“Life is built out of a mountain of sorrow” according to an ironically cheerful drinking song in Trần Thanh Huy’s gritty coming-of-age drama Rom (Ròm). Set on the margins of an increasingly prosperous city, Trần’s debut feature which draws inspiration from his 2012 short 16.30 spins a dark tale of displaced children, the persistent unfairness of life, gangsters and games of chance, but ultimately finds little hope save the perfection of the art of survival as the variously troubled denizens of a Saigon slum quite literally bet their lives on a slim chance for a better life with only the false promise of a better tomorrow to make their lives worth living.
At 14, Ròm (Trần Anh Khoa) has been living alone on the streets since he was four, left behind by his parents after the slum they were living in was demolished. Drawing childish family pictures, Ròm still waits opposite the place where he used to live for his parents to return, pledging to find them when gets enough money. He is grateful to the people of the slum who have “allowed” him to stay mostly because he once gave someone a tip for a winning lottery number. Numbers haunt him, always looking for signs as he is. Meanwhile, he makes his money as one of a small number of runners for the illegal underground lottery, ferrying orders between customers and middlemen brokers praised when numbers he recommends come up but beaten when they don’t as if it were really his fault.
As Ròm tells us, the slum dwellers are obsessed with the lottery because it’s their one opportunity to change their lives. They bet everything, even writing out “loan agreements” to go along with the ticket request staking their whole apartments with sometimes tragic consequences, an old woman hanging herself after learning her numbers didn’t come up and she may have lost her home. The other residents, however, later pray to her spirit and petition it to give them some tips from the other side, aware of the risks but playing anyway because this fragile hope is all they have. Meanwhile, times are changing. The slum is to be cleared, but there appears to be an ongoing dispute with the developers as to proper compensation for their relocation with many irate that they’ve been cheated by men in sharp suits who think they’re too stupid to notice.
Eventually the slum’s problems begin to converge, youthful thugs in league with the ruthless developers contributing to the destruction of the world in which they live. Ròm finds himself at the mercy of an athletic rival, Phuc (Nguyễn Phan Anh Tú), who considers himself lucky in that both his parents are already dead so at least unlike Ròm he has no need to wait around for a return to a different life and already has his own kind of freedom. Their desperation forces them against each other, running and cheating in order to survive but the cocky Phuc eventually finds himself falling victim to a suave older gangster who suckers him in a poker game and then forces him into a debt he can’t afford. Not much older than they are, the petty gangster is perhaps a sign of things to come, a symbol of possible corruption in the legacy of violence that traps both boys in a vicious cycle of hope and futility.
They are all, in a sense, displaced. The slum will be cleared, but only because the land is valuable not because anyone is very interested in improving the lives of those living in extreme poverty. Ròm continues to yearn for his parents, prepared quite literally to burn the world in which he lives in order to find them while accidentally bonding with an unexpected maternal figure who takes him in while facing desperation of her own in caring for a son with a terminal illness only to offer him perhaps false hope in the possibility of reuniting with his family but only for a price. Life is indeed an insurmountable mountain of sorrow, every relationship a potential betrayal and every hope ripe for the shattering. Ròm caused some minor controversy on its release, fined for having submitted itself to the Busan Film Festival without having first cleared domestic censorship, eventually passed only after cutting a few scenes depicting “social evils” of which there are still a multitude. An unforgiving view of modern day Saigon, Ròm leaves its hero perpetually on the run, a lonely child without hope or direction fuelled only by self belief and rapidly running out of road.
Original trailer (English subtitles)