Review: The Future Cries Beneath Our Soils (2018)

Phuong and Hoang, two memorable characters from the film 'The Future Lies Beneath Our Soils' attended the Singapore International Film Festival Silver Screen Awards where the film director Pham Thu Hang picked up the Best Director Award in the Asian Feature Competition 


When your life is so mundane, appearing in a documentary helps it find more meaning than living it yourself. That’s might be how the five key characters Thanh, Hoang, Phuong, Dinh and Loc feel about their whiling away their time counting calendar days and breaking into random songs in a place a post-Vietnam War seems to have forgotten, the Tan Hiep Village in Quang Tri Province. Or maybe it’s just the view from the lenses of director Pham Thu Hang.

The Future Cries Beneath Our Soils is documentary following the lives of these five men who were born in Quang Tri, a central province in Vietnam, stuck between the north and south, and caught in some of the fiercest battles during the war. In intimately documenting the minutiae of their lives and the musings of these characters, we get a sense of the scars the war has left behind, apart from the thorniness of living in a place still ridden with land mines.

Pham seeks to preserve the real tempo of life in this documentary, sometimes sacrificing pacing. In long takes of house chores, cooking, sitting around aimlessly and resting on hammocks (somewhat a repeated sight in the film), and the atmospheric buzz of the crickets, we helplessly drift into a kind of communion with these characters. To be honest, a rather reluctant communion at first. With the film’s underlit and gritty treatment, and often more than half the frames in pitch darkness, stepping into the houses of characters like Thanh, who house doesn’t have a door, is like visiting that seldom-seen uncle in your family who is not doing so well but you thought you’d better pay him a visit since he is getting old.
Needless to say, Pham has ploughed and softened the soil, pardon the pun, we walk on as we approach these characters, as they soon open up and speak off the cuff and the audience engages in a huge amount of gawking in the film. Only in the scheme of a documentary like this, does mundane chatter get elevated into a more sublime poetry about fate. Thanh, who seems the most ‘arthritic’ of the five men, is characterised by his skeletal body, slumped on a bed cushion and mumbling about body aches and the chilly weather. However, in one particular scene, his inane conversation with Hoang about whether they are in December, November or October, depending on whether they are referencing the Western, Lunar or Solar calendar, draws a smirk. It’s wry humour with a slightly dark undertone. In another series of scenes, Loc sings wistful songs about lost youth, love and time with his wife sitting next to him, willingly embarrassed and yet so at home at the same time.

Does life inform art or art inform life? The relationships between the two are muddied in the film. Punctuating the earlier-mentioned scenes of navel-gazing and chores of habit, are staggered emotional spikes or checkpoints in the film. One moment was an unabashed display of self-expression at the neighbourhood karaoke bar where these time-weathered men got on their feet and microphones to perform songs of a surprisingly-upbeat techno strain. A ode to lost youth perhaps? Another defining episode of the film was the tragedy at the end when Loc was killed in a fight following an evening of excessive guzzling. Scenes earlier, Loc was seen bonding with his wife and daughter in another ‘everyday’ state of peaceful communion nothing could disrupt. Suddenly, we are forced to stare at a solitary relative seated at the funeral wake with the canvas curtain beaten relentlessly by the wind behind. Serendipitously, the film finds natural counterpoints or even closure to character arcs that seemed to be leading to nowhere, inviting the question of whether director Pham was simply lucky that fate made her a film or did she have the uncanny ability to construct ‘fate’ within the confines of her narrative, or even edit.

In between telling the stories of these five men, scenes of explosion-driven potholes and mine detonators doing their job, are inserted to remind us of the unsettling environment they are living. For all its intimate depiction of the characters’ scant hope for a better life, there was almost no need to remind us they were living in a big time bomb. The film succeeds on a meditative level, more than anything else. Albeit a challenging film to sit through, perhaps blurring the lines between documenting real lives and framing real lives into an intended narrative is a rare and difficult achievement. Review by Jeremy Sing

Pham (picture below) picked up the Best Director Award for the Asian Feature Competition category at the 29th Singapore International Film Festival’s Silver Screen Awards.   


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