Tran Anh Hung: “For me, the most important thing about a movie is the language of cinema”

What do you get when you cast three French and internationally highly acclaimed top actresses such as Audrey Tautou, Bérénice Bejo, and Mélanie Laurent and bring them together in one film? You get something that you could refer to as eternity. And that’s what Academy Award nominee and Vietnamese-born filmmaker Tran Anh Hung (b. 1962) has achieved with his latest masterpiece, incidentally (or maybe not, for that matter) called “Eternity,” for which he also wrote the screenplay based on Alice Ferney’s celebrated 1995 novel ‘L’Élégance des veuves.’

A joy for the eye and the ear, Mr. Hung’s masterful film tells the story of a catholic bourgeois family with three generations of women, their strengths, their joys, happiness, and personal tragedies as they evolve from girls to mothers and then widows, still with hope in their hearts, during—give or take a few years—a whole century. It’s a majestic drama with top-notch acting performances from the entire cast, which results into a brilliant film experience. For me personally, “Eternity” is high on my list as one of the best films this year has to offer so far, and consequently makes it undoubtedly (and subjectively) in early 2017 a major contender during the awards season on both sides of the Atlantic.

poster Eternity
“Eternity,” to be released in Belgium and France in September 2016

Since the three actresses are no strangers to audiences worldwide—Miss Tautou gained world notoriety as “Amelia” (2001, French title “Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain”) and appeared opposite Tom Hanks in “The Da Vinci Code” (2006), while Miss Bejo was Jean Dujardin’s leading lady in five-time Academy Award winner “The Artist” (2011) and, more recently, appeared in “The Search” (2014) with Annette Bening, and Miss Laurent played leading roles in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) and “Now You See Me” (2013)—there is no excuse to overlook or ignore all the talent that has been combined in this unique and timeless effort.

“Eternity,” a Belgian-French co-production, will be Tran Anh Hung’s sixth feature in almost a quarter of a century. He’s by no means a productive filmmaker but by all means an excellent filmmaker. Less renowned than this other eminent Asian film director, Ang Lee, Mr. Hung, a kind-hearted, slender, and softly spoken gentleman, has been a favorite of the Cannes and Venice film festivals, racking up prizes there along the way (at age 33, he was one of the youngest filmmakers ever to win a Golden Lion in Venice), while in the meantime, he had entered through the international main gate by gaining an Academy Award nomination as Best Foreign-Language Picture and a César (for Meilleure première oeuvre or Best film debut), both for his first feature “Mùi du du xanh” (1993, French title “L’Odeur de la papaye verte,” US title “The Scent of Green Papaya”), an intriguing Vietnamese drama with almost no dialogue, set in Saigon in 1951, although shot entirely on the soundstages of Boulogne, on the outskirts of Paris.

Mr. Hung then made “Xích lô” (1995, a.k.a. “Cyclo”) and “Mùa hè chieu thang dung” (2000, a.k.a. “The Vertical Ray of the Sun”)—the second and third chapters in what many consider to be his Vietnam trilogy. Then, before “Eternity,” he made “Norowei no mori” (2010, a.k.a. “Norwegian Wood”), based on the famous 1987 novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami.

Tran Anh Hung was born in 1962 in Da Nang, Central Vietnam, and at age 12, he and his family emigrated to France following the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. In the 1980s, he first studied philosophy and film school in Paris but then decided to take a job at the Musée d’Orsay bookshop instead, working there for four years while writing screenplays in the meantime, before making his first shorts (1989-1991), during which he met Tran Nu Yên-Khê (b. 1968, Vietnam) who became his wife and his most loyal collaborator in various capacities on all of his films (either as an actress, set designer, art director and / or narrator).

What attracted you in Alice Ferney’s novel to adapt it?

