For better and (largely) for worse, Stephane Gauger’s Ho Chi Minh City-set Vietnamese-language debut Owl and the Sparrow is defined by its Amerindie aesthetic. Drawing on such familiar devices as handheld camerawork, local-color cutaways, melancholic guitar riffs on the soundtrack, and a final embrace of easy sentiment, the Saigon-born, California-bred filmmaker ensures that his tale of a runaway youth fending for herself in the big city never displaces the viewer from his comfort zone. That the film remains both vaguely compelling and occasionally charming despite its obvious playing to the middle results from the director’s modest success at evoking both the daily bustle and nocturnal beauty of the Vietnamese streets and, more significantly, the sweetly understated lead performance of Pham Thi Han.
Pham stars as Thuy, a 10-year-old girl who flees her uncle’s rural bamboo factory to try to make her way in the city. Soon befriended by other street girls, she gets a job selling flowers on the sidewalk to unwitting urban dwellers, an occupation that brings her in contact with two lonely souls who quickly take a protective interest in the young girl. While Hai (Le The Lu), a young zookeeper who relates better to animals than people, mourns the impending sale of his favorite elephant and bewails the rejection of his ex-fiancée, Lan (Cat Ly), a pretty 26-year-old flight attendant, brings her affair with a married airline pilot to an end. These two surrogate parents separately lodge and feed the young girl and she returns the favor by playing matchmaker, fixing the two up on a blind date that meets with instant success.
Although the gritty reality of Thuy’s hardscrabble existence, established in an introductory scene detailing the daily routine in the bamboo factory, is never far from the surface of the film, it’s more often than not downplayed in favor of a more palatable and more romantic vision of Vietnamese street life, culminating in the unlikely coupling of the film’s two handsome young singles. So while Gauger does include scenes where Thuy winds up in an orphanage, the other kids cruelly rifling through her belongings, far more typical is a sequence where Lan and Hai share a nighttime chat above a lovingly lit city, exchanging pseudo-profound banalities about their place in the universe. As for Thuy, she seems to have as easy a time as imaginable for one in her apparently unwinnable situation, especially given the film’s hopeful but almost ludicrously impossible conclusion, but Gauger doesn’t seem especially interested in offering anything like an honest presentation of the daily indignities suffered by young street orphans. Rather, these lives are just one more round of grist for his crowd-pleasing mill, final proof that any subject matter can be fitted to the feel-good indie template if you just look hard enough.