Tuesday 20 November 2018

How I reached adulthood without ever seeing a Vietnamese film

When Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's documentary series The Vietnam War was aired by PBS in the U.S. in the autumn of 2017 (it was released on DVD in the UK) it was met with mixed reviews. Oliver North wrote for Fox News, decrying the depiction of “the heroic” American GI's as a bunch of pot smokers, and also complaining about the exclusion of interviews with figures like Henry Kissinger. In fact, the film-makers appear to have made a deliberate decision to avoid interviewing any big and potentially divisive names, opting instead for a centrist approach in which the stories of ordinary people take precedence.
Many on the left have also been critical of the ongoing failure of American film-makers to think beyond the established parameters, such as the persistent assumption that this was a noble intervention pursued with good intentions that the United States could have won if they had just been more determined, or had the press been more subservient perhaps. Independent journalists, Vietnam veterans and peace activists such as John Pilger, S. Brian Willson and others are more keen to challenge film-makers like Burns and Novick to confront the harsh but arguably necessary reality that a key reason why the United States lost the Vietnam War was because they had as much right being there as the Soviet Union did of being in Hungary or Czechoslovakia.
The release of this new documentary and the various critiques surrounding it made me think about just how much my own perceptions of that conflict have been shaped almost entirely by American films and television shows. Despite the fact that I grew up in a country – England – which had the cautious mindset under Prime Minister Harold Wilson to refuse to commit troops to the war (although Wilson also refused to join the Prime Ministers of Sweden and – eventually – Australia in openly criticizing the U.S. aggression), my perception of Vietnam and the Vietnamese people was for many years shaped by a western-made lens.
This perception contributes to an all too frequently one-dimensional and at times insulting perception of the Vietnamese as support actors in an American story, as enemies in their own land, which persists in large sections of western society.
While Burns and Novick have done a service to the historical record by seeking out the stories of North and South Vietnamese people for their series, they will still be seen in the context of a U.S.-produced and financed documentary series, ultimately made for a U.S. audience. There is also a concern that this may fuel further failures of cross-cultural understanding and an unwillingness to confront the hard truths that might prevent such imperial aggression in the future.
This is a phenomenon that is not unique to the States, but which pervades much of western culture, my own country included. It is actually conveyed remarkably well by the central character in British author Alex Garland's debut novel The Beach (1996). Whether this was intentional or not I have no idea. If you have read the book you will recall that it recounts the first-person narrative of a young traveller from London named Richard who is drawn to south east Asia on a gap year, more for the warm weather and cheap drugs than any meaningful desire to understand and connect with the people (in this instance those of Thailand) and their culture.
The self delusion of Richard's first person narration is illustrated with startling clarity by his desire to draw a clear distinction between what he describes as “travellers” and “tourists”, with Richard classing himself as a traveller. This is a distinction sadly not borne out by his own behaviour. Even though the story is set in Bangkok and the gulf of Thailand, we witness Richard tripping out on fantasies derived from a youth spent watching U.S. television shows like The A Team and films like Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Apocalypse Now (1979).
The ensuing tragedy stands as a dramatic warning of what can happen when affluent westerners see an economically underdeveloped region merely as a playground for their own Hollywood-shaped fantasies. Apocalypse Now, of course, merely used Vietnam as a convenient contemporary backdrop for a retelling of Joseph Conrad's Second World War novel Heart of Darkness, which takes place in the Congo, in much the same way as Garland’s protagonist and his friends use the islands of the Gulf as a backdrop for their own hedonistic adventures.

