by Elizabeth Ang
“Instead of invading Vietnam with a kind of generosity that makes things unnatural, we let Vietnam invade us” — Jean-Luc Godard in Camera Eye (1967)
To date, persisting images of a war-torn Vietnam in popular media seem to obscure the rich yet abridged archive of Vietnamese films stemming from the mid 20th century long before the country’s reunification in 1975. This very motif of “Vietnam”, or at least the image of, had assailed the psyches of French filmmakers of the time, galvanising Left Bank filmmakers Agnes Varda, Alan Resnais and Chris Marker to join forces in ‘Far from Vietnam’ in 1967, a omnibus film detailing their anti-imperialist sentiments. In a series of protests now known as ‘68’, a political crisis erupted from students’ discontent towards France’s own violent ends as well as a broader alienation from their government, in part from the furore of witnessing the cruelty of a televised war.
While Western audiences fanned embers of civil unrest at home, the spectacle of Vietnam was far more visceral when witnessed from Hanoi or Saigon, framed by Vietnamese filmmakers’ socialist and nationalist imperatives. Echoes, Embers, an Asian Film Archive (AFA) programme curated by Trương Quế Chi and Trần Duy Hưng, sought to traverse this very reflexivity of cinematic tropes coloured by revolutionary consciousness and inform viewers of a new cultural epoch birthed after the period of Đổi Mới reforms. What had previously set ablaze the desires of Vietnamese directors are now relegated to the past, with a younger generation in the likes of Síu Pham, Trần Phương Thảo and Đỗ Văn Hoàng forging an unprecedented future for contemporary Vietnamese cinema, steeped in rapid urbanisation and amid conflicting cultural norms and unfaltering censorship.
War and Peace
While the first Vietnamese films appeared decades before the First Indochina War, the slew of government-produced films kickstarted with a much more official mandate in 1953; when Ho Chi Minh signed a decree to create the Vietnam Movie and Photography enterprise. The introduction of a more elaborate state funding apparatus invariably pivoted Vietnamese cinema in a political direction which would outlive most of its fictional predecessors. Hanoi”s Landscape (1958) was among these early state-funded films. Depicting Hanoi after the events of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954, the tranquillity of the city appears surreal with the montage of silent scenes showing idyllic cityfolk going about their lives. Akin to witnessing a prelude of a new dawn, the picturesque rendering of Hanoi as a serene haven promises fresh beginnings of a socialist era untouched by the atrocities of Điện Biên Phủ, not unlike scenes from post-WWII British Malaya in the Nanyang trilogy.
This aura of hope and optimism is echoed in Two Worlds (1953), one of Vietnam’s first sound films shot entirely in France. Addled both by homesickness and critical illness, a Vietnamese student Tân faces a two-pronged seclusion from Parisian society, as an immigrant and an ill-stricken individual. Centring the worlds that he toils to hold on to, of his Vietnamese-speaking compatriots and of those with healthy constitution, is his lover. While a happy ending ultimately prevails for Tân, in a no less typical populist narrative of overcoming strife, it is not without the support of a fellow brethren in the sanatorium that his rumination is put into perspective, where both overcome individual afflictions of jealousy and despair. Taken together, the film ending enacts a triumph of two unions – of brothers, and of lovers. For all its lovey-dovey scenes sailing down the river, Two Worlds concludes as equal part moral tale honouring camaraderie and part romantic revelry in its simplicity. Featuring an all Vietnamese cast, the diaspora filmmaker’s ode to Vietnamese migrants seems prognostic in retrospect, with members of the Vietnamese diaspora or Việt kiều releasing Vietnam’s more globally acclaimed films in the later decades, notwithstanding foreign influences and censorship back home.
As the war ravaged on in the 1960s and 1970s however, such depictions of a cosmopolitan paradise seemed almost like a distant mirage, far from the harsh reality the Vietnamese faced. Propaganda films came out in full throttle from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in the North, while the South produced films with largely similar themes of war and tragedy through melodramas and comedies from their own cinematography outpost in Saigon. Helmed by the state-funded Vietnam Feature Film Studio in Hanoi, the North produced a deluge of titular epic war feature films and documentaries which almost exclusively focused on stories of the Vietnam War, even garnering awards at Eastern European film festivals of the time. Aimed at encouraging young soldiers serving in the war, the studio produced ‘Song to the Front’ in 1973, of which a re-cut 5-minute vignette was shown at the AFA as part of “Vietnamese Classics Re-Cut Series” by Nguyễn Trinh Thi in 2011.
