Starring: Công Ninh, Mộc Miên, Lê Mai
Director: Lê Hoàng
Running Time: 96 mins
The Long Journey (Ai xuôi vạn lý) is a Vietnamese film about a former soldier who, while on a train to a small town in the north of the country, finds himself lost in the countryside, and looking into his past as he tries to get back on track.
I didn’t expect to, but I enjoyed this film quite a bit. In triuth, it’s not the most exhilarating watch at any point, due to a rather slow pace and an occasionally muddled and convoluted plot. However, at its core, The Long Journey is a simple and entertaining adventure across the country, and that alone helps to make it a genuinely engaging watch throughout.
Before we get into that, however, I have to say that this isn’t your average adventure movie. It’s not a film that focuses on a sense of exploration or discovery, but rather achieves a similar vibe through its various obstacles and difficulties that force the characters to take more and more drastic decisions to get to their destination.
While this is an engaging adventure in the end, I need to start off with the fact that The Long Journey is a film that takes an absolute age to really get going. At first, it’s clear that our main man is on board a train to a small town carrying a rucksack with valuable contents. However, over the course of forty or so minutes, there’s not much development on that, with much of the time being spent on looking at his experiences during the war, without those flashbacks being properly linked back to the central plot.
However, things do eventually get going by the time the second act starts, and our main character suddenly finds himself lost in the middle of nowhere, having to rely on others to help him get back on the train. That alone is a strong and simple premise that keeps you engaged for a good while, as there’s a certain mystery surrounding the contents of his rucksack, so coupled with the fact that he is so determined to return and get to it before anything goes wrong, you’re immediately given an intriguing plot point to follow throughout the second act.
From then on, the adventure continues, and along with a couple of other travellers, we see our main man end up further and further off track as he attempts to find his way to his destination.
Now, I will say that that story had me fully engaged, and along with the unique nature of seeing a film that takes you right the way through rural Vietnam, seeing how people live their everyday lives, and doesn’t focus as explicitly on the Vietnam War itself, I found The Long Journey an enticing watch throughout.
However, what I felt the film really lacked was good character depth, the likes of which would have been instrumental in making the film a more engrossing watch, allowing you to form an emotional connection with them as they suffer the hardships of a difficult trip across the country.
While the film works as the most basic and simple sort of adventure story, it doesn’t have the depth to make you really care about what’s happening. There are numerous allusions and references to the effects of the war, and along with a rather solemn score, the film does have somewhat of a serious atmosphere, but it doesn’t manage to give you enough of a reason to really love the main characters, only telling you of their past during the war, and little else.
In that respect, you can understand their determination to reach their destination, but I also didn’t feel one hundred percent certain about some of the characters’ intentions at times. The lead trio here are taken from differing sides of the war, so there’s no bias in that regard, but they still don’t always feel like great heroes going all the way across the country to do something good. They don’t seem particularly evil in any way either, but there’s a displeasing lack of clarity on some of their most basic intentions, which makes it a lot harder to support them than you would really hope to see.
Overall, I did like The Long Journey, largely due to its simple but effective core adventure story across rural Vietnam, even if its poor pacing and lack of strong character insight make it an often less-than-satisfying watch, which is why I’m giving it a 7.3.