Roughly seven years since making his first shortfilm, writer/director Tran Thanh Huy came face-to-face with audiences for his feature debut, Róm, a kinetic and unrelenting story about a young boy running low on luck and on borrowed time, with a powerful message underneath it all.
This film has already hit a few festival spots, and to be clear, the comparisons to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire are nothing short of complimentary for the film’s suited style of direction. It’s bustling with energy and completely restless at times, and the film’s young stars, Tran Anh Khoa in the title role, and Nguyen Phan Anh Tu who plays Phuc, are fully in their element on screen.
The film immerses you into deep into Ho Chi Minh City’s world of gambling and lottery ticket circulation, operated through an intricate network carefully managed by loansharks and ticketers, and the runners who keep the operation moving. It’s also an illegal industry, and with the cops on constant watch, the runners have to be fast on their feet no matter what.
For runners like Róm – homeless and living wherever they can squat – the only way he can make money is by playing the numbers he picks on behalf of the players he runs the tickets for. The problem is, it’s been a long time since his natural knack for numbers brought him as much luck as it used to, and so as he puts it in the film’s opening VO: “I make money by selling my luck.”
Unfortunately, that also means competing with other runners who try to steal tickets from each other, including the notoriously nimble Phuc, who has quite the interesting story about how he got his name, and also has his own problems to worry about when it comes to maintaining rapport with the local gangster – played by Vietnamese recording artist, Wowy.
Between running tickets for his slum while dodging the police and butting heads with Phuc, Róm’s biggest hope is that he gets to reunite with his parents, and with any luck, it’ll be thanks to Mrs. Ghi (Do Nhu Cat Phuong), a lottery operator who takes Ròm in after a tragic turning point forces him out of the neighborhood for the night.
Alas, it’s been ten years since Róm’s parents abandoned him, leaving him otherwise hopeful to see them again. Indeed, he’s become a little more street smart in the process while saving as much money as he can, but with the neighbors hanging on every hopeful number they can play for the runners to process, it’s only a matter of time before things take a violent turn.
Apart from the narrative story and character arcs and developments, Róm stands as much more of a reflection of how the lack of money can keep a society’s most desperate and impoverished residents reliant on an elusive, albeit broken system. Róm’s story, imaginably and perhaps, plays as just one of the many untold stories of children around the world who are forced to survive and scrape by on the street, if not also used as pawns in a corrupt, systemic underbelly of unchecked money and power.
Róm’s own neighborhood often succumbs as a result of this; When the money comes, it’s a rarity they get to celebrate over, and that it’s all they live for in the course of their daily lives makes things all the more ominous and foreboding, as the constant need for money to survive, pay bills and feed their families turns their routine desperation into maddening, ritualistic fanaticism.
That struggle extends all the same to the disapora of young children who become street urchins serving at the beckoncall of bigger criminals just to survive, including and especially Róm. He lives in an a shanty attic with quick access to the roof, and his only belongings are anything he can collect and collate as potential numbers he can use to his advantage. Even less can be said about friendship and loyalty, and as touch and go as things tend to be between Róm and Phuc despite their shared strife, it’s also one of the more consequential and damming aspects of what the movie alludes to in it’s eye-opening exposition of things.
Huy directs Róm with a very fast and robust approach that keeps you on your toes. The film is almost always in movement with story, dialogue and character development, with points especially to DP, Nguyen Vinh Phuc, who performs the intensive task of keeping up with the actors, as well as capturing the sprawling essence of Ho Chi Minh City nightlife, amidst crowds of sports fans with as much gorilla cinematography as he can get away with.
Róm delivers a mesmerizing freshman work of cinema, and with spirited performances led by Khoa whose portrayal more than meets the demand in many instances, from drama, to performing stunts opposite young actor Tu who takes the action up several notches with some serious parkour sequences. The mid-traffic affray that takes place between them in the film’s final moments is nothing short of chaotic and intently poetic as the film cuts to black with the sound of heavy breathing and footsteps running to keep up with each other.
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