Tracing Mars in the Well
Mars in the Well is a Vietnamese science-fiction short film centred on one man’s future recollection of the day he lands on Mars.
Pt I | A Delineation
Mars in the Well may be regarded as a continuance to Truong Minh Quý’s Someone is Going to the Forest (2013) as we follow the artist delve into a foreign part of the universe within but unknown to him. Those who are familiar with Truong’s earlier film will find a correspondence of images between the two in their evocation of water, wind, and memory. Having said that, Mars in the Well is not just an introspective journey into the unchartered, but an intersubjective memory shared with Freddy Nadolny Poustochkine.
Where past, present, and future converge, it’s anyone’s guess whether Truong’s character is simply a clairvoyant: calmly relating a perilous future to a foreigner over drip coffee in his quaint farmhouse atop a hill. Poustochkine, an outsider himself to Truong’s local point of view of Vietnam and a comic strip artist, imbues the visual narrative with his touch marked by graphic compositions of visual metaphors, and oblique angles of the Mars scene. Shot on a rare natural landscape made up of red columnar basalt, the image has such a primeval and otherworldly feel to it that you find yourself momentarily transported to Mars.
The cracks and crevices running along the red rocks of Mars delineate the tensions of confronting a “new world with new ideals” while looking back into the past. In part, this translates as colonization. The purpose of the Vietnamese landing on Mars, apart for human survival, is to establish a new economic and labour defence zone. Yet Truong’s exploratory vision of Mars remains an intimate one; a wandering away that carries him into himself, and reconciles him with his roots. In his pursuit of a deep desire, the elusive Mars, Truong’s character wells up parts of himself, perhaps once forgotten and depreciated.
As with the nostalgia, the fear of loss and isolation on a harsh, denuded terrain is also strongly felt in the film. It hints at a very real anxiety about loss and survival, especially since Vietnam is surrounded by the South China Sea, with populations living and traveling daily on the Mekong River. So wrapped in our ignorant solitude, a gleaming Mars in the Well draws us out to pay heed to the complex web of the personal, ecological, and political that interweaves each of our unique realities.
Pt II | A Conversation
We explore further some ideas behind the film and learn about the growing independent film scene in Vietnam in a dialogue with the directors, Truong Minh Quý and Freddy Nadolny Poustochkine.
Filzah: The title, Mars in the Well is a thought-provoking one, so are the water and well motifs in the film. Could you share with me the meaning behind the title?
Freddy: Mars is a surrealistic science fiction and introspective film. It’s an ode to verticality. Mars is above us and below us at the same time. It is in the sky but also reflected in the well. We seep out the water from inside the earth as if we are welling up some lost souvenir, lost feelings from our memory.
Quý: There is another Vietnamese feature film titled Moon at the Bottom of the Well (Vinh Son Nguyen, 2008). The director of the film is actually my teacher at the Cinema and Theatre University. The title Mars in the Well is a play on that title.
Filzah: I was reminded of Chris Marker’s La Jetée and Andrei Tarkovsky’s films as I watched Mars in the Well. Would you say that they inspired you?
Freddy: I don’t know if Mars is clearly inspired. Quý and I have assimilated many movies in our life, so I think some of them may come up to the mind of the viewers. But one thing for sure is that we did it on a very low budget, quite improvised, capturing all that was in front of our eyes. The film is very much “our world”, a certain poetry that combines many different elements.
Quý: Both Marker and Tarkovksy play with the concept of cinematic time and space. Maybe this is the point that makes our films look similar. Tarkovsky’s films have long been an inspiration to me.
Filzah: Could you share with us the development of your country’s film scene?
Quý: The Vietnamese scene is now “concealing open”. What I mean is that the censorship in Vietnam is quite strict, so sometimes filmmakers have to convey their thoughts and opinions in very skilful ways. It is akin to shining a flashlight into the dark night and what can be seen in the lit area (open) is just hints to what can’t be seen in the darkness around (concealing), and those invisible things are more important.
Filzah: As a young filmmaker, how has such a scene affected you?
Quý: To be honest, Vietnamese cinema does not have its own tradition. We cannot be convinced that those propaganda films made in the past and even at the moment are the real cinematic works. The young Vietnamese filmmakers have been learning a lot from the other cinemas of France, America, Japan, Taiwan, etc.. I myself have gotten my influences from other filmmakers such as A.Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson.
Filzah: It looks like we’ll be seeing a new voice of the younger generation emerging from Vietnam. How do you feel about this?
Quý: If we cannot find our true voice, we are only copying versions of those famous authors I have mentioned before. The voice here is not the national identity. It is something deeper and more personal, hidden inside each individual.