Rose-tinted Lenses: Vietnam’s Pretty, Empty Movies

Overseas Vietnamese filmmakers take stereotypical symbols at face value in presenting Vietnam to the world.  A critical analysis from Thuy Linh of Thanh Nien News, about the beautiful but problematic cinema from the Vietnamese diaspora. 

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A scene in Ao lua Ha Dong (the white silk dress), a Viet kieu’s box office hit in 2007

Overseas Vietnamese filmmakers tend to make two kinds of movies to show here. The first are commercial movies that target local audiences and look pretty, make us laugh easily and tell us little of value, like Charlie Nguyen’s action comedy Long Ruoi about a country bumpkin forced to assume the identity of a mafia boss, which is playing in theaters now.

Films of the second kind are more ambitious ones about Vietnamese identity that target an international audience, particularly at film festivals.

While we should analyze the popcorn flicks some day to understand why in the world we bother to watch them at all, the second variety is worth looking at in particular because they are more likely to aim high and far fall short. Seeking to capture the essence of Vietnam, they unwittingly portray it as a beautiful but effeminate country.

Tony Bui’s 1998 movie, Ba mua (Three Seasons), which bagged numerous awards at several international film festivals including the Sundance Film Festival, is a good example of these high-minded cultural movies. With breathtaking visuals, this film offers little underneath its dazzling surface. Like many other overseas Vietnamese filmmakers, Bui sees Vietnam through a naïve dichotomy. Using symbols often associated with the Vietnamese woman such as lotuses and ao dai (the traditional dress), Ba mua portrays a beautiful innocent Vietnam and then lays it open to the whirlwinds of capitalism and globalization and Coca-Cola billboards and money and corruption.

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But the award for the movie that most blatantly exploits Vietnamese symbols must be given to Luu Huynh’s 2007 weepy Ao lua Ha Dong (The white silk dress). This movie, which represented Vietnam at the 80th Oscar Awards for the best foreign language film category, has it all: silk, betel, ao dai and 147 minutes of platitudes about what it means to be a Vietnamese woman.

This film, which is about a poor Vietnamese family surviving the brutality of war, was popular with both local and foreign audiences. Richard Kuiper of Variety attended its screening at the 2007 Pusan International Film Festival in South Korea and called it “deeply moving.” He wrote in his review that most audience members were in tears while watching it.  It won Pusan’s audience award that year. I was in tears when I watched it too. Who wouldn’t be when seeing a school full of children bombed to pieces? But this is pure manipulation of our emotions. “Deeply moving” aside, this film offers no insight into the real Vietnam. The characters are mere caricatures of common perceptions about Vietnamese culture, demonstrated by the trite dialogue: “So tomorrow, you’ll have an ao dai to wear to school,” says Dan, the film’s heroic mother, to her eldest daughter, An, after she tailors her precious ao dai to her daughter’s size. “Remember to keep it clean to show a girl’s propriety, and most importantly, study well, okay?” Dan continues.

Such language, which tries to show what the world already believes – that Vietnamese girls are brought up with certain standards about femininity and that Vietnamese culture values education – abounds in this film.  It sounds so symbolic that it becomes meaningless.

When I watch The white silk dress and other films in the same vein, I have the feeling that these filmmakers are fascinated by Vietnam’s age-old symbols and create a whole story to illustrate them, regardless of reality. Tran Anh Hung has indeed acknowledged this much. “The Scent of Green Papaya is a personal childhood memory,” he once said of his famous 1993 movie, which won the Caméra d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival the same year. “Everyone [in Vietnam] knew the gestures associated with the preparation of the papaya and, since the houses weren’t soundproofed, you often heard it being prepared in the house next door. You knew the sound because the papaya is hollow and when you hit it (with a knife) it makes a very characteristic noise. The papaya was really a part of everyday Vietnamese life. Since the green papaya was a vegetable prepared by women, it immediately becomes a symbol of women’s work.”

All of this is true. But green papaya is just that: a fruit. Fruits and colors and sounds, however important, are simply the superficial details of everyday Vietnamese life. They make a portrait of Vietnam livelier, but they can’t be ends in themselves. In The Scent of Green Papaya in and even in Hung’s two later and more mature works about Vietnam, Cyclo (1995) and The Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000), we don’t really see the Vietnamese character underneath the impressive visuals about their settings and daily activities. If they bothered to look deeper, Hung and other filmmakers might have found that the Vietnamese aren’t much different from people elsewhere, or that there is no innocent Vietnam to juxtapose with a corrupted one. Vietnam, or any other country for that matter, is never one way or the other. Tran Anh Hung is right to call his film a “personal childhood memory.” His films and most cultural films by overseas Vietnamese are images of Vietnam – seen through a child’s, somewhat naïve eyes.

For a more mature and realistic handling of Vietnamese culture and its symbols, we must turn to three movies by overseas Vietnamese that are based on the works of domestic writers:  Viet Linh’s 2002 feature Me Thao –Thoi Vang Bong (A Glorious Time in Me Thao Hamlet), Ho Quang Minh’s 2004 film, Thoi Xa Vang (Bygone Days), and Nguyen Vo Nghiem Minh’s 2004 movie, Mua Len Trau (The Buffalo Boy).