The journey that American feature film and documentary film-makers have taken over the last half a century appears to have been a process of slowly coming to accept the humanity of the Vietnamese people and the legitimacy of their struggle for national independence. Yes, they were and still are officially a Marxist-Leninist one party state, but only because the 1917 revolution in Russia seemed to offer both a workable model and willing ally at that time for economically underdeveloped countries seeking to industrialise in a very short space of time. 
Let's not forget that Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues based the 1945 Vietnamese declaration of independence was on the United States' own declaration of independence. Who can say how things could have unfolded had the US not made the tragic decision to supplant French colonial interests rather than support Vietnamese national independence, or seen its foreign policy warped and subverted by the logic of Cold War realpolitics? But I digress...
This perspective is something to be welcomed, even if a deeper understanding of their countries’ role in the world often remains excluded from much mainstream American discourse.
In 1968 for example, the year of the My Lai massacre, Hollywood was still producing fairly traditional propaganda like the John Wayne film The Green Berets. By the 1970s, when it had become clear that the U.S. had lost the war, American film-makers turned to making fraught dramas, character studies of the tortured psyches of individual veterans such as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Michael Cimono’s The Deer Hunter (1978), both movies that helped launch Robert de Niro’s acting career.
This theme was developed and refined during the 1980s with increasing reference to the lived experience of real (white, western) people from that period. From the U.S. forces disc jockey portrayed by Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam (1988), and his slow awakening that the story he had been sold by his government was really a lie, to Ron Kovic, whose journey from idealistic young patriot to outspoken peace activist is depicted by Tom Cruise in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989).
Meanwhile, as the US exported its cultural output to the rest of the world, and even as the Vietnamese government of the late 1980s implemented market-friendly, economic "renovation" policies that removed many of its leading socialist policies, most people in the west remained effectively blind to Vietnamese voices and perspectives.
Occasionally you might find a depiction in these American films of the Vietnamese as more than one dimensional characters in an American story, but no recognition of the fact that, despite its underdevelopment, Vietnam nevertheless managed to invest in its own homegrown film industry, where Vietnamese characters take centre stage in their own stories. The Vietnam Film Studio was established in Hanoi shortly after partition in the 1950s. The U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam had its own film industry too based in Saigon, and they remained separate entities until reunification in the 1970s.
Yet today anyone in this age of globalisation who searches the Internet for classic Vietnamese films will find precious little available on DVD or on streaming video services for English-speaking viewers, in contrast to the diversity of films from Japan, South Korea and even China that are widely available for English-speaking audiences. 
Those genuinely interested in finding Vietnamese perspectives on “the American War” (as it is known in Vietnam) must rely on occasional specialist film festivals or fall back on random postings to video-sharing websites where, if they are lucky, they may find a version with subtitles.
This article therefore is deliberately designed to fill the vacuum that exists in the minds of many westerners with regards to Vietnamese culture, and particularly Vietnamese cinema.

