Three hapless souls, lost in modernizing Saigon, loveless and lonely, victims of an emerging capitalist system that exploits them and leaves them in increasingly sterile surroundings.

It sounds like a set-up for something hopelessly didactic, but instead what you get is one of the best small films you could hope for.

Lan (Cat Ly) is a flight attendant whose life is spent either in the air or in airless hotel rooms, where she’s having a cheap affair with a married pilot. Hai (Le The Lu) is a zookeeper whose girlfriend has dumped him for more upwardly mobile possibilities, and whose favorite elephant is about to be sold out from under him, and Thuy (Pham Thi Han) is a ten-year-old girl whose parents are dead. She’s left to live with and work for her abusive uncle, who runs a bamboo factory.

Thuy runs away from home and ends up striking up tenuous, separate relationships with Lan and Hai; eventually, of course, she’s caught and sent back to her uncle, and Lan and Hai meet and set about bringing her “home,” which, they come to realize, means them.

It’s a low budget film written and directed by American cinematographer Stephane Gauger, who shot it guerilla style on the streets of Saigon using two cameras. The technique gives the film a genuineness and immediacy that’s unusual, and makes Saigon in effect a major character.

Gauger lucked out with the actors. They’re all excellent. But the actors lucked out too: Gauger gives them honest things to say, and while they’re all struggling, we never get the sense that their economic fate determines who they are as people. It’s a lovely achievement.

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