The story of how “Rom” managed to screen in Busan is quite interesting. During the last September, after “Rom” was submitted and picked to screen in BIFF, the Vietnam Cinema Department had said that the Hoan Khue company, which produced “Rom”, had sent the movie to the festival before it was approved by Vietnam’s censors. It also asked the company to explain why the film had been produced by foreigners without getting the script approved as required by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. The company then wrote to the Busan festival organizers and asked that the film be withdrawn. (source: e.vnexpress.net)
However, the movie was eventually screened, since, according to Park Sungho, a BIFF 2019 representative, “we did not want to cancel the screening because a lot of fans had bought the tickets and cared for the movie. A film festival has to keep its connections with and promises to the audience. (source: e.vnexpress.net)
And it is good that “Rom” managed to screen, because it is a great movie. Let us take things from the beginning, though.
The film was developed from the short “16:30”, which screened in Cannes at 2013, in the Short Film Corner, with the development to a feature film from scratch taking seven years. The story revolves around the titular character, a young boy who is running the back streets of Saigon, as a middleman for picking lottery tickets for his poor clients, who live in the same slums as he. Rom tries to raise money in order to find out where his parents are, who abandoned him after a relocation scheme had their previous premises demolished. His “profession” is quite hard, since apart from the his arch-rival, Phuc, whom he has to compete against constantly for commissions, he has to deal with the angry reactions of his “clients” when they lose. As the complex slums with their own order are destined to be demolished due to more urban redevelopment plans, the peasants push their luck for the last jackpot and Rom seems to have found a supernatural way to find the winning numbers. Unfortunately, things do not go as planned and the inevitable violence eventually ensues.
Tran Thanh Huy directs a film that works in a number of levels, through a score of different genres and through a plethora of practices that could well be perceived as tributes to some great movies of world cinema. Regarding the last aspect, the overall great editing of Lee Chatametikool and TranThanh himself is quite reminiscent of the sudden-cut tactics Guy Richie, as implemented in films like “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” while the chasing scenes have something of a “Bourne” and “Run Lola Run” essence. The whole setting of the slums, with its violent reality and the fact that the protagonists are teenagers shares many similarities with films like “City of God” and “Slumdog Millionaire” while the whole concept of the numbers reminded me of a plethora of Hollywood gangster movies that used the Harlem game of numbers, and particularly “Hoodlum”. However, the aforementioned do not mean that Tran Thanh just copied other films, since the way he has embedded all the aforementioned elements in a Vietnamese setting and combined them in order to produce something original mean that he completely owns the end result.
Through this, multi-genre approach, Tran Than makes a number of social, philosophical and even political comments. The role gambling plays in keeping the poor people from thinking and reacting about their harsh conditions through a sense of false hope is a central one, along with the consequences of the violent movements of people to and from the slums due to corrupted urban development plans. The fact that the these circumstances force even kids to become cruel and violent in order to survive is another one, mirrored quite eloquently in the continuous, and quite bloody fights of the two boys. The hopelessness of the poor people in Saigon is another one, along with the fact that nothing actually changes for them through the years, as it is eloquently presented in the last scene of the film. Lastly, and in a quite subtle comment, Tran Thanh mentions the relations of China and Vietnam in the form of a news piece mentioning that a Chinese ship wrecked a local fish boat.
All the aforementioned seem to give an excuse, but not justify, the violence that eventually ensues, stating that these people’s hopes are hanging by a thread so thin, that all they need is an “accident”, another unlucky moment if you prefer, in order to succumb completely to despair, and subsequently to feel that violence is the only way out. However, the way he presents the violence in the film, both in the boys and the “grown-up” fights, highlights both its grotesqueness and the fact that nothing changes through it, thus doing the opposite of justifying it, in essence.
Furthermore, the movie paints the picture of a rather dark but very real world, where values like love, friendship, mercy and companionship have no place at all, with the way the boy gets to understand this reality in the harshest fashion, presenting a well-thought coming-of-age element to the movie. This aspect and the realism of his fights with Phuc are the apogee of a great performance by Tran Anh Koa, who depicts his situation with documentary-like realism, mirroring another overall aspect of the film. Nguyen Phan Anh Tu as Phuc is also very convincing as the “villain”, with the conflicting chemistry of the two being one of the movie’s best traits.
This review would not be complete if we did not mention Nguyen Vinh Phuc’s excellent cinematography, which gives images of both realism and artistry in a number of different settings, while thriving in the depiction of the claustrophobic setting of the slums. The final scenes with the chase in the city’s roads are the most impressive, visually, in the film, as they also highlights Tran Thanh’s directorial abilities. Lastly, the scene where Rom is trapped in a grave of shorts is also splendid, particularly due to the way it depicts the metaphor for its actual situation.
Huy Tran Thanh has managed to shoot a movie that seems to have it all, action, drama, context, production values, etc and did so with gusto, in one of the best of the year.