Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell : An uncomfortable exercise in metamorphosis?

By Saksham Mehrotra

Pham Thien An tasks his feature debut, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Bên trong vỏ kén vàng, 2023) with the uncomfortable journey of contemplation. A Vietnamese exploration of faith that won the revered Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 2023, the film journeys along with its protagonist, Thien. Upon knowledge of his sister-in-law’s death in a freak motorbike accident, Thien ventures back to his hometown to find his brother on the path of a meditative rendezvous with faith. While a feat in Asian slow cinema, Inside takes a winding road, only to lead us to a predetermined destination a stone’s throw away.

One could critique slowness as boring and unnecessary. In fact, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thai auteur of slow cinema, acknowledges the sleepiness induced by his films and implores his audience to nap in between and cherish a fresh perspective upon waking up1Inside demonstrates mastery over this aesthetics of boredom with its distinct rhythm in visuals and sound design, often to the point of a deep slumber.

To sit with Pham’s creation is to sit in a window seat and contemplate creation itself. Every shot is framed with deliberation to immerse the viewer. Take the opening shot of three friends discussing eternal life over a hotpot and cigarettes. Wide camera angles set the scene of life in urban Saigon; there is a football match going on in the background, vendors are selling their latest experiments in beer, and the weather is changing. Enough to show that one does not contemplate life in a vacuum. The camera pans gently and fixes itself on the mundane over and over again. The film is also restrained in its sound design, careful not to project any noise at its audience. The long shots are often paired with a silence mellowed only by the murmur of a passing breeze. The prominent voices that accompany Thien in his contemplative journey are the rustling of trees, the heaviness of his breath, and the quack of a duck.

By tenderly weaving slow cinema into his film, Pham allows the audience to both witness and participate in Thien’s journey through faith. Pham wants us to confront it just as Thien does. It is simultaneously meditative and gruelling. There is discomfort in the stillness, the mundane travel, and meandering small talk. But whoever said that to question existence itself would be a comfortable undertaking?

However, for a film that sets itself up as a philosophical exploration of faith, Inside fails to fulfil its premise by reaching a predetermined conclusion of Christianity. In the first scene of the film Thien expresses, “[t]he existence of faith is ambiguous”. He stresses his longing for openness, “I want to believe but I can’t. I’ve tried searching for it many times but my mind holds me back”. Similarly, Pham proclaims, “I don’t want to impose my own opinions on the audience. I want them to freely search for the answers for their own souls, and to freely discover and quench the spiritual thirst inside them.2” However, Pham only responds to this invocation with Christianity.

Take the instance of Thien bumping into his ex-lover who has since taken vows to be a nun. The encounter is both nostalgic and humbling for Thien, as he seeks her out multiple times to come to terms with her choice. Both his sister-in-law and brother were devout Christians, where the former was likened to Mother Mary by the village priest and the latter went to seminary. As Thien gets more entangled in his village of Christianity, he starts noticing signs of it everywhere he goes: the strobing church light in the morning fog, statue of Jesus in the natural stream, and words of wisdom from an elderly woman telling him to go to mass. Thien’s foray into faith is not so much a spiritual awakening as it is a series of happenstances that lead him, like a sheep to the pasture, to Christianity. The encounter with religious fallacies, the tensions of questioning faith, and the existence of other cosmologies are complexities the film leaves unnavigated.

Perhaps it would be more gracious to say that the faith Thien is in search of is not a religious doctrine but complete trust and confidence in the divine. It would then serve us better to understand Inside as an excruciating character study of a man impelled by the divine, which in this case happens to be Christianity, rather than an exploration of the meaning of life and religion. This is shown in the scene when Thien wakes alone from his roadside siesta. Disoriented, he walks down the road to find a sense of groundedness. After almost 180 minutes of contemplation, the audience prepares itself for another slow sequence. But to their surprise, Inside finally gives the audience the answer that awaited Thien all along. The mountain mist reveals a tree full of silk moths, almost mocking Thien for not noticing that it had always been there. Spiritually inspired, Thien finds the end to his contemplative journey in a solitary baptism. While silkworms break out of their yellow cocoons as moths, Thien has no metamorphosis.

In college, I took a Philosophy of Religion class and complained to my professor how tedious it was to deconstruct pre-existing beliefs in religion and to reconstruct them based on centuries of rigorous arguments and counterarguments. He took off his glasses and said gently, “Have a little faith”. It has taken me a while to understand the powerful intimacy of embarking on a personal journey of questioning faith. So four years later, as I fought all urges to walk out of this slow cinema masterpiece, I imagined Pham asking both me and Thien to have a little more faith. But to what end, I am not quite sure.

1. Apichatpong Weerasethakul in conversation with Aaina Bhargava (Tatler, 2023)
2. Official Cannes Press Kit for Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Directors’ Fortnight, 2023)