Review: Một Khu Đất Tốt // Blessed Land (2019)


The wind howls and the land morphs in Pham Ngoc Lan’s short film, Mot Khu Dat Tot (“Blessed Land”). Receiving its world premiere at the Berlinale this year, the Vietnamese short follows a mother and her son as they search for her husband’s grave. A golf course has sprung up where the cemetery once was, though the imposing sand dunes and grass swaying in the wind remain as important, timeless markers of its past inhabitants. 

The film is less an angry protest against urban development, and more a wistful contemplation of the past lives and after-lives of places. Pham forces us to confront an unconventional set of characters and images in its short running time—a cow herder, a golfer, a mother and son, eels, cows, a broken vase—and attempt to make sense of who they are, and where we are in time. They sometimes become several other things: metaphors, dreams, ghosts. 



Presented in black-and-white, there is an unshakable sense of the past, even as we witness more recent events. The golfer’s girlfriend dreams of a mother and brother wandering around trying to find a relative’s grave, a strange, unsettling coincidence with the circumstances of the main mother and son pair in the film. Characters remain nameless and places are unspecified, reflecting a desire to express deeper, wider, communal experiences of loss and change, rather than merely document the transformation of a particular Vietnamese village.


Though the sound design can feel a little heavy at times, there is a wonderful musicality in Pham’s nature—you can almost hear each grain of sand bristling with the grass, each branch creaking and bending in the wind. Visually, Pham has rendered an otherwise unextraordinary landscape with a captivating disquiet, and the ominous seems to loom in each shot of sky, tree, puddle, eel. 

Perhaps influenced by his formal education in urban design and planning at Hanoi Architecture University, Pham’s cinematic work has often engaged with development, land and Man’s relationship with them. His previous short film, Another City, which also premiered at the Berlinale, in 2016, addressed the interactions between urban landscapes and humans, the big city and nature’s tireless invasion into it. 

Review by Sara Merican

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