First Take: “New Voices From Vietnam” Film Series

I’ve gone to two of the “New Voices from Vietnam” film series events in Los Angeles, the opening night screening of Phan Dang Di’s terrific “Bi Dung So”/”Bi Don’t Be Afraid” at the Hammer Museum, and the celebration of Dang Nhat Minh at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, where his quite enjoyable film “The Guava House” screened.

First thing to know: the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences won’t let you photograph inside their hallowed halls, so I didn’t take pictures of the venerable and delightful Kieu Chinh, or Dustin Nguyen looking snazzy in a black bowler hat and a hip-length bronze, fitted trench coat, or any number of up-and-coming Vietnamese directors.

Second thing: the Academy serves free booze, and it’s not bad. I had a Johnny Walker Black on the rocks and was glad I came so late to the reception I could only have one, or otherwise I would not have been clear-minded enough to note much of what came next. Plus it’s pretty cool that the bar is hidden within a wall, which closes when the reception’s over, telling you that a) you’ve had enough and b) it’s time to go watch the movie. I wonder if Tom Hanks gets a higher grade of scotch.

Third thing: the Academy has an international outreach committee, and its first target was Viet Nam. This was interesting; as the Academy’s host of Dang Nhat Minh’s night said, President Nixon had given him an invitation to go thirty years ago, and he had declined. So it makes sense that the Academy wants to look at Viet Nam in its postwar years, and that the Academy has sent its members to Viet Nam  as tourists and to offer technical training.

Dang Nhat Minh, honored by the Academy

Fourth thing: the kind of Vietnamese cinema that the Academy likes has a certain style. Six feature films are being screened, and clips from all six were shown at the Academy’s celebration of Dang Nhat Minh. In order, they were: “Bi Dung So”/”Bi Don’t Be Afraid,” “Floating Lives,” “The Moon at the Bottom of the Well,” “Adrift,” “Clash,” and “The Owl and the Sparrow.” With the exception of “Clash,” the films are all what you might call International Art House–slow, moody, drifting, mostly humorless and light on plot and high on global cinematic technique. I like that kind of cinema, but there’s definitely something that’s overlooked by the Academy: the raunchy, comic, melodramatic, perhaps mindless fare–depending on your taste–that circulates in Viet Nam (for example, “Long-Legged Girls,” “Souls on Swing,” “Bar Girls”). “Clash” is an action movie, lots of big guns and bang-bang, and I like that, too, and it certainly did interject a different note into the lineup. But it also shows off global cinematic techniques that are necessary to get films from national to international showings, as in what’s happened with Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korean Cinema. I asked the director if he had been influenced by Hong Kong movies, which seemed pretty obvious. He said no and didn’t want to talk to me any more.

Fifth thing: this kind of cinema is a boys’ club.  Before Dang Nhat Minh was brought to the stage, the other six directors sat down for a discussion on stage. All men, as was the Academy host. The boys’ club dimension was brought home by having the one woman on stage be the translator. Vietnamese cinema looks like it’s following Hollywood cinema–and global cinema, too–in reserving opportunities for male directors.

Sixth thing: the maleness was emphasized by the generational conversation. The Academy host kept asking questions about what the difference was between the earlier Vietnamese film generation and this one, and hammered the Oedipal point home by asking the younger directors what they felt they owed to, or what they thought of, Dang Nhat Minh, who became sort of the father figure of Vietnamese cinema for the evening. Perhaps predictably, not all the directors said something, and not all who said things were effusive.

Seventh thing: I met Gene Kelly’s widow, who had been an English graduate student. We talked about Herman Melville and Gene Kelly for fifteen minutes. I love it about Los Angeles that these conversations can happen.

Eighth thing: “Bi Dung So” is a shocking film. You’d think by now that we’d be used to full frontal nudity, but the sight of a penis still has some shock value. Or maybe that’s just me speaking. In any case, Vietnamese cinema hasn’t seen the graphic kinds of sex that this film has. Sex on a rocky beach looks more painful than erotic, as does masturbating with a piece of ice, but whatever. Besides that, as the director said, the movie would be nothing without its sex scenes, which is what the government wants him to cut for a domestic release. I wouldn’t agree with that assessment. I still thought  the movie’s portrait of urban alienation and marital disaffection and sexual despair very compelling, although waiting for those sex scenes did really kick up the tension. Informal poll: 5 people I know didn’t like the film and found it boring and unaffecting, and 3 people I know including myself really enjoyed the film. What this tells you is that democracy and a Rotten Tomato score has nothing to do with movie-making and movie-liking. Go see the movie for yourself.

Ninth thing: um, the festival’s really a landmark and all quibbling aside, a wonderful event for Vietnamese cinema.

Tenth thing: I knew there was a tenth thing. When the Academy says “Vietnam,” it really means Viet Nam and not the Vietnamese diaspora. So no films set overseas, even if some of the people who made the films came from overseas. This, to me, seems narrow-minded and typical of a nationalist and American mindset–there’s the U.S. for Americans and Viet Nam for the Vietnamese and there’s nothing much in between, which illustrates why Vietnamese American filmmakers have a hard time getting work done in the U.S. And why so many of them are choosing to go to Viet Nam to make movies, where, ironically, they can get more recognition and opportunities. That’s the American Dream in a globalizing nutshell–some have to go overseas or go “home” to make their dreams come true.

–Viet Thanh Nguyen

p.s. This is a first take on the series, as we hope to get some reports from others who’ve seen the movies.


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