Just the one number 41 holds 41-plus meanings to different people. It is niobium to chemists. Last symphony from Mozart to musicians. The total number of shots NYPD officers fired at Amadou Diallo. So on and so forth. In the case of Ròm, the feature debut from director-writer Tran Thanh Huy, 41 stands for happiness — and it can be why a person can be wealthier than they were, say, two days before.

And that’s something everyone at an unspecified but utterly run-down apartment complex in Ho Chi Minh City would like to experience as often as possible, just until they have been compensated by the people planning to evict them to build upon the land. Between now and that day, people are hooked on playing “số đề” — buy a number between 00 and 99 (each number represents a concept, usually animals and based on word-of-mouth), wait until the city lottery’s drawing day, and pray that it gets picked to make some sizeable bank.

This is very illegal, as our lead Ròm (Tran Anh Khoa, the director’s brother, in a memorably feral performance; “ròm” is an adjective meaning “scrawny”) revealed in the rapid-fire explainer-slash-intro. Also here he reveals his role as the number runner — jotting down people’s numbers onto a paper (a “phơi đề”), recommending them one if asked, delivering the paper to a number collector and receiving kickback if there are winners. Or the tenants’ kicks if there aren’t any. Ròm loves his role through thick and thin, and in return these people love him enough to give him a nook on the complex’s roof. Far from comfortable, but shelter is shelter. And at least there’s one: In Huy’s short film 16:30, of which Ròm is an expansion, the protagonist (a younger Khoa) seems to call the streets his home.

Hardship is a regular presence in Ròm, so much so it can influence the populace to do the most senseless, violent and, literally at one point, blazing of actions. From Ròm’s perspective, it has many guises: If not as his nimble rival number runner Phúc (Anh Tu Wilson, a real-life parkour athlete, delightful being weaselly) then a hammer-wielder delinquent aptly credited as The Gangster (rapper Wowy, all-threatening) whose finances allow the complex’s residents to play “số đề” — and be under his watch. And if not those? Look no further than the complex’s main residents — the tragic Mr. Khac (Mai Tran), everything-or-nothing Mrs. Ba (Thien Kim) and The Wife (Thanh Tu) whose addiction to “số đề” maddens The Husband (Mai The Hiep) — when they seek that lucky number, draft debt contracts to The Gangster and become aware that their number did not come up (something fun for bilinguals: the prize money is millions in Vietnamese dong but just thousands in U.S. dollars).

Ròm’s world is a nasty crucible in Huy’s vision, one that only his and Lee Chatametikool’s frenzy-but-comprehensible editing plus Nguyen Khac Nhat and Nguyen Vinh Phuc’s barreling photography have the composure to convey. The experience is visceral, regularly challenging the normal rhythms of one’s heart, but it always ropes you in. As if knowing there are only 79 minutes available to say what needs to be said — or allowed to be said, considering Ròm reportedly went through 27 versions over its eight-year journey for Vietnamese theatrical approval — Huy and team make it their mission to locate your insides and strike (and strike, and strike) at them at every beat.

You’ll feel like you can down an entire Monster afterward.

To one’s surprise, Ròm is not completely top-to-bottom gloomy, and here we find proof that Huy has invested much thought into the storytelling. For all the verbal and physical spars, Ròm is still a youth, which is reflected through his humorous chats with (and jabs at) Phúc or the occasional need to disconnect from the number-runner life. He would walk around the city, rendered invisible — like homeless people would be — by the flashing signage and constant flow of motorists. He may be pacing around the site where he used to live with his parents, pondering the day he will have their phone numbers. Perhaps he’s back on the roof, scribbling and divining his own life-changing number.

That said, his best place is the shed of the kind-hearted number collector Mrs. Ghi (Cat Phuong) — only at night, mind you, for in the day Ròm and Phúc would breathlessly race here to get the numbers in and pocket that “first come, first serve” kickback. On the technical front, comfort resides in the minimal score from French-Vietnamese composer Ton That An, son of Ton That Tiet who regularly collaborates with The Scent of Green Papaya’s Tran Anh Hung (the filmmaker is one of Ròm executive producers).

That said, Ròm will eventually return to the fire. Crucible. It’s just the way of its world, where one night the tender strummings of Y Vân’s Buồn cocoons everyone and the next — in a tense set piece — a band of shouting & screaming torches are out for everyone’s livelihoods. Since it’s a tornado about hustle, Tran Thanh Huy’s film won’t brighten your day, but amid the bedlam is a hypnotic graffiti of lives living for shifting values more than the ultimate value — to the point “0” becomes the highest count. Then a dire thing happens. And another. And another.

From 2020 cinema’s perspective, however, Ròm brings the much-needed complete opposite. It barges in and claims the title as one of the year’s best. Calling number 41!

Ròm is the recipient of the New Flesh Best First Feature Award at Fantasia 2020.

Rating: ★★★★★

Directed by: Tran Thanh Huy

Written by: Tran Thanh Huy

Cast: Tran Anh Khoa, Anh Tu Wilson, Wowy, Mai Tran, Mai The Hiep, Thien Kim, Thanh Tu