By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Sep 29, 2001 at 4:28 AM

The most popular movies are the ones with two hours of non-stop action. But some of the best movies are the ones with almost negligible action. Witness the temperate calm and tempered passion of "The Vertical Ray of the Sun," directed by Tran Anh Hung.

For nearly two hours, viewers are treated to what amounts to a visual massage that releases tension and woos us. But, appearances are deceiving. Behind the sweet, simple life of three sisters and a brother in contemporary Vietnam is an undercurrent of unhappiness, fear and sorrow.

Lien (Tran Nu Yen Khe), a waitress, lives with her brother Hai (Ngo Quang Hai), a film actor who can't get anything more than bit parts in movies. Their relationship is an odd one, with Lien forever flirting and Hai keeping her at arm's length.

Their older sister Suong Nguyen Nhu Quynh) owns the cafe where Lien works. Suong is married to Quoc (Chu Hung), a photographer who shows only his photos of plants and flowers. The portraits he takes are kept hidden away.

Middle sister Khanh (Le Khanh) is married to Kien (Tran Manh Cuong), a writer attempting to finish his first novel.

As the film opens the sisters are preparing a memorial meal on the anniversary of their mother's death. While discussing their parents, the women return to the subject of Toan, a mysterious man from their mother's past and they consider trying to unravel the story. It is this enigmatic story that underpins "The Vertical Ray of the Sun." Was it a schoolgirl crush? An extra-marital affair?

When the husbands leave the city -- Quoc to photograph nature in the countryside and Kien to Saigon to search for the elusive Toan and hopefully shatter his writer's block in the process -- the family's secrets begin to emerge.

Quoc has a second wife and family, which he is visiting on his trip. Meanwhile, back at home Suong rekindles a long-standing affair. Khan announced her pregnancy to Kien before his departure but it doesn't stop him pursuing an affair with a woman he meets on the plane. Lien wants her boyfriend to be more like her brother and dreams of having a baby and has convinced herself that she is.

With stunning cinematography shot with luscious, tropical palette, "The Vertical Ray of the Sun" is a joy to behold. Its soft pace and the sweet, playful and often humorous relationship between Lien and Hai are charming.

Although the twists and turns of the plot and the fairly complex relationships are sometimes confusing, Tran Anh Hung has crafted a film with the hand of a novelist and a painter.

Grade: A-

"The Vertical Ray of the Sun" opened Fri, Sept. 28 and plays for one week only at Landmark's Downer Theatre. Click here for showtimes

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.