Film still from "Drowsy City" by Dung Luong Dinh

There are seven Asian films competing in the Official selection of PÖFF (Tallinn Black Nights Film festival), out of which four have their world premieres. Among them is the Vietnamese “Drowsy City” (Thành Phố Ngủ Gật) by Dung Luong Dinh, a challenging watch about a young man who has a strange, incomprehensible obsession with chicken.

Drowsy City is screening at Tallinn Black Nights

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Drowsy City” will certainly turn every animal lover’s stomach and it won’t last long before we hear very loud protests from diverse animal rights movements about the cruelty towards poultry expressed in this film. The poor things are being boiled alive, slaughtered, hit by the darts arrows and their feathers forcefully plucked, and there is no doubt all of it is real. But also, it drags on in sickeningly long scenes. Blood is everywhere from beginning to end, and yes, it is obviously metaphorical and “deep”, but at the end of the day, “Drowsy City” is at times like a film version of Hermann Nietsch’s blood orgies with a chicken fetish.

Put in the story’s context, all the violence makes sense, but the question is if it was necessary to use the unfeigned torture instead of reaching for the special effects. Dung Luong Dinh hasn’t invented anything new in terms of violence, but the times of thoughtless animal torture for the purposes of visual storytelling rightfully belongs to the past.

It’s a generally ruthless film, and humans aren’t spared either. Empathy has flown through the window in “Drowsy City” and with it the identities of people who are all nameless but one. Nguyễn Quốc plays Trần,a disturbed young man who works as a slaughterman and lives in an improvised apartment in an abandoned building in Hanoi. Chicken make him both monstrous and loving (he takes care of baby chicks), and the only things that’s clear is that he can’t live without his feathered animals. The nature of the obsession is quite mysterious, although the attempt at the social criticism remains clear.

Trần’s troubles (and the actual plot) start the moment he gets uninvited “neighbours” – three criminals who are hiding next door and who decide to turn him into their slave. Trần ends up cooking meals for them, and gets forced to entertain them by pretending to be a chicken. Any attempt at disobedience gets punished by brutal beatings, and hiding is impossible. It doesn’t help that their other “slave”, a prostitute (Lê Thúy Hiền) they boss around and sexually abuse, finds comfort in a love affair with Trần and gets pregnant.

Nguyễn Quốc as Trần

The cast of “Drowsy City” consists of amateurs only, who prepared for their roles without the script at the beginning, being gradually trained to understand their characters in tête-to tête conversations with Dung Luong Dinh, who also penned the story. According to the director’s statement, a specific music was played to the whole cast during shooting breaks, to evoke specific emotions in them. Dung Luong Dinh paid particular attention to his lead actor Nguyễn Quốc, who rehearsed six months before the shooting started. Quốc shows great acting potential, and his portrayal of an awkward outcast that plots the perfect revenge on the three criminals is impeccable. He becomes the embodiment of the righteous smite, although the chicken would probably disagree.

Particularly striking is the set design by Đặng Thanh Dương who turned an old playground of Hanoi known as “X98” into a multi-functional place that in different spaces reflects the character of each individual.