Vietnam as seen by its own makers of finely crafted films

September 17, 2008

The Gazette

On Sept. 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh stood in Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi and made a simple declaration to the 100,000 people gathered there. “Vietnam has the right to enjoy freedom and independence,” he proclaimed, calling for an end to almost a century of French occupation.

Indochina, as the colony was known, has alternated roles of victor and victim since then. Partitioned in 1954, it was fought over by the Americans until 1975, united as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976 and, since the mid-1980s, has slowly opened up again to the West.

It is now part of the World Trade Organization and this year even gained a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

On Tuesday, this feisty nation of 85 million people celebrated its National Day. If you thought you knew Vietnam from U.S.-centric war flicks like Apocalypse Now, Platoon or The Deer Hunter, it’s time to see the country a different way, through the viewfinder of some of its finest filmmakers.

Exemplified by the meticulous work of emigré director Tran Ang Hung, these finely-crafted works of art are typical of the Vietnamese sensibility. They’re the sublimely spiritual products of hearts and minds attuned to the human scale, subtly observed and deeply felt.

The Scent of Green Papaya (France/Vietnam, 1993). Amazingly, Tran’s first feature film was filmed entirely in a studio in Paris, his adopted city. Even so, it faithfully recreates the atmosphere of middle-class family life in 1950s Saigon, as an impressionable servant girl named Mui uncovers her masters’ hidden foibles. Out-of-print in North America, the DVD is available from Britain in an all-region version by Second Sight (try

Cyclo (France/Hong Kong/ Vietnam, 1995). Tran’s second film is a wild departure from the first. It’s a violent, disturbing portrait of the nasty and brutish life of a man who

drives a “cyclo” (a bicycle taxi) in Ho Chi Minh City and who gets himself and his sister messed up with drugs, gangsters and prostitution. Radiohead’s song Creep figures prominently. The New Yorker DVD is a solid transfer.

Three Seasons (U.S./Vietnam, 1999). Billed as the first American film to be set in Vietnam (and scripted mostly in the Vietnamese language) since the last U.S. helicopter beat a retreat in 1975, this multi-storylined melodrama was the debut feature of young director Tony Bui. A street urchin, a cyclo

driver, a prostitute and an ex-GI (Harvey Keitel) find their lives interconnect in the big city. A fine Canadian DVD from Seville Pictures.

The Vertical Ray of the Sun (France/Germany/Vietnam, 2000). Good things come in threes, as Tran’s third feature proves. Alternatively titled At the Height of Summer, it’s the most accessible of the bunch, signaled by the choice of opening music, Lou Reed’s laconic Pale Blue Eyes. Three sisters in Hanoi prepare a banquet honouring their dead mother, and family secrets are revealed. The Columbia Tri-Star disc skimps on extras but looks great.

Buffalo Boy (France/Belgium/ Vietnam, 2004). Another

feature debut, this time from American-educated writer-

director Minh Nguyen-Vo. The film takes place in rural Indochina in the mid-1940s, and centres on a peasant teenager who sets off on a life-and-death search for food for his family’s two starving water buffalo. Fate has him fall in with a gang of knife-wielding herders. The extras-rich DVD is in First Run Features’ Global Lens Collection.

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