Saigon today is still a city of lost children in Stephane Gauger's "Owl and the Sparrow," though in the film there is hope and optimism running through the streets where they live -- perhaps that is what has washed the city clean of any visible poverty or decay.
Unfolding over four days -- and shot over just 15 -- the lives of young orphan Thuy (Pham Thi Han), airline stewardess Lan (Cat Ly) and zookeeper Hai (Le The Lu) intersect, and connections are made that in some way will save each of them. The trio is wounded by life and loss, but in Gauger's vision the scars aren't visible. Ho Chi Minh City, as Saigon is now called, and Vietnam itself are offered up with exceeding care through his lens.
It is spring and the city and its people are in transition, shedding the war-torn past like last year's winter coat. While the irrepressible Thuy, like the city, presses ahead to embrace the future, Lan and Hai are frozen by broken hearts. It is up to Thuy to orchestrate the thaw you hope will come.
Though Gauger was raised in the U.S., he has said "Owl and the Sparrow" is a love letter to the country of his birth. Even in the bamboo factory run by the irascible uncle from whom Thuy escapes, Gauger finds a certain beauty -- the blade as it cuts the wood, the hands of the workers tying the bamboo into precise bundles, their heads bowed in the task.
The film's gift is 10-year-old Han, a captivating child blessed with deep, searching eyes and a remarkable ease in front of the camera. Watching her absorb disappointments as Thuy, and there are more than a few, reminds you of how stoic and pragmatic children can be.
Though the film, which is in Vietnamese with English subtitles, is infused with images of modern day Ho Chi Minh City, what Gauger has created is a quietly affecting fairy tale. And like all good fairy tales should, it comes with a happy ending. I'm sure there is a far darker story to be told of the orphans who roam and try to survive the streets there, but you won't find it here.
'Owl and the Sparrow'
MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements and some smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: In limited release in L.A. at Laemmle Sunset 5, and in Orange County at Regal Garden Grove 16 and
Irvine Westpark 8