More acumen needed to tackle womanhood

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A scene in Pham Nhue Giang's second major feature about womanhood, Tam hon me (Mother's Soul), based on a short story by Nguyen Huy Thiep. Giang, one of a very few female filmmakers in Vietnam, tends to portray woman as trapped between repressed sexual passion and a sense of duty.

Pham Nhue Giang's second movie on womanhood, Tam hon me (Mother's Soul), brought to mind the Cat's advice to Alice in Lewis Carroll's "Alice in the Wonderland." Alice wants to "get somewhere," and the Cat says, "Oh, you're sure to do that if you only walk long enough."

At first glance, Mother's Soul is one step ahead of Giang's first major feature, the 2002 movie Thung lung hoang vang (The Deserted Valley), which won her recognition here and abroad. But a closer look reveals she has also taken a step back, so she is right back where she started, and is yet to get "somewhere".

"Somewhere" is ultimately a movie or movies on par with great foreign ones like those made by Tsai Ming-liang. Not that Giang is outspokenly ambitious. On the contrary, she is modest about her abilities and says that except for French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, there is no other Vietnamese name that can compete internationally now.

Whatever the current state of Vietnamese cinema is, I think such a goal is not impossible to achieve as long as local filmmakers are aware of how they are "walking."

I feel sometimes that they are not aware. It is not a question of the more tangible problems caused by budget constraints, censorship and so on. Or even of skills. Budget constraints and unsophisticated cinema techniques are very real and take time to overcome. In the meantime, though, local filmmakers face the challenge of coming up with challenging and engaging stories. This task doesn't require money, just awareness.

I have argued earlier that a superficial approach to story ideas is a common shortcoming in many "commercial" popcorn movies and cultural movies by overseas Vietnamese, and even the best local movies selected to represent Vietnam at the Oscars. This lack of depth is especially glaring in "art" films that are adapted from or based on well-known literary works. Mua len trau (The Buffalo Boy), Chuyen cua Pao (Story of Pao) and Nhung nguoi tho xe (The Woodcutters) all fell short of the original short stories. They failed to capture the subtly hopeful vision of life that the writers tried to express. Filmmakers can certainly exercise artistic license, but when one local filmmaker after another turns nuanced and fundamentally positive literary visions into something that is simplistically hopeless and often obsessively sexual, they, and therefore the audience, are missing out.

Giang's Mother's Soul can illustrate my point. She said that after Nguyen Huy Thiep watched her movie, he thought for a while and commented, "It's too sad." Giang disagrees. "Thiep's story is even sadder," she told the audience after one screening of her movie at the Center for Assistance and Development of Movie Talents (TPD) in Hanoi. In Vietnam, there is this joke, "my writings, your wife," which means that one tends to believe one's own work of art is superior to others' and one's wife is inferior to others'. If we accept the "truth" of this joke, we will not get anywhere by asking what Thiep thinks about Giang's work or vice versa. It's better to judge for oneself.

Nguyen Huy Thiep's short story of the same name, published two decades ago, is a brilliant story about children. In this story, Thiep deals with the idea of the Mother with the capital letter and suggests that it is the same as Love also with the capital letter. A boy named Dang learns about this love from his best friend, a girl named Thu, who saves him from death, but is crippled in the process.

This story is sad in the literal sense: Thu suffers great physical pain to save her friend's life. But there is no doubt that this is an uplifting story, figuratively. Thu doesn't just save Dang's life, but his soul. She gives him what he needs: love. For all of its references to "Mother," this story isn't about mothers, but a childhood manifestation of romantic love seen from a male's eyes.

Giang takes up the literal meaning of Thiep's "Mother" and creates a different story. (This is interesting and may suggest that as a woman artist, Giang may be more interested in motherhood than romantic love compared to Thiep). Giang's movie revolves around a new character, Thu's mother, though she still keeps the plot line about Thu and Dang. Thu's father abandons Thu and her mother so they have to struggle to get by on their own by selling fruits on the streets. But being poor wouldn't be too great a challenge if Thu's mother didn't fall in love with a truck driver who drops by once in a while. Throughout the movie, this mother, a loving and carefree woman, is torn between her duty toward her daughter and her sexual passion for the driver, who doesn't love her as much as she loves him because he is poor too and has too much on his mind already. The mother tries to take care of both Thu and her lover but when it comes making a final choice, she opts for the latter.

It may seem that Giang's idea of Women in this movie has evolved compared to The Deserted Valley. She herself said Mother's Soul was "most me" because writer Nguyen Quang Lap scripted The Deserted Valley and she didn't change his script around as much as she did with Nguyen Huy Thiep's story. In The Deserted Valley, a movie about teachers struggling to work in a remote northern mountainous region, women are also torn between sexual passion and teachers' duty. They end up choosing duty. So we can say that in Mother's Soul, Giang takes one step forward and frees her woman from duty, letting her follow the call of sexual passion, albeit with a guilty conscience.

But there is a subtle lack of a sense of proportion in Giang's movies that shows her idea of woman hasn't progressed. Giang's woman is still the same passive being who is driven by either duty or sexual passion and who never has the intelligence and/or what anthropologists call "agency" to take her own moral decisions for finding true happiness. That is to say, in The Deserted Valley, Giang could have let one of her two female teachers follow their sexual passion and thus created a complex movie. On the contrary, both female teachers choose, or rather succumb, to duty and the movie ends up sounding didactic. In Mother's Soul, when duty is much more serious duty to one's own child, rather than teachers' responsibility to educate other people's children Giang again lets her woman too easily dictated to, this time by sexual passion. The mother apparently has no thought of trying to explain her situation to her very precocious daughter or to confront the driver about taking the daughter along. In fact, the driver earlier shows contempt for the mother precisely because she strikes him as being irresponsible towards her own daughter

If Giang really understood Thiep, she would learn something very important from him. Thiep's woman is intelligence personified. In his story, Thu doesn't just supply Dang with love, but also practical and wise counsel (though she does all of this unconsciously because she is just a child). With humor, a prerequisite of true intelligence, Thiep's woman teaches man to rise above sadness and himself, and thus, we have Dang, in his nightmare, calling after Thu to wait for him to fly with her at the end of the story.

I say "humor" and "true intelligence", not mindless, cruel laughter. In both Thiep's story and Giang's movie, there is a conversation in which Dang tells Thu that according to his grandfather, one's "soul" lies in the "inside" of one's body and Thu sighs and replies that according to her mother, the "inside" of one's body is just full of shit. This can be called funny and intelligent. However, in Giang's movie not in Thiep's story Thu merrily burns a mouse to death just for the fun of it. This detail jars terribly with the movie's attempt to portray innocent childhood. Right after this detail is a scene in which Thu and Dang merrily start a fire, cook and eat corn cobs in the middle of a corn field. With more finesse, Giang would realize that burning a mouse just for fun (rather than because of starvation) and cooking corn cobs are simply not the same. The later is beautiful. The former is ugly.

So if Giang isn't careful, instead of getting "somewhere" she will end up right where she began: trapping and burning her women, like a mouse. This would be as sad as the greatest physical pain that Thiep could conjure up for his woman or worse.

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