Phạm Thiên Ân’s road to filmmaking was circuitous. Born to a Catholic family in the rural mountains of Vietnam’s southern Lam Dong province, he spent four years studying information technology at Hoa Sen University in Ho Chi Minh City before leaving without a degree to pursue his lifelong interest in cinematography. After a decade of supporting himself by editing wedding videos, he developed his first short The Mute (2018), followed closely by Stay Awake, Be Ready (2019). His first feature, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, is a three-hour epic that builds off of his last short with an astounding sensitivity to rhythm and tone. The film follows a 30-something man named Thien (Le Phong Vu), a wedding video editor who is forced to return to his rural hometown after a scooter accident claims the life of his sister-in-law, orphaning his five-year-old nephew. Thien is faced with questions about the child’s father, his brother Dao, who had disappeared from his family many years before. This search provides the narrative vehicle for Thien’s scavenge for faith.
The patient pacing, simple narrative, immersive sound design, and visual complexity make Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell a rare contemporary film that regularly approaches the transcendentalism of its predecessors of influence, from Apichatpong Weresethakul’s Tropical Malady to Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia. The film was recognized with Pham’s win of the Un Certain Regard award at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival for best first feature, and to the benefit of audiences stateside, his masterful debut will be released nationally this week. Pham’s film turns fact to fiction, and fiction to fact. It was my pleasure to sit down with the director and try to pull the two apart.