All the emotions and I also had to talk a little bit about myself, about the vision that I always had about my own family. You see, my family is very small: I only know my parents and my brother. That’s it. That gave me the feeling of fragility. I always had the feeling that if my family and I disappeared, nothing would be left. There are also things that I don’t know; for example, I never knew what my father was like when he was a young boy because I didn’t know my grandparents who could tell me all about it. But I could find all of that in Alice Ferney’s book: the subject of time passing by, people being born, some people dying, it gave me a very powerful feeling of eternity. The idea of eternity here is very simple: when a man and a woman meet and fall in love, from the moment they have children, they will have this eternity. And this very simple idea is what I wanted to bring to the audience. It’s a very moving idea, and it’s related to something very intimate and accessible to everybody. You were also a child once, but now you are maybe a husband and a father—I wanted to make a film where the audience can put their own lives in it. They can see and recognize themselves as the story evolves. It gives the movie a quality of intimacy.

Audrey Tautou: mother and child. Or as film director Tran Anh Hung says, ‘From the moment they [a couple] have children, they will have this eternity’ | Cinéart
With Audrey Tautou, Bérénice Bejo and Mélanie Laurent you had an exceptional cast. How did you work with them on the set, especially since there are so many emotional and intense scenes? How did you prepare for a scene or do your rehearsals?

The movie deals primarily with short situations to show that time passes by, so there are no real scenes like you can find in most other movies. This certainly makes it more difficult for the actors and I told them so because they have never done this kind of movie before—neither have I—so we had to discover everything together. Before I would say, ‘Action!’ and the camera started rolling, I often spoke to them about what kind of humanity they could bring whenever we see their faces on the screen. I have cast them because their humanity fits the humanity of the characters they play, so they could be reassured of themselves. When they appeared in front of the camera, and suppose they only had two words to say, I told them, ‘Make it tasteful. Two words, that’s not much, but be aware that they are very precious, so say them in a way that you also know how very precious they are.’ Then this very short piece of dialogue will be received by the audience accordingly. Make it tasteful, like food, you know. I didn’t plan anything before we started shooting, I told them that we would discover everything as soon as we were on the set. So each day, when we arrived on the set and saw what it looked like, the colors, where is the table or the door, I’d tell them what we were going to do, I’d suggest several things, they came up with ideas of their own, and together we worked out the details. We didn’t rehearse. I worked instinctively: if we put two and two together, it will result in something wonderful. But I can tell you, it was scary, every day (laughs).

You pay a lot of attention to many details, like the costumes, the lighting, the sets, and for this film in particular, the music and the narration. How do you explain that?

I think it’s a part of what I call the ‘expressivity’ of a picture. If something is not exactly there, it’s not as expressive as I want it to be. My wife [Tran Nu Yên-Khê], who’s also an actress—we always work together—did the art direction of this movie [and the narration]. Just like in our previous movies, if she was not acting or in a scene, she was with me watching the monitor on the set all the time, and if I felt something was not really what it had to be, I just put my finger on the screen to indicate where something was not exactly right. She always knows what I mean, and then she takes care of it and fixes it. That’s also how we worked on the set of “Eternity.” She handled the whole visual aspect of the movie, coordinating the make-up, hair, costumes, set design, production design, even the color on the wall—everything. She always does it marvelously. For example, for each scene, she decided what the hairdo of the actresses had to be like.

Mélanie Laurent, Bénérice Bejo
Mélanie Laurent and Bérénice Bejo as Mathilde and Gabrielle in “Eternity” | Cinéart

Would you be able to describe your way of filmmaking or your way of storytelling?

