In May and June this film will be showing in theatres across the UK and we recommend you catch this on the BIG SCREEN - the list of dates are HERE. And if you're a Londoner you may still be able to grab a ticket for the Q&A premiere in the CURZON SOHO. Director Alastair Evans has kindly allowed LMFF a sneak preview and you can read our review below.
This is a beautifully shot, well balanced, fascinating film which provides the perfect focus to revisit the difficult theme of the extent to which adventure tourism should be allowed to creep into areas of outstanding natural beauty.
It's perfect because the destination in question, Vietnam's Son Doong limestone cave (Hang Son Doong translates as 'Mountain River Cave') is particularly outstanding in its beauty. In fact it's off the charts. It has only very recently been 'discovered' in an area desperately in need of investment, and yet is sited in a country vulnerable to self-interested commercial and political forces. Every angle to this story has an intensity to it.
In his first feature length film, Evans has done a brilliant job of probing the situation from every angle, with notable neutrality, and as if watching a knife-edge debate play out you find yourself swinging one way and then the other, in the end not being sure either way about what you want for the future of this cave or its local community. One thing is for certain though - you will want to visit it - and there's the rub.
The old travel argument of people wanting to 'love what they see and protect what they love' is true to an extent, but of course the privilege of being able to roam the world and visit its most amazing features is only something available to the affluent, which typically means those in the developed west. Currently a limited number of people are allowed to enter the cave each year and visitors are carefully controlled by a local travel company (that's a good thing) using western professionals to take western people on tours within the cave (these can take days - it really is big!).
It appears to come down to three options: One, protect the cave forever, preserving its beauty by erecting some sort of cage around or in front of it. Two, leave things as they are, allowing a small number to visit (currently less people have been in the cave than to the summit of Everest) and reasonably preserve its appearance. Three, open it up to a much greater number, fully disturb its peace, throw in a cable car (yes, this was proposed), and commoditise the experience to the extent that perhaps even the locals will get to visit their own cave.
Most of us will be sympathetic to the preservation of the cave, and rightly so, but then Evans edits in some Vietnam war footage which shows how devastated this central strip of the country was during the conflict - it was pretty much on fire throughout - and then you see how slow the recovery has been and how many people subsequently died of starvation. Having been through all of that, you have to ask yourself, why shouldn't the government there be allowed to do what they want with their cave? Why should western interventionists get a say? Who are we to object to mass tourism as a legitimate income stream?
At the centre of this political, commercial, conservationist conundrum, still and silent, and simply breathtaking is the star of the show itself - Hang Son Doong - and Evans has captured it with exceptional photography. You have to see this at a cinema.
The cave itself is staggering in its size - big enough in parts to accommodate very tall buildings. That signature image of the shaft of light captured in the poster gives an idea of the scale but also brings a cathedral-like atmosphere to the screen. This is a sacred space, a spiritual place, and the notion of that shaft of light being interrupted by a swinging cable car full of excited Instagram tourists is heart-breaking.
It's inevitable, of course, that the cave will be commercialised further, although a promise has been made by the government that nothing will change before 2030. But governments change and promises get broken, and 2030 isn't that far away anyway. Something will happen, but hopefully organisations like UNESCO who are campaigning for Hang Son Doong's protection will sufficiently prevail and the cave, described at one point in the film as a time capsule, will live forever.
Review by Greg Hackett