Deconstructing the ideological elements of the original propaganda film made by Vietnam Feature Film Studio, Nguyễn pairs Stravinsky’s “the Rite of Spring” with intimate close-up shots of Vietnamese characters in the film. This dissonance of discordant orchestral music and the multitude of jump cuts draws to the fore the sinister overtones of cultural propaganda, ones that creep up and gestate in the form of endearing characters for the everyday Vietnamese viewer. Painting a soundscape of ritualistic fervour that references sacred pagan rite in pre-Christian Russia where a young girl dances to death, Nguyen likens the sacrificed pagans to the young soldiers who gave their lives to the country. Her re-interpretation of a non-linear narrative inevitably discombobulates us, with its rousing soundtrack stirring us to re-evaluate the meanings and symbols behind the wry smiles of the nurses and the gallantry of the fallen soldier.
Perhaps a more apt setting matching the grandiosity of orchestral music was found in Pierre Schoendoerffer’s Dien Bien Phu (1992). Watching it brought to mind the vast shots of Dunkirk, albeit interspersed with self-aggrandising French New Wave sensibilities in its dialogue (think – ‘Death is a triumph of gravity!’ and the like). Performed by pianist Georges Delerue and featuring Japanese vocalist Marie Kobayashi, the soundtrack was unsurprisingly nominated for “Best Music Written for a Film” at the 1993 César awards. Seeing that Schoendoerffer once partook in the first Indochina war and considered the making of this monumental France-Vietnam collaboration “an act of atonement”, the battle scenes presented themselves as an elaborate attempt at making a corpus christi that possibly redeemed prior (if any at all) portrayals of the first Indochina war, or lack thereof.
The inversion of a victorious war narrative to portray the French loss of Điện Biên Phủ strays away from the standard Hollywood “victory at all costs” formula and centres Schoendoerffer’s own experience in the war as a cameraman, to varying effects. As aptly portrayed by an onlooker, the freedom from having a main character usher in a triumphant deliverance offered space to explore the fallibility of human nature through certain archetypes. For one, a shell-shocked corporal and another unnamed ‘rat’ represent the only proportionate reaction from the faithless and (soon to be) departed in a forsaken battleground — delirium. The film encapsulates something corporal and affecting we find amiss in retellings of distant battles past in war epics, by those who fail to survive and are on the brink of being left behind.
Rather than centering Hanoi as the heart of Vietnam, the city is seen as a transitional, liminal space where French Union troops take a much deserved R&R at the bar or the opera in between their military duties, it is also where a milder scale of war profiteering takes place. Opportunistic journalists take a shot at getting their next big scoop in time for press releases and sycophant Chinese businessmen set up lucrative gambles on the military outcomes of the next battle. Here, Hanoi, is by no means the safe haven we see in Hanoi’s Landscape but a bustling marketplace where both bodies and information are deported to accomplish ideals of a more distant and disaffected individuals who lay await in the periphery of the battle.
Yet, despite Schoendoerffer’s best intentions, Dien Bien Phu is not averse to the dilemma afflicting war epics. Recalling filmmaker François Truffaut’s remark that “…every film about war ends up being pro-war”, the film precludes itself from a lens of redemption seeing that the meaning in its making belies a marked culpability in its colonial, and accordingly, oppressive context for all its lofty ambitions. The cinematic depiction of war seems almost inescapable as another weaponised means of glorification of some far-flung ideals, but perhaps not too far off from the very symbols Nguyễn sought to extricate from ‘Song to the Front’.
Following a structural breakdown towards the end of the millennium, as with origins of most new waves, Vietnamese cinema witnessed a new epoch grounded in a conscious opposition towards the dominant style of filmmaking inherited from the war era. Notably, the birth of ateliers varan in Vietnam in 2004 , following in a style of cinema verité, encouraged documentary filmmakers such as Trần Phương Thảo to free themselves from notions of both censorship and self-censorship that were still intact throughout the Đổi Mới period. Much like the works of Western contemporaries such as Robert Kramer’s Starting Place (1994), Trần’s Worker’s Dream (2006) bears testament to yet another cerebral attempt to capture everyday realities unhindered by physicalities or legalities that govern our contemporary understanding of the world.
Worker’s Dream, presents itself as a candid and seminal documentary revealing the struggle of factory workers such as the charismatic Dinh who work in one of the many electronics corporations in Vietnam. In between rejected job applications and the brief respite of returning home, Trần captures the hopes and disappointments of young women anchored by their shared aspirations of money and love, exposing a touching solidarity between these women who are not afraid to reclaim their autonomy on camera. Throughout the film, we are given purview to nascent and forestalled ambitions of a young urban working class, as well as the conditions in which they are compelled to relinquish but remain wanting of such desires of a better life — perhaps most affectingly in Dinh’s perceived alienness in a space as common as a shopping mall, a place she could only hope to frequent beyond the confines of her work and home.