Viet Linh’s film is the cinematic rendering of the classic short story “Chua Dan” by Nguyen Tuan, a very important modern Vietnamese writer. Ho Quang Minh’s movie is based on a major novel in contemporary literature of the same name, Thoi Xa Vang, by Le Luu. And Nguyen Vo Nghiem Minh took his inspiration from a short story by well-known southern writer Son Nam. To illustrate how differently Vietnamese culture is seen by domestic writers and overseas Vietnamese filmmakers, we only need to compare the way silk, far too often used to symbolize Vietnamese sensuality, is handled in Viet Linh’s film, and in Luu Huynh’s The white silk dress and Tran Anh Hung’s The Vertical Ray of the Sun.

Both Luu Huynh and Tran Anh Hung take the association between silk and sensuality for granted, presenting it without any explanation. In The white silk dress, Dan, the heroine, wears the white silk ao dai her lover has given her when the couple conduct their secret and simple wedding. Then they have sex. In The Vertical Ray of the Sun, Suong, the eldest daughter of the family in the film, commits adultery with a businessman. In a scene in which she kisses her lover, she covers her face with a silk scarf to heighten the pleasure.  But in A Glorious Time in Me Thao Hamlet, we don’t see silk.  We see what makes silk:  the silkworm. In this film, the characters aren’t the stereotypical elegant people who may or may not be Vietnamese who use silk as a sexual enhancer, but hard-working Vietnamese farmers who breed silkworms and make silk to earn a living. Though Viet Linh falls back to the trite association between silk (worms) and sensuality in one scene – interestingly, Nguyen Tuan’s original story doesn’t have this detail – overall, she manages to avoid the clichéd use of silk in films.

The difference between domestic writers, and filmmakers, and overseas Vietnamese filmmakers, thus boils down to this: if they deal with cultural symbols at all, the former tends to show the realistic nitty-gritty behind the symbols. The latter, on the contrary, take symbols at their face value and create characters to illustrate them. Similarly, the way a picky native audience sees Vietnamese cultural films by overseas Vietnamese can be markedly different from the way that even a cosmopolitan foreigner sees them. The latter tends to take what he sees for granted. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times for instance was impressed by the sets of The Scent of Green Papaya. “There is a tradition in Asian films of sets that are obviously artificial,” Ebert wrote in his review. “But the sets for “Green Papaya” are so convincing that at first we think we are occupying a small, secluded corner of a real city.”

When I, who am Vietnamese, first watched this movie, I just couldn’t get into the story precisely because the sets looked too artificial to me.

Thuy Linh lives and works in Hanoi. She graduated from UMass Boston with a BA in English and has a Certificate in Screenwriting from the Film Studies Program, a 10-month program of the Hanoi University of Social Sciences and Humanities (in partnership with the Ford Foundation).

She is a translator/reporter/editor for various English newspapers in Hanoi and HCMC such as VietNamNet, Saigon Times, Sai Gon Giai Phong, and Tuoi Tre. At present, she works as a translator/editor for the “fiction” section (translates and edits contemporary Vietnamese short stories) and a film critic for Thanh Nien. This article originally appeared in Thanh Nien.

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  1. Great write on the interpretation of cultural symbols. Of course, the different experiences of people living within a country and those who have left it to live elsewhere are bound to have an effect on their respective interpretations of that country’s culture. To a certain extent, an individual’s reaction to a specific symbol will differ from that of another, even within the same cultural group in a single community, which brings me to the silk in “The Vertical Ray of the Sun”. While Thuy Linh sees Suong covering her face with a silk scarf to enhance pleasure, I read it as symbolic of her desire to keep the affair from becoming too personal. She refuses to speak to her lover, and the scarf covers not only her mouth, but her whole face. For the lover, it is frustrating that she keeps silent and keeps this distance from him. For Suong, this distance is what gives her control. She chooses when to cover her face, when to let him hear her voice when she sings, and when to leave.
    It’s not just at the representation of cultural symbols, but in the interpretation of them that we have to look.
    By the way, I left VN at age 18 to study for 4 years, but have been mostly in VN for the last 10. So I am looking at this issue from all angles. I also think there is a necessity to compare and contrast many more Viet films before coming to the conclusion that Thuy Linh does.

    • We’ll be publishing some more columns by Thuy Linh on other Vietnamese films, so readers will get a wider sample of the Vietnamese cinema she’s looking at.

  2. The underlying message of this piece appears to be that Vietnamese people in Vietnam are more authentic than Vietnamese in the diaspora. Therefore, the former creates and consumes movies that show the “true” Vietnam while the latter produces fluff that only foreigners like. But the author’s decision that some things are authentic and some things are merely superficial details seems rather arbitrary. Why is the production of silk and its attending hardships “more real” than the consumption of silk? Why aren’t both real? Moreover, I feel like the author is cherry picking movies. Why does she not include _Journey from the Fall_, arguably the most prominent overseas Vietnamese movie in recent years? Isn’t imprisonment, fleeing the country by boat, the separation of families, and difficulties with resettlement all as “real” as producing silk? I don’t think any particular group, Vietnamese or otherwise, gets to determine what’s authentic and what’s not.

    • Yes, I do feel I’m picking cherries, not just in movies, but in everything else in life in a time when people often say there are many truths. I don’t disagree. So my approach in general is at least to pick one cherry and compare it with another, since we do need comparison for particular contexts. For movies, that means I prefer movies that reflect bigger, deeper realities and appeal to more people. From the viewpoints of ordinary Vietnamese people in Vietnam, I’d say producing silk is more real than consuming it. I didn’t include Journey from the Fall because it wasn’t shown in Vietnam. But it feels real enough and that is what I’m talking about, filmmakers telling their own stories, what they know best. You need much talent, honesty and courage to do that which sounds so simple.


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