Old is gold and other clichés

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  A scene from Mua oi (Guava season) directed by Dang Nhat Minh. Those who are tired of watching clichéd Vietnamese movies in cinemas may find more satisfaction in watching some good old films such as this one, says the author.

As local filmmakers seem to be hitting a crisis of creativity and churning out one trite movie after another, I find myself watching some old movies that are more meaningful.

The list of the latest Vietnamese movies is indeed not encouraging. Vo Tan Binh's first feature, the romantic comedy Nang men chang bong (literally Manly Girl, Gay Man), which is playing in theaters now, continues to exploit the stereotype of a "gay" man with exaggerated feminine gestures and clothes to elicit a few laughs.

Two other films are set to release soon, but I don't much see them changing my mind.

As far as I can judge from the trailer of Luu Huynh's Lay chong nguoi ta (official English title: In The Name of Love), entered at this month's Toronto International Film Festival, its theme will be stereotypical Luu Huynh and contemporary cinema: the sexually and otherwise repressed Vietnamese woman.

"Her only desire is to give her husband happiness, to make him a father," the trailer says about the heroine. Since her husband can't have a child, she does this by sleeping with another man. But then this man's jealousy kicks in, and all hell breaks loose there is a scene in which the woman is punished by being forced to stand naked in a street market.

I'm tired of seeing Vietnamese filmmakers turn women into victims of the tension between society's sexual constraints and their own sexual desires. If the filmmakers' argument is that they only depict reality, then I doubt their veracity. Ordinary Vietnamese women don't seem to be such puppets of external forces to me.

In her monthly column Through the Lens, film critic Do Thuy Linh shines the spotlight on Vietnamese cinema.

She also wades into the ongoing discussion among local filmmakers about how to make movies that aren't just recognized in Vietnam but also abroad.

This English graduate from the University of Massachusetts - Boston, the US, admits to having a vested interest in seeing the qualityof Vietnamese movies improve. Thuy Linh may be reached at dolinh54@yahoo.com.

Pham Nhue Giang's Tam hon me (Mother's Soul), which will also be screened but won't compete at the Toronto festival, is an example of this trend. Giang's movie is about a single mother being torn between her sexual passion and her duty toward her daughter. I hope local filmmakers become bold enough to let their female characters pursue sex to its utmost limits and discover the depth of human nature and life itself, get it over and done with, and move on to another topic.

As for the third movie, Victor Vu's Scandal, which is about the fierce competition between two attractive girls for the top position in the showbiz world, I bet it'll be much better than other movies of its kind because Vu is clever and often manages to make even clichéd stories interesting.

For instance, unlike typical romantic comedies in which the guy gets the girl or vice versa, the guy in his Co dau dai chien (Battle of the Brides) just can't get the girl. But however good it turns out to be, I hope Scandal is the last of the so-called "long legs" movies - movies about call girls, models, actresses, and other beautiful women in showbiz. We have had enough of them.

Which brings me back to my point: So which Vietnamese movies can we watch these days? There are some good old movies, some well-known ones by renowned directors of the past which you should be able to find at DVD shops or on Youtube.

I'd recommend three of them. One is a black and white movie made in 1988, while the other two are from 1999 and 2001. All of them are about the aftermath of the wars and the changing post-war Vietnam in which we still live.

Ultimately, these films are about one being unable to go home again after going through war because war changes everything. Stylistically, these films achieve a rarity in Vietnamese movies - powerful symbolism, something we often find in great movies. And I don't mean the empty symbolism of films like Luu Huynh's earlier feature about suffering, sacrificing Vietnamese women, Ao lua Ha Dong (The White Silk Dress) in which he seems to seize upon age-old symbols of Vietnamese culture such as the traditional dress and create a story to illustrate them.

Nguyen Khac Loi's Tuong ve huu (Retired General), Nguyen Thanh Van's Doi cat (Life of Sand), and Dang Nhat Minh's Mua oi (Guava season) do the opposite. They take the reality of post-war Vietnam and turn it into something symbolic and universal.

Thus it is a clash between the war and post-war generations in Tuong ve huu that culminates in the survival of one and the death of the other. In Doi cat it is the physical and emotional consequences of the wars that are set in a most telling place the hot, sandy, unfertile central region of Vietnam that seems fated to be caught up in the middle, whether in terms of geography or politics. In Mua oi it is a boy's inability to cope with painful personal and social changes that results in his mind being frozen in childhood.

The difference between the two types of symbolism can be observed in the characters' conversations. In one, it is often symbolic. For instance, the heroine of Ao lua Ha Dong tells her daughter: "Remember to keep it [traditional Vietnamese dress ao dai] clean to show a girl's propriety, and most importantly, study well, ok?" This is the filmmaker shoving the messages of his film down our throat: Vietnamese culture values education, Vietnamese girls are brought up to behave properly, and the like.

In the other, the symbols and the symbolism are subtle and can only be gleaned from the film as a whole.

Adapted from famous writer Nguyen Huy Thiep's popular short story of the same name, Tuong ve huu tells the story of an idealistic retired general who returns home to be confronted with the crass materialism of his family and a post-war society: his daughter-in-law, who works at a women's hospital, uses aborted fetuses to feed dogs which she can later sell for much money, his son passively accepts his wife's affair and his former servant turns into a thief.

I find this film to be one of the better adaptations of Nguyen Huy Thiep's short stories. It's both creative and faithful to the original. Other adaptations such as Pham Nhue Giang's Tam hon me or Vuong Duc's Nhung nguoi tho xe (The Woodcutters) turn Thiep's complex but ultimately optimistic vision upon its head to create something trendily dark, pessimistic, and sexual. This approach seems exploitative of writers to me.

Also adapted from a short story, Doi cat is about the havoc of war at the most personal level. We see a woman who lost both her legs during the Vietnam War literally throwing herself at the man she loves but who has also lost one leg only to hear him reject her saying: "Understand me... One with two legs cut off, the other with one... We can't live."

We see a wife who waits for her husband to return from the war for 20 years only to find her youth and sexual desire have long gone and she can't truly be reunited with him physically or emotionally. Then there is the husband, the film's hero, who is trapped between his duty toward his faithful wife and his love for another woman with whom he had a daughter during the war when he thought he would never go home again.

In Mua oi, a man returns home to find it is lost forever. It feels opportune to watch Mua oi now because this is now the guava season in which Dang Nhat Minh's movie is set. A 40-year-old man who has the mind of a 13-year-old boy trespasses into his old house where he had a happy childhood. The house now belongs to someone else but it is still his house for all he cares. In the yard of the house stands his beloved guava tree off which he fell as a boy and lost perception of time.

The boy's fall from the guava tree wouldn't be so poignant without the bigger trauma of his family. Around this time his mother died, and his father, a lawyer in French-ruled Vietnam, was forced to rent his house to the new revolutionary government.

But the fall from the tree isn't the man's only fall. The house's current owner's suspicion and crude treatment of him as a mentally ill person, which is put in the wider context of a scrambling, materialistic, and vulgar post-war society, puts new destructive pressure on his already fragile nerves.

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