A Hungarian-Vietnamese romantic drama is slated to hit the cinemas this month, taking viewers on a trip that tells not one, but two love stories, which are very much intertwined but set almost 50 years apart.
A young Vietnamese girl called Song Ha (played by Nari Nguyen) travels to Budapest in order to send his father’s ashes on their final voyage on the waves of the Danube, and to find out what happened to her grandmother back in the 1970s, when she was a student in Kádár-era Hungary. Song Ha hopes that her trip to Budapest will help her resolve the family mystery surrounding the identity of her grandfather, and stumbles into András (Balázs Koltai-Nagy), a helpful young Hungarian environmentalist, who assists her on her journey and also sows seeds of doubt in Song Ha’s mind regarding her own future and feelings.
About five decades earlier, a Vietnamese schoolgirl called Thien Nga (Dzhuliya Lam) and a charming Hungarian student by the name of Tibor (András Sütő) accidentally collide in the corridor of the University of Agricultural Sciences, which results in flying books, and also marks the beginning of a forbidden love. Their increasingly serious relationship, however cannot escape the attention of a Vietnamese communist supervisor, whose job is to prevent exchange students from even thinking about remaining in Hungary, and to ensure that they return home to rebuild their war-torn country.
The storyline itself is truly an original concept, telling a tale which basically could not have happened in a different country in a different time. Working with two distinct time periods running in a parallel fashion is no small task, yet director-writer Dóra Szűcs does a good job at blending the present and the past. While the contemporary scenes are all about two young people playing detective while also developing feelings for each other, the 70s scenes are packed with passion and drama, evoking an interesting contrast between the two eras.
In terms of cinematography, the movie adequately checks all the boxes of showcasing today’s Budapest and Hungary, but, in this respect, scenes in Vietnam steal the show, especially the ones depicting Thien Nga’s return to her home country, with breathtaking natural scenery, people in traditional attire, and of course, Vietcong fighters training, which quickly makes the viewer realize that despite the beautiful backdrop, there was a solid reason behind young people not wanting to return. The 1970s Budapest scenes are also done well, however, there is perhaps a shot or two where places like the railway station look a tad too modern compared to how it looked back then.
The characters themselves are acted out well, and while the meeting of Song Ha and András is a slightly awkward affair with the latter acting a bit too nice, and trying way too hard to be amusing, but he does manage to come off as a genuinely solid guy by the end of the film. Nari Nguyen also does a solid job of portraying an intelligent, somewhat enigmatic young girl uncertain about the future, but the on-screen relationship between the two of them lacks just a bit of the passion seen during the interaction between Thien Ga and Tibor to make the viewer root for them to become a couple. However, the 1970s scenes pack a serious punch in terms of drama and tension. Hiding relationships from the aforementioned communist supervisor, making love in hidden places, facing interrogation, and trying out a number of desperate ideas are all on the table here, and the performance of Sütő as a young man slowly becoming more and more unhinged while looking for ways to save his love deserves particular praise.
Clocking in at 110 minutes, the film manages to wrap things up before becoming too long, but the pacing does feel off at times, moving forward a breakneck speed, especially during the present-day storyline. It would have been nice if the story explained a bit more about Song Ha’s future marriage awaiting her at home.
For fans of romantic dramas, it is well-worth giving “Az Almafa Virága” a chance. The interesting and very original storyline coupled with the concept of two parallel love stories playing out in two different timeframes mostly make up for the film’s shortcomings, turning it into a decent flick.
“The Flower of the Apple Tree” (“Az almafa virága”); Director: Dóra Szűcs; Actors: Nari Nguyen, Balázs Koltai-Nagy, Dzhuliya Lam, András Sütő; Hungarian-Vietnamese Romantic Drama, 110 minutes, 2023