There may be no films we watch with more trepidation than those of little girls in dire circumstances. Little boys, we may think, are tough. They’re kind of bratty and can take care of themselves, even if we don’t approve of the 400 Blows discipline meted out on them. But girls! There is something in the presumed sweetness, lack of physical strength or courage, need for warmth and safety that puts us on alert as soon as a mean uncle yells at them.
Which is just how The Owl and the Sparrow, Stephane Gauger‘s, 2007 award winning film from Vietnam begins. Thuy [Han Thi Pham] is ten years old, and looks younger. Her parents have both died and she is being “cared for”and kept at work by her Uncle Minh [Nguyen Hau], in his bamboo curtain factory in rural Vietnam some miles outside of Saigon. When he discovers she has cut some pieces too short he berates her in ways unimaginable to liberal westerners. He doesn’t hit her, but in some ways we think, that might almost be better.
Thuy is not one to be treated that way, however. She gathers up her Ken and Barbie dolls in a pink back-pack and set off up river to the big city. She is soon instructed by street-wise kids her own age in the trade of selling postcards, and then roses — in the hurley burley streets, day and night. Gauger and his camera crew have done an excellent job of putting us at eye-level in traffic, markets and alley ways we’d never get to on our own. In the midst of the clamor and potential danger we are pulling for Thuy. She is stoic and resourceful. She talks to her dolls, and to animals for courage and guidance. But she is a little girl! My God! Predators, we know, lurk everywhere — including Uncle Minh, who wants her back, one-tenth perhaps out of familial obligation, and nine-tenths for her cheap labor.
Soon she takes up with two adults we’ve already seen — a very lovely Airline Hostess, Miss Lan [Cat Ly], who inexplicably[break your hearts gentlemen] hasn’t found her true love at the age of 28, despite attempts of friends to set her on the way, and a slightly sleazy liason with the Captain on her first airline job. The other is Hai [The Lu Le], a sweet, eye-pleasing zoo keeper who has taken over for his father and is dealing with the crisis of the zoo selling a baby elelphant he has raised from birth, to a zoo in India. Thuy makes family of them both, and eventually, through some very dear scenes, of both to each other, despite their class and professional differences, and some very akward getting-to-know-you scenes. Without ladling on the emoticons, even though it’s pretty clear what is going to happen, the film will have you cheering or weeping as the credits roll.
The film-long pursuit of the child by the Uncle, and the quick snatch of Thuy off the streets by the Welfare folks, and her being held in an orphanage add to the tension, and to our estimation of her character. The “arrangement” crafted by the zoo keeper to bring her back from Uncle Dearest, and his unflappability if the face of a nasty innuendo, is a work of art.
As usual, in a film featuring a child in a lead role, besides the story itself, one has to take into account the child-as-actor. How on earth does this child, through repeated takes, manage to let her mouth and eyes and cheeks and shoulders move in such a way as to make us believe she is happy, or sad, or doubtful, or lying, or afraid, or sleepy? Little Thuy does a wonderful job, to which you have to give credit to her director, as well. There are certain scenes you will want to re-run just to follow the twisting of her chin and lip as she conveys her emotions. You’ll believe it’s all real and somehow a hidden camera is picking it up.
Gauger has a few other films to his credit. Powder Blue, directed by his fellow Vietnamese-American Timothy Lin Bui, has a strong cast. Gauger has a story credit for the film. He worked as a camera man in another street child story, also in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) City. Three Seasons, 1999, was directed by Tony Bui (brother of Timothy Lin Bui) and features Harvey Keitel as James Hager, and American returning after the war to find the daughter he fathered while there.
The Owl and the Sparrow (and yes the meaning is revealed in the story) is a first rate film from Vietnam, and family friendly. I think especially for young American girls, who can be challenged to read the good sub-titles, the story will be compelling, and have them thinking about their own lives against the ones they see in the streets of Saigon.
This is on my watch-again list, especially when I need to be reminded that people, with the help of other people, can grow love in the most unlikely places, opportunities are made to be fallen into and little girls are the salvation of the world.
Update: I watched this again, several months later, with two nieces, 12 and 14. They were entranced and drawn to the story and the performance of the young actress. The scenes with the elephant didn’t hurt either….