Not really, that would be very difficult because it’s different with each movie I do. In my previous film [“Norwegian Wood”], I had to cut the scenes in a certain way, and you have to be very careful with that because I always feel that you can judge the work of a film director by the way he cuts his scenes and puts it all together. In “Eternity,” there are no real scenes because everything, this whole family history, is simply passing by in front of your eyes. So it is very difficult for me to answer your question, but what I can say, for me, the most important thing about a movie is the language of cinema. There are directors who use pictures to illustrate their theme or their story, but in that case, the movie is, in my opinion, merely an illustration. In “Eternity,” for example, there are camera shots that don’t serve the storytelling, but something else. You see them, and they may give you a few ideas, maybe some poetry comes to mind, or they bring you somewhere else, and then you come back. It’s very strange, you know. Do you remember the sequence when the characters of the young Henri and Mathilde pretend to ride the bicycle with their fingers? She is using her forefingers; she’s doing this [Mr. Hung playing the scene] and she’s blowing the wind on his face. The voice-over said the engagement was simple and intimate. In the next shot, you see the engagement party when they’re all sitting around the table, but their real engagement happened much earlier. The engagement party was only related to society, not to intimacy, not to them as persons. So, when you see it, that’s not storytelling, it’s something else, and there are numerous moments like that in the film. And the more you have that, the better the movie becomes. That’s my idea of making movies, and that’s what I mean with the language of movies.

You wrote the screenplay and directed the movie. Did you have to compromise one way or the other during the entire process?

Making a compromise is acceptable when it doesn’t change the nature of your movie. But you do have to compromise all the time. For example, when the producer first read the script, he said, ‘This script needs fourteen weeks of shooting, but we can only give you eight weeks.’ Then you have to rewrite your script to fit in those eight weeks of shooting. That’s a very acceptable compromise because it won’t change the nature of the movie or the emotions that I would like to express. It is terribly important if you can hold on to the emotions that you had when you first started to write the original draft of the screenplay. You have to find them again in the movie when it is a finished product.

And when you write your screenplay, do you have or need some feedback? Do you let someone else read it, for example?

No, never. I like to finish the script, and when I give it to the producer, I can say, ‘This is the final one. Please read it carefully, and I will listen to your ideas.’ Then, after he has read it, we will talk about it, and if he asks me, ‘Why did you write this or that?’ I will explain it to him. If necessary, or if he’s right, I will change whatever needs to be changed to make it right for him and for me.

Generally speaking, once your casting is done, what do you expect from your actors?

The feeling of something right, because if it’s right, it is tremendously beautiful.

May I ask you why it usually takes so long before you make a new movie?

Normally, I would prefer to make one movie every two years; that would be my natural rhythm. But when you give a script like “Eternity” to your producer, it always takes a lot of time to gather enough money and have a sufficient budget to get the movie made. It also depends on the kind of movie you want to do: if you want to make a comedy, it might be easier. But I had very good producers who believed in the project and were willing to fight for it for two, three years. When I had finished the script of “Eternity,” I showed it to [producer] Christophe Rossignon. After reading it, he was in tears, and he said, ‘It is beautiful.’ Then we showed it to Pathé, and they said, ‘Okay, we’ll go with you, and we’ll put up a big amount of money.’ That was wonderful news, but it was not enough, so then you have to go and find the rest of your budget. And this took three years until Pathé had green-lighted the project. That’s a lot of time, with a lot of paperwork. You can find a hundred thousand euros here and there, but it takes a lot of time to get your final budget together.

Melanie Laurent, Jeremie Renier
Mélanie Laurent and Jérémie Rénier, enjoying life in the south of France | Cinéart

You are known to be a very distinguished film director. Does that also give you ‘carte blanche’ on the set?

Yes, nobody interferes with my work on the set. And afterwards, the movie is exactly the way I intended it to be. We spent so much time and energy on it to get it right, and I have never had any regrets. The only problem I ever had, was with a movie that I have made, but which never got released, called “I Come With the Rain” [2009]. We ran into problems with the producer, and because I couldn’t make the movie with my mind, it was ruined. There was a bankruptcy of the production and then I had the right to say, ‘Stop the movie.’ And that’s why it didn’t get released.

You shot most of “Eternity” not in France but right here in the Brussels area. Born in Vietnam and working here in Western Europe, would you consider yourself a Vietnamese or European filmmaker?

