For most of House in the Alley, the third feature by Le-Van Kiet, the only warm color you’ll see comes from the blood smeared on the walls and pooling on the floor from Thao’s (Ngo Thanh Van) stillborn child.
The slate blues and pale greens with which Le-Van renders her sleek home and its Saigon surroundings suggests Thao’s grief and resulting alienation from husband Thanh (Tran Bao Son), who’s torn between tenderness for his fragile wife and some sloppily detailed unrest at his family’s factory. The cold palette also signifies that home’s bad luck—in this world, luck is an angry god to be appeased with regular cleaning and cheery tchotchkes that Thao, as his mother-in-law sees it, is too lazy to supply.
At its best, the film deftly plumbs the gulf between its central couple with both finely rendered realism—even as Thanh peppers his vacant-eyed wife with “What’s wrong?”s, he has so given up on an answer that he appears to be murmuring to himself—and, jarringly, the old-fashioned tricks of horror, as Thao’s grief morphs her into a murderous monster. At its worst, it paints a Victorian portrait of womanhood, with Thao’s hysteria the product of insufficient domination, sexual and otherwise, by Thanh.
It’s shoddily plotted, too. Eerily, Thanh attempts to have sex with Thao the night after she lacerates his cheek and sets the house on fire. When the film shifts from drama to horror, Thao doesn’t just cede the protagonist role to Thanh; she ceases to be a real character, the only inconsistency in the film that can’t be forgiven.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 23, 2013