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Overseas Vietnamese filmmakers take stereotypical symbols at face value in presenting Vietnam to the world

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. 

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 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.

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