There is no such thing, really. The only nation is the cinema. Cinema is language. I am talking to you now in English, but there’s also the language of cinema, and you have to learn this language perfectly to make beautiful scenes like a writer does with words and sentences. And so, when I am working on the set of a movie, there is only this one language of cinema that I use. That’s it. There’s a very interesting story about Pablo Picasso. He once had a new exhibition, with a new style he was starting. And a lady friend of his was standing next to him, looking at a painting, and she told him, ‘Pablo, frankly, this time I don’t understand what you are trying to do.’ He looked at her and said, ‘You know, it’s a language. You have to learn how to speak the language to know and to appreciate it.’ Cinema is exactly the same thing: it’s a language. And the expressivity of what you see on the screen, that’s the language of cinema, and we all use that same language. Basically, it makes no difference if you look at a French or a Chinese movie, or if there’s a scene with a lot of dialogue with long sentences or there are no words at all: it’s all the same language of cinema.

Brussels, Belgium
August 26, 2016

“Eternity” (2016, trailer)


MÙI DU DU XANH, French title L’ODEUR DE LA PAPAYA VERTE, US title THE SCENT OF THE GREEN PAPAYA (1993) DIR – SCR Tran Anh Hung ASSOC PROD Adeline Lecallier, Alain Rocca, Sylvie Randonneix CAM Benoît Delhomme MUS Tiêt Tôn-Thât ED Jean-Pierre Roques, Nicole Dedieu CAST Tran Nu Yên-Khê, Man San Lu, Thi Loc Truong, Anh Hoa Nguyen, Hoa Hoi Vuong

XÍCH LÔ, a.k.a. CYCLO (1995) DIR – SCR Tran Anh Hung PROD Christopher Rossignon CAM Benoît Delhomme MUS Tiêt Tôn-Thât ED Nicole Dedieu, Claude Ronzeau CAST Le Van Loc, Tran Nu Yên-Khê, Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Nhu Quynh Nguyen, Hoang Phuc Nguyen

MÙA HÈ CHIEU THANG DUNG, French title À LA VERTICALE DE L’ÉTÉ, US title THE VERTICAL RAY OF THE SUN (2000) DIR – SCR Tran Anh Hung PROD Christophe Rossignon CAM Ping Bin Lee MUS Tiêt Tôn-Thât ED Mario Battistel CAST Tran Nu Yên-Khê, Nhu Quynh Nguyen, Le Kahn, Quang Hai Ngo, Chu Hung

I COME WITH THE RAIN (2009, unreleased) DIR Tran Anh Hung PROD Jean Cazes, Fernando Sulichin, Jean-Pierre Marois MUS Gustavo Santaolalla ED Mario Battistel CAST Josh Hartnett, Tran Nu Yên-Khê, Byung-hun Lee, Takuya Kimura, Shawn Yue, Elias Koteas, Eusebio Poncela

NOROWEI NO MORI, French title LA BALLADE DE L’IMPOSSIBLE, US title NORWEGIAN WOOD (2010) DIR Tran Anh Hung PROD Shinji Ogawa SCR Tran Anh Hung (novel by Hariku Murakami) CAM Ping Bin Lee MUS Johnny Greenwood ED Mario Battistel CAST Ken’ichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi, Kiko Mizuhara, Kengo Kôra, Reika Kirishima, Eriko Hatsune

ÉTERNITÉ, US title ETERNITY (2016) DIR Tran Anh Hung PROD Christophe Rossignon, Philip Boëffard, Patrick Quinet SCR Tran Anh Hung (novel ‘L’Élégance des veuves’ [1995] by Alice Ferney) CAM Ping Bin Lee ED Mario Battistel CAST Audrey Tautou, Bérénice Bejo, Mélanie Laurent, Jérémie Renier, Pierre Deladonchamps, Irène Jacob, Valérie Stroh, Tran Nu Yên-Khê (The Narrator)