Photo: © An Nam Productions 2022
Warning: This review contains spoilers.
Glorious Ashes (2022), directed by Bui Thac Chuyên, is a 117-minute film set in a rural Vietnamese village that offers a poignant glimpse into the human craving for meaning and connection, and the lengths people can go to fill those voids.
The film centers on two women in unloving marriages who toil tirelessly to care for their husbands and children. Hau married Duong at a young age due to an unintentional pregnancy, and while Hau starts off enamored with her husband, Duong feels stifled in the relationship and frequently escapes to boating trips in the ocean. To make matters worse, Duong seems to have unrequited feelings for Nhan, newly wedded to Tam. Even though this new marriage starts off happily enough, fissures begin to appear, and after a tragic incident, Tam turns to arson. Alongside the stories of these two couples is a parallel story where a middle-aged woman takes an interest in an ex-convict-turned-monk.
The long, static shots underscore the physical and emotional distance between the couples. It’s heartbreaking to see Hau continually try to connect with Duong only to be met by silence. The few times he even reacts to her chattering is when she brings up Nhan, and as much as it hurts Hau to know that he cares about her friend more than he does her, she will intentionally talk about Nhan to get a semblance of attention from Duong. Through subtle microexpressions and directed gazes, the actors and the cinematography portray emotionally complex characters who often mask their true emotions.
In a budding friendship with each other, the women find some of the solace that they don’t receive from their husbands. For a while, they preoccupy themselves with chores and household activities, but eventually, their unrequited devotion has them succumbing to the allure of the blaze. There are tragic moments, but the film is not a tragedy. Rather, it’s an unflinching look at the wounds of disconnection and the exhilarating respite of delusion. The middle-aged woman pursuing the ex-convict likewise subscribes to a romantic fantasy, but her childish approach to courtship successfully results in moments of tender connection.
The characters are enmeshed in and constantly interacting with their environment, and often, they find meaning and community in labor-intensive work. Particularly striking is how quickly and smoothly the villagers come together to fight the house fires, at least the initial ones, selflessly risking their safety to rescue Nhan and Tam from their burning home. But after several recurrences of the fire, collective urgency fades into hypnotic voyeurism as the futility of their recovery efforts becomes apparent. The fires intrigue more than they terrify, touching upon repressed desires to behave as if there were no consequences, to pretend you have control over the world. Most of the colors in the film feel like a variation of a grimy muddy brown, further accentuating the visual impact of the bright orange blazes.
It’s a nuanced film worth multiple rewatches, but it’s also one with an unsettling premise. What if within every one of us, our craving for meaning and feeling fuels destructive tendencies?