August 22, 2019
Owl and the Sparrow – Vietnam, 2007
There’s nothing particularly new about the plot of Stephane Gauger’s well-directed movie Owl and the Sparrow. If you’ve seen films like Annie and Three Fugitives or any of Gary Coleman’s NBC specials from the 1980s, you’ll recognize the scenario within fifteen minutes, which is about the time it takes for each of the film’s main characters to be introduced. In films of this sort, we usually get a child who is wise beyond her years and undaunted by challenges that would crush mere mortals, and that eventually, she’ll come across good people who easily slip into the role of protectors. Oh, and her protectors should both be in various states of loneliness so that circumstances just happen to bring them together. We’ve seen it before. And yet, Owl and the Sparrow has something that makes the old seem new enough – location.
Much of the film takes place in Saigon, a city seemingly swarming with abandoned children. (There’s reference to it having six orphanages, and no reference to anyone seeking to adopt any of their inhabitants.) In addition, its streets are swarming with homeless children, many of whom are hired by adults more than willing to take advantage of the cheap labor they provide out of necessity. In fact, the film depicts Saigon as being so accepting of the unacceptable that not one person bats an eye at the sight of a child selling postcards or flowers on a street corner, and almost no one cares enough to enquire about the circumstances that led them to accept such perilous conditions. Notice I said almost.
The central character is Thuy, a ten-year-old girl being raised by her uncle, Minh (Nguyen Hau), due to the death of her parents. I probably should have put raised in quotation marks for only a bribed official would ever describe his treatment of her as anything other than abusive. In the opening moments of the film, we see Minh question one of his employees about a bundle of bamboo that was not cut to his specifications. Slowly, the blame for the error is passed down the plant floor, and the camera follows a procession of tall women in their twenties or thirties before settling on a space where a worker’s height does not match that of the other ladies. Minh makes a bee line for this worker and proceeds to berate and belittle her in front of her co-workers, most of whom watch with looks of resignation that reveal just how regular an occurrence this is. The employee is, of course, Thuy (Han Thi Pham). In his diatribe against her, Minh reminds her how lucky she is to be in his care and how utterly worthless she is. He does this while routinely pushing her head back forcibly with his pointer finger. It’s no wonder she goes home, breaks her piggy bank, and runs away. What is surprising is the almost routine way she does it. She’s clearly already heard that runaways can find work to the streets of Saigon regardless of their status as minors.
In a way, the film is reminiscent of Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less. In that film, a very young boy leaves the countryside to find work in one of China’s big cities. One of the most crushing moments in the film comes when a reporter asks him what he’ll remember about his experience there. He responds, “I’ll never forget that I had to beg for food.” Thuy never suffers that indignation. The son of a local noodle shop, only slightly older than her, gives her a complimentary dinner (“The first one’s on the house,” he tells her.) and a fellow homeless child helps her find a relatively stable job selling flowers. Eventually, she meets Hai (The Lu Le), an employee of the local zoo, and Lan (Cat Ly), a flight attendant in town for seven days. We can almost see the moment when Thuy begins to think about bringing them together.
It’s this seven-day time frame that I had the most problem with. I can buy people befriending a homeless child in such a short time, for most of us would be quite willing to help an individual that we developed a personal connection with, especially if that person was a child. It requires either a leap of faith or an exceptionally well written screenplay to buy that true love can flourish under such conditions, even more so seeing as Hai and Lan don’t actually meet until Wednesday evening, giving them just two days to make a love connection. What is needed then is something along the lines of Before Sunrise. We need Hai and Lan to have long conversations about art, food, the meaning of life, literature, and their future dreams. We need to see them recognize the other as the missing piece of their lives. Sadly, this is not what we get. Instead, we see an awkward conversation, a few hints of nervousness of their part, and a short montage of the three of them having a good time at a night market. We’re subsequently meant to believe they are in love. It’s not enough, and this has the effect of making the film’s Hollywood ending seem a little ridiculous. Sure, it brings a warm feeling to the heart, but it never really earns it.
Fortunately, the cast gives the film their all and make up for what the screenplay lacks. Both Le and Ly are convincing as people whose lives have been upended by the little girl who brought them together, and the film’s most powerful scenes often involve them displaying emotions whose depths surprise even them. A key scene shows them practically pleading with authorities to be allowed to take care of Thuy, all the while knowing they have no legal basis for doing so. I cared for these characters, and I wished there were more people like them.
I’m always grateful for a movie that shows me something I haven’t seen before, and Owl and the Sparrow opens the curtain on a situation that should set alarm bells ringing. Gauger has made a film about people who are as ordinary as you and me – hardworking, unsure of ourselves, not always able to move on after setbacks. I admired the way Gauger didn’t rush scenes of their everyday lives. We see the loneliness, the starts and stops, the powerlessness they feel when decisions they disagree with are made, yet we also see the will to go on, to persevere, to make what they have as close to paradise as possible. We see than not all families are determined by blood; sometimes they just find each other. It’s not a revolutionary notion, of course, but in Gauger’s capable hands, it resonates. I’m glad I saw it. (on DVD from Image-Entertainment)
*Owl and the Sparrow is in Vietnamese with English subtitles.
*Stephane Gauger made just five films before his untimely death in 2018 at the age of 48.