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Right from the opening credits, Vinyan leaves you uncomfortable and excited for more. When the titles are completed, the screen continues to show a close-up of bubbling/choppy water, the tint changing as time goes, a collection of what appears to be human hair floating by. The soundtrack swells from ambient noise, a wall of sound, to including the screams of people drowning, suffering, and in pain. Whether you realize that what you just watched was a representation of the carnage of the 2004 tsunami that ripped through the Pacific Ocean or not, the imagery is sensory overload and only the start of what is in store. Watching in a movie theatre is definitely worthwhile, to become fully encompassed with the screen and aurally assaulted with the surround sound. More suspense thriller than all out horror, Fabrice Du Welz’s film will leave a mark when it is all done. If you enjoy it or not, you will not be able to shake it from your thoughts.

Vinyan begins calmly, following that phenomenal visceral setup. Janet and Paul Belhmer are attending a fundraiser to collect money for whatever new endeavor is helping third world nations. Everything seems normal between them, mingling with friends and fellow entrepreneurs, even showing a nice scene between Janet (the beautiful Emmanuelle Béart) and a child who cannot sleep, her taking him to bed. When the group collects into the living room to view a new film, shot in Burma, with protection from the Triads, the ground begins to give way. Janet is sure that a boy in the film is her son; there can be no mistake. Her husband, played by the underrated Rufus Sewell, tries to comfort her through his skepticism and beliefs that their son died in the tsunami. Unable to shake the possibility that he may have survived, only to be sold in the Asian black market, Janet persuades Paul to go with her, no matter the cost, and at least see if they can find him.

Now comes the journey through territories unsafe and unwelcome to Westerners. Their guide, Thanksin Gao (a wonderfully creepy performance by Petch Osathanugrah), can never be gauged on how trustworthy he is. Taking the Belhmer’s money he agrees to lead them into Burma and all the places he has been told contain a white child. As the search goes on, though, we soon see how valuable life is when money changes hands for a child. Already bought, but not theirs, Gao and the other natives just laugh saying, “what’s the difference?”

Many gorgeous shots make up the bulk of the film. We experience a lantern lighting ceremony, the lit kites floating up into the sky, showering an eerie glow down upon them; a few dream sequences, throwing the audience into confusion on what is real and what is not (a moment of Sewell setting fire and another with Gao getting a chunk of his arm bitten off, both being forgotten as the trio continue on, perhaps a dream, perhaps not); and grotesque locales like that of a decrepit castle, inhabited by monkeys and children, creating an otherworldly Lord of the Flies-type feeling. It’s often weird to speak of such dark and frightening shots as beautiful, but there really is no other word to describe them.

The acting is top notch and necessary to drive the story. Mostly a character piece, with close-ups and silent framing of our two leads, it is their reactions and emotions that we cling to in order to come out of the tale. Sewell becomes frustrated and angered as the search continues, his pockets empty, and they seem to be getting no closer to finding the truth about their son. If anything, the only evolution he sees is the devolution of his wife, slowly falling deeper and deeper into her own psyche as each disappointment of not finding the boy pile up higher and higher. Béart dives into this role, something you don’t normally see from her as she usually plays the pretty face, not the internal longing mother she is here. Her descent to madness slowly begins to show when there becomes a distance between her and her husband—her wandering off with Gao, her lying to Paul and paying for an extension on the search, and even a sex scene that portrays how non-sexual she feels. There is one thing on her mind and that is finding her son.

I do not want to ruin what happens in the final act, which made me think of E. Elias Merhige’s surreal Begotten. Lets just say that the imagery becomes more and more disturbing, the soundtrack louder and louder harkening back to the opening, and the performances that much more devastating. The three wander into territory untapped by civilization and inhabited by children who have never been watched or taught by adults. It is a horrifying place that speaks to the characters in unique ways, possibly even answering that inherent call inside of Béart to be a mother. Her maternal instincts were ripped from her when they lost their son and she has never recovered from it.

Vinyan 8/10

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photography:
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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