Perhaps the best Vietnamese film for English speakers to begin with is Tran Van Thuy's 1998 documentary Tieng vi cam o My Lai (The Sound of the Violin at My Lai), which is only half an hour long. It is particularly good for anyone who enjoyed Born on the Fourth of July as it focuses on other U.S. veterans turned peace activists, in this instance Hugh Thompson and Larry Colborn, who witnessed the massacre by their fellow soldiers and bravely intervened to stop it. The Vietnamese film crew record Thompson and Colborn's return to the village three decades later to meet survivors, and the result is a heartfelt, touching and ultimately hopeful film about the importance of memory and the human yearning for peace and reconciliation.
In contrast Dinh Hac Bui's feature film Ha Noi 12 ngay dem (Hanoi 12 Days and Nights) (2002) is a fairly typical war movie, but still interesting to watch to better appreciate the Vietnamese perspective. The film is about the bombing of Hanoi by U.S. B-52 bombers which took place over 12 days and nights in the lead up to Christmas 1972, before peace talks were due to begin in Paris. These attacks drew condemnation not just from natural allies like China and the Soviet Union but also the governments of western nations, some allied to the U.S. like the government of Gough Whitlam in Australia (whose people had already suffered much for its support of the Americans), others steadfastly non-aligned such as that of Olof Palme in Sweden.
(Source: Wikipedia)
Perhaps one of the most rewarding experiences of watching this film as a westerner is not simply the novelty of watching a Vietnam war film made from the point of view of the North Vietnamese, but the opportunity to see actors of European-descent playing small supporting roles in a Vietnamese story, as opposed to the reverse that we are so used to. Another contrast is the more central focus on the experience of female characters one sees in a number of Vietnamese films about the war (Mua gio chu'o'ng, or Season of the Whirlwind in English (1978), Canh dong hoang, or The Abandoned Field (1979) and Bao gio cho den thang mu'o'i or When the Tenth Month Comes (1984) being quite good examples), in sharp distinction from the depiction of women in many US-made films about the same conflict. 
In the Vietnamese films you see women not just as wives and mothers, but also as important participants in the war effort, while in US films (Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket being one notorious example) Vietnamese women are more likely to be depicted as prostitutes.
A criticism of Hanoi 12 Days and Nights from a purely artistic angle is that some of the acting is a little stilted. This is offset by a much more triumphant ending than we are used to seeing in most U.S. films about this particular war, a reminder that for the Vietnamese people the war ended with a triumphant victory against yet another foreign invader, and the reunification of their country.
A much earlier and artistically more impressive film, with a more ambiguous ending, is Hai Ninh's moving drama Em be Ha Noi (Girl from Hanoi) (1974), which is set (and indeed was produced) during the immediate aftermath of the same U.S. bombing campaign of December 1972. The film used real bombsites as locations to tell the story of a young girl, Ngoc Ha, who is desperately searching for her family, violin in hand, who have been missing following the bombing of her city. For me, the similarities to the German Luftwaffe bombing of London are palpable.

Following reunification the Vietnamese were subjected to punishing economic sanctions, and these clearly difficult years are reflected in the production values of their films, most of which were still being made in black and white well into the 1980s. One of the films mentioned above, Dang Nhat Minh's film Bao gio cho den tháng Muoi (When the Tenth Month Comes) (1984), is no different in this respect. Despite these setbacks however the director utilizes stunning cinematography to tell the heart-wrenching story of a young woman struggling to continue life as normal in a war-ravaged land, unable to tell her father and young son that her husband has been killed.
While it remains difficult to find examples in the west of the Vietnamese framing their own perspectives on the war, except in the context of interviews by western documentary film-makers, in recent years there has nevertheless been a concerted effort to bring more contemporary Vietnamese films to screens in the English-speaking world.
For example, every two years the Vietnamese-American Arts and Letters Association organises a Vietnamese Film Festival, which in 2016 was hosted by the Village Cinema Sunshine complex in Melbourne, Australia, where it screened recent work by Vietnamese film-makers from various countries around the world. Included were the comedy Taxi, Em Ten Gi, (Taxi Driver, What's Your Name?), the action film Lat Mat (Face Off), Trot Yeu (Love) and Tuyen Quang Nguyen's Cau Vong Khong Sac (Rainbow Without Colours). In that same year the 60th BFI Festival in London, England screened nine films, including the multi-award winning Tôi thay hoa vàng trên co xanh (Yellow Flowers on Green Grass) (2015), Victor Vu's story of two young brothers set in the 1980s. All these films, and there are many more, demonstrate how far the Vietnamese film industry has come from the old, black and white days of hardship and deprivation that defined their lives and cinematic output in the difficult years of peace that followed victory and reunification.
Many of these films that are only available to people in the west through social media video-sharing websites receive thousands of views. If you are lucky enough to live in an area with a large Vietnamese expat population you may find a local library well stocked with Vietnamese film and television shows on DVD, as I did one time while visiting the Melbourne suburb of Flemington not very long ago. 
I hope we can look forward to a time when far more of these classic films, alongside more contemporary fare, can be remastered for the western television and streaming Internet market, or to buy on DVD, so we can better understand each other. When this happens a world of true understanding and peace, rather than a mere cessation of hostilities, may become possible.

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