As quoted in a discussion with the curators, Trần noted that she aimed at “proliferating and recirculating the happenings of the day to day” and “encouraging moments of spontaneity”, evidently through the meals and commute journeys we share with the women as well as witnessing their woeful songs and soliloquies on rainy days. Despite pervasive censorship, Trần’s documentary emerges as a triumph over these limits, liberating characters from ideologically driven narratives she would again espouse in later documentaries With or without me (2011) and Finding Phong (2015).
Elucidating the struggle between ideals and reality is not unique to the new millennium. Nearly a decade earlier in 1990s Hanoi, Starting Place predates the ambitions of a younger generation of the working class, albeit more steeped in the traditions of the typical documentary format with a fixed narrative style. Kramer had formed the NEWSREEL collective in 1967, and unlike Godard, was invited by North Vietnam in 1967 to film a documentary to balance mainstream media’s coverage of the Vietnam War. What eventually culminated in The People’s War (1969) served as a prologue or quite literally, point de départ for Kramer’s return for a cinematic odyssey into the hearts and minds of Hanoi’s population.
Similarly to Worker’s Dream, Kramer featured individual dreams of veterans, gymnasts, filmmakers and everyday civilians as they contemplated their past and envisioned their future in a post-war Vietnam. With an unblighted optimism recalling Hanoi’s Landscape, we instead peek into lived experiences through anecdotes of the inhabitants of a new era, hearing poignant retellings of ex-veterans and contemporary filmmakers of their tangible involvement and losses in the war. Further away, Kramer appositely frames the events of Hanoi with a portrait of political activist Linda Evans serving her 40 year prison sentence, whose commitment to liberating oppressed people from the US mirrors the Vietnamese tenacity to advocate for their own nation. Even from across the Pacific Ocean, Evans’ search for righteousness in an unjust world appear not too dissimilar from Dinh’s, serving as a common thread echoed in Worker’s Dream.
The rebirth of Vietnamese cinema not only entailed the revisiting of the documentary format. Melodramas from a younger generation of filmmakers featured characters pivoted towards grappling with a rapid urbanisation and changing cultural norms of the family and women. Both coming-of- age stories in Síu Phạm’s We Come into Life (2019) and the dysfunctional middle class family drama in Phan Đăng Di’s Bi, Don’t Be Afraid (2010) explore Hanoi’s urban scenes in a myriad of ways.
Between a misplaced tenderness and sombreness towards life’s responsibilities, both films jostle with how metropolitan settings came to have its debilitating or curative effects on its inhabitants. In We Come into Life, Síu Phạm endeavours to make a tribute to how bizarre and absurd the reality of life is, with tongue-in-cheek reprisals anti-climatically aborting every attempt at graveness. We see young adult siblings Mai and Vinh taking comfort in the unfamiliar and the anomalous while experiencing similarly disparate realities of having their parents taken away from them, through various long double exposure shots, jarring music and the use of visual devices of drones and tablets. In the most intimate scenes, characters are accosted by jarring or loud noises from the washing machine or traffic, whereas the most mundane scenes such as ones depicting sex and work ap- pear silent and devoid of passion. They muster feebly, like most of us, that losing one’s virginity in itself does not make one an adult or provide any viable resolution to a quarter-life crisis. Urban dwellers had looked towards nature and green spaces as sources of comfort, here Síu Phạm subverts the notion of urbanness as profane, and rather a refuge for the abandoned to converge and cure from life’s incessant ills. Through exploring empty spaces within one’s soul in a bustling city, the film constructs a ludic vision of siblings catalysing an unfamiliar interiority amid desolation and youthful whims.
With cinematography reminiscent of the empty spaces found in the works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming Liang, Phan’s take of urban life is much less sanguine in Bi, Don’t Be Afraid. The only unsullied character not mired in a misplaced yearning, is an impudent but sensitive 6-year old boy Bi. Unlike what the title posits, Bi has much to be afraid of. Surrounded by depravity and disaffection in his own family, Bi finds solace in the ice factories in Hanoi and the open fields away from his decrepit house and away from the brusque encounters of adults: his mother, father and aunt. His innocent playmaking, similarly conceived in Tropical Siesta (2017) by Thoa Nguyen Phan, accentuates the evocative nature of the graphic sexual scenes the rest of the cast are subject to. Spanning three generations of men each indicating repressed desires for acceptance and validation, the film’s obscenity is by and large a product of the dominantly male gaze ever-present in Confucian patriarchal societies to say the least.
