver cash, or away from cops, gangsters, and dissatisfied customers — but inevitably crashing into a wall of poverty. Writer/director Tran Thanh Huy follows young Rom (an incredible Tran Anh Khoa) as he darts around the slums of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) like a rocket, collecting numbers in an elaborate, and highly illegal, underground lottery system. Huy breathlessly details this scheme, with Rom and fellow courier Phuc (Nguyen Phan Anh Tu) always hustling, the details of which include convincing people to play in the first place and then “selling” them numbers before collecting what amounts to a commission if the number hits. It’s fiercely competitive, with Rom and Phuc alternating between reluctant camaraderie and increasingly violent fist fights. There’s an almost documentary feel to these early scenes, as Huy lays out all the players and the various ways in which they intersect, with a playful voiceover from Rom setting the scene.
But what begins as a lighthearted romp, a kind of lost boys adventure, eventually becomes something much darker as characters become desperate for money. Thankfully, Huy avoids the instinct to wallow in misery. Every character is afforded their own slivers of humanity and, in moments of reprieve, even celebration when someone’s number comes in. But this is a tenuous existence; there is the pervading sense that this house of cards could crumble at any moment. Customers take out high interest loans using their homes as collateral, eventually running into trouble with loan sharks, while Rom goes to extreme measures to conjure up numbers and make enough money to track down his absentee parents. There’s no schmaltzy humanism here, just an acknowledgement of the transactional nature of capitalism, where pursuit of money ultimately trumps human decency. It’s a stunning film, in turns funny and heartbreaking, with an abrupt, opaque ending that suggests that some people, these people, will never be able to stop running.
Published as part of NYAFF 2020 — Dispatch 2.