Although it takes a bit too long to ultimately come together, and it might be a tad stoic, the cinematic adaptation of Kim Thúy’s award winning bestseller Ru still manages to tap into a rich vein of emotions and substance surrounding experiences faced by many immigrants who have fled from violence. Based in part on Thúy’s own experiences as a child in the mid-1970s – escaping the escalating violence that unfolded in the waning days of the war in Vietnam and settling into a new life with her family in rural Quebec – Ru accurately captures what it feels like to leave everything behind and start anew in a strange place that appears millions of miles away geographically and culturally. Director Charles-Olivier Michaud unnecessarily drags things out in the early going, but once Ru puts all of its pieces together, it becomes a truly special drama that almost justifies the slow burn approach.
Ru is told largely through the eyes of Tinh (Chloé Djandji), Thúy’s ten year old on-screen surrogate. Tinh comes from a family that was wealthy back in French controlled Vietnam, but in 1975 has been forced to make a dangerous escape when Communist forces advance into their area, in the wake of the American troops retreating from the region. Tinh and her family – including mother, Nguyen (Chantal Thuy), father Minh (Jean Bui), and younger siblings Quôc and Duc (Olivier Dinh and Xavier Nguyen) – are resettled after their long and arduous journey in the snowy town of Granby, Quebec. The family are welcomed by locals with open arms and big hearted kindness, but the adjustment for each of them is understandably difficult, with the French language barrier being less of a problem than their struggles to cope with limited opportunities.
Ru cuts back and forth between the present and not too distant past for its first half with not much additional insight that couldn’t be gleaned from intuitive thinking about the immigrant experience. There is hardship, well meaning, enthusiastic, but ineffective help from locals, and frustration that comes hand in hand with being forced to the bottom of the economic and social ladder via circumstances beyond one’s control. But Michaud’s handling of these themes is largely inert out of the gate. Michaud gets a huge assist from cinematographer Jean-François Lord, who carefully executes long, sweeping takes that capture every little detail of a setting to grand effect, but the story itself isn’t highly distinguishable from other films about the immigrant experience in Canada, especially the moments that are openly celebrating Quebecois kindness in earnest and at the expense of the greater story. Even when the action cuts back to the increasing terror faced by the family in Vietnam, there’s a rudimentary feel to everything going on.
As such, the first part of Ru feels like it’s going by in a bit of a daze, which places the viewer nicely into the shoes of someone going through an experience that must be surreal to them, but not giving too much back in terms of substance. The film’s main character also works against any chance of the film opening up any sooner. By so rigidly zoning in on the experiences of Tinh for much of the early going, the viewer is forced into pure observational mode, watching things transpire from the perspective of a character that’s essentially stoic and still suffering from shock. It’s hard for a child actor to carry a film like this, and while Djandji is giving an outstanding effort with what she has to work with, Michaud and company aren’t giving her enough to react to. If the early goal of Ru was to make the viewer feel like they are sleepwalking through a strange land, then that was accomplished, but given the weight of the subject at hand, it’s hard not to wish there was more to this. (It should be said, however, that the story of Tinh’s parents trying to adjust to their new jobs and duties is much more effective and thoughtful.)
But in the second half, Ru comes to life, because that’s where a greater degree of context comes in. It’s also the element that made Thúy’s book such a revered and eye opening experience in the first place. The flashback sequences in Ru start to depict the family’s escape from Vietnam on a dangerous boat trip, and their eventual (and temporary) settlement in a Malaysian refugee camp. These sequences grow increasingly heartbreaking and moving, especially when the family begins openly sharing their story with their overly eager and earnest host family in Quebec. The historical story of hardship faced by the “boat people” is unquestionably impactful, and brings Ru together as a film in totality.
Ru always has its heart in the right place, which certainly counts for a lot when dealing with such delicate subject matter, but the structure leaves something to be desired. Had some of its story elements been introduced earlier than the ultimately are, Ru could’ve captured more of the book’s devastating emotional impact. Michaud has some trouble when it comes to expressing the feelings on Thúy’s pages, but eventually his film comes around to something that coheres and has something poignant to say. It’s a bit of a rocky trip to get to that point, but on a subconscious level it’s easy to understand where Ru’s flaws are coming from.
Ru opens in select Canadian cities starting Friday, January 26, 2024.
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