Every character’s manoeuvre within the city proves to be a futile attempt to unfetter repressed desires from the foreboding concrete walls and oppressive heat. The purity of the rural landscape beckons to Bi but it is only through the eyes of other characters we see that the decadence from urban living brings with it in all decay to paddy fields in Hanoi’s outskirts, and even out to the quaint breakwaters of Hai Phong. Only in death and marriage is loneliness abated — the perversion of innocence amid such a bleak backdrop is almost prophetically reflected in Bi’s closest kin.
Much like the loneliness touched on in We Come into Life and Bi, Don’t Be Afraid, the implacable stillness of modern city life offers little comfort for the precocious characters of Alex and Mirielle in Leos Carax’s Boy Meets Girl (1994). Both seeking to extricate themselves from their state of loneliness, Carax draws us to the miserly affliction of youth, egoism and romance in the city of Paris. It is as much about the relationship between Alex and Mirielle as it is about themselves, as everyone lives in their own worlds in the city. Psychogeographies burrow each character further down their own intimate understanding of themselves and their respective lovers, accentuating their emotional divide through urban cartographies. Between moments of self-awareness, existential humour abounds — where characters oscillate between flagrant dismissals of pettiness and short-lived affectations, not unlike the films mentioned above.
The setting of perpetual darkness adds to the desolation faced by its inhabitants, who go to sleep hearing either sordid, wincing words from couples’ spates or observing the covetous embrace between passionate lovers. Either way, Alex remains a lone outsider and a dreamer — one whose boyish irresolution would make even mumblecore fans flinch. Mirielle, on the other hand, represents the forlornness towards a languishing romance, one that drives her towards attempts at suicide. The characters appeal to our very own predisposed sensibilities, articulating universal fears of being mediocre or unloved, or worse, both. The train conductor’s off-key chastising of a self-obsessed Alex entering a washroom is not misplaced when he boards a train towards his enlistment camp — “you can’t relieve yourself until we’re moving”. With Alex’s fervent adulation for Mirielle, his journey from his last relationship must invariably end with the start of another, to her detriment and ironically, her own end.
Taking cues from Carax, the manic delirium of strangers meeting has equally violent ends but substantially more violent delights in Đỗ Văn Hoàng’s surrealist short Probationary (2022). A graduate from Hanoi University of Theater and Cinema, an establishment of illustrious history, Đỗ was influenced by how the perpetual hunt for identity ends in a series of violent actions in the French novel La Place de l’étoile. Following a guileless murderer through Hanoi’s streets, Probationary brings attention to the commodification of lives and livelihoods and the inevitability of being replaced, regardless of how strange or familiar characters may appear. Transcendental elements breach our understanding of time and space and permeate even the narrowest of alleyways in Hanoi where a killing is as inconsequential as the plucking of fruit or the spilling of paint. Therein lies a perpetuity in coming and going but there is no marked end or beginning to this motion of life.
Traversing through a portal to a white void, we encounter a preoccupation with the mundane through aloof conversations between an imaginary boy and girl. It remains sparse and terse, it is clear that this mystic space lies beyond the consciousness of both (real or imagined) characters, as would the meanings and intents behind our very own actions. Against all backdrops, vague questions remain unanswered — Who are you, Where is the ball? Perhaps this ultimately begs a more direct line of questioning from Đỗ for us — What is all of this for?
Through this programme, I glimpsed how messages and symbols of socialist and nationalist dreams were conveyed in the heyday of Vietnamese cinema and steadily morphed into modernist themes of individual self-expression and struggle. With influences of Godard, Denis and Carax, creative interpolation of French cinema and Vietnamese cinema shed light on the embroiled relationship between both countries, uncovering twofold — portrayals of Vietnam in Western cinema and socialist inclinations of Vietnamese cinema during periods of upheaval and unrest. However, the new milieu of contemporary Vietnamese filmmakers are carving out an entirely different blend of cinema for themselves, shaped by a profound awareness of their past and a shared willingness to break away from it.
About the Writer
Elizabeth Ang is an occasional writer, researcher and digital artist whose interests range from placemaking, urban and natural histories to beliefs and the subconscious. She’s previously worked with NUS Museum and NTU Centre for Contemporary Art and her work has been shown by the National Arts Council and the National Heritage Board. In her free time she can be found building an alternative career as a comedian in Sims and attempting to sustain a better lifestyle for her pet fish.
You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for collaborations or ergonomic chair recommendations.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.