Open Doors Hub | Selected project 2019

Cu Li Never Cries

by Pham Ngoc Lan
Vietnam / The Philippines / France

Upon hearing news that her estranged German husband of whom she has not seen for 20 years has died, MRS. NGUYỆN (a Vietnamese blue collar retiree, who once worked in East Germany as a labor export worker), returns to Berlin where she inherits two peculiar items: a cremation urn with her husband’s ashes and his pet pygmy slow loris (CU LI). Both to be brought back to Vietnam as per her husband’s wishes. 
Back in Vietnam, MRS. NGUYỆN is swept into awkward situations surrounding her niece’s rushed marriage after getting knocked up by her country boyfriend, who originally planned to go abroad in a labor export program. MRS. NGUYỆN strongly disapproves of the wedding and the baby, not only because she doesn’t want her niece to bring shame to the family, but also out of fear that the girl MRS. NGUYỆN considers as her daughter will repeat the same mistakes and failures of marriage like she did. 
MRS. NGUYỆN embarks on a journey retracing the steps of her memories to scatter her husband’s ashes at the hydroelectric plant where they first met. The film culminates at her niece’s bizarre night wedding in the tropical forest when a fire spreads and swallows up the wedding stage as MRS. NGUYỆN starts moving between fantasy, reality and the unfulfilled dreams of her youth.

Director's Note

As a former architect my view of the world tended to be from the perspective of structure and balance. But the everyday experience of living in Vietnam is the opposite of this: chaotic and colorful as diverse cultures coalesce and collide. 

In 2015, I photographed the habitat of Edwards’s Pheasants, a bird endemic to the Vietnamese rainforests. It was discovered in 1896 when Vietnam was still a French colony and brought to France. Over a hundred years later, their population has thrived in Europe, while almost extinct in Vietnam. A big campaign was initiated to bring the birds back to their ancestral land even if Vietnamese nature, ravaged by war and reconstruction, has become vastly altered. 

The lost birds remind me of the familial fragments on my father’s side, along with tens of thousands of Vietnamese in the late 1980s, who desperately tried to escape the country and immigrate to East Germany and the Soviet Union – once known as the paradise of communist countries. But once there, just like the peasants, they changed, creating new immigrant cultures, never quite the same as from their motherland. 

From the perspective of someone who comes a generation after like me, stories of individuals like Mrs. Nguyen, my aunt, uncle, and parents are the all too sad and familiar stories cloaked in the fog of time and woven in between the complications of personal memories, historical contexts, and political regimes. It’s the kind of story that we can read about or have it told to us, but not something we can ever fully understand. And so, to me, Cu Li Never Cries is a query full of doubt about the happiness that Mrs. Nguyen, and we, never stop searching for.

As I myself now become an immigrant living in a foreign land, I keep hearing in my head, a song that my Grandma used to sing me asleep as a child.

“I keep searching within the nostalgia of my youth, only to remember that it was once found”. 

Visual Concept

I want the film to have the calm and distant perspecive of time and of life’s contemplations, yet still invites empathy and occasionally charming little humorous moments. The camera will be positioned like a third person, an independent, observant eye. Elements of blocking, lighting, and pacing will project a tranquil quality and produce a poetic rhythm to the film. The mise en scène will be especially considered, each frame of the lm will have a well thought out layout that creates the sense of a place outside of time. The lm will use moderate contrast and high color saturation, providing the purity and warmth of human compassion.

Producer’s note

When Pham Ngoc Lan first approached Epicmedia to collaborate, we were immediately taken with the depth of the story’s interwoven beauty and sadness. It spoke to us with its poetic subtlety and melodic silence.
We were delighted to join both Phan Dang Di (DNY Vietnam Productions) and Claire Lajoumard (Acrobates Films, France) as producers of the film to help bringing Pham Ngoc Lan’s vision to reality.
One of Epicmedia’s constant goals is to strengthen Southeast Asian co-productions. We believe that we can help Lan in the creative process and in raising financing both through minor grants, as well as private equity investment from the Southeast Asian region, as with our past Southeast Asian films such as: Lav Diaz’s A Lullaby To The Sorrowful Mystery (Philippines/Singapore, Berlinale Silver Bear) and Season Of The Devil (Philippines/Malaysia, Berlinale Competition).


Pham Ngoc Lan

Drama, Satire Comedy

Shooting format 
4K, Color

Estimated running time 

Production status 
Writing and Development

Shooting language 
Vietnamese, German

Shooting location 
Vietnam, Germany

Shooting period 
Jun-Aug 2020

Total budget 
EUR 800'000

Funds secured 
EUR 150'000

Phan Dang Di (DNY Vietnam Production, Vietnam), Bianca Balbuena (Epicmedia Productions, Inc., Philippines), Claire Lajourmard (Acrobates Films, France)