Sunday, February 16, 2014
Just alone for the sake of the science fiction-genre, Nguyen´s film is very interesting. Made in a film country from where we had very few chances to see films on a festival – not to mention on the big screen. To make today a science fiction film is a tricky thing (which is one reason to admire Nguyen´s courage) There are a lot of traps. There is the "high art" of Tarkovsky´s Solaris and Kubrick´s 2001: A Space Odyssey and very often generated Blockbuster Science Fiction.
Nuoc takes place in the not too far away future. The warming of the earth´s climate caused catastrophic floods. Countries in Southern Asia like Vietnam are heavily affected. For the majority of the surviving population, life is only possible on boats or wooden houses built on on long stilts.
At the beginning we see a young woman in her long and slim boat. She arrives at the police station picking up the corpse of her husband. He is drowned they tell her, an explanation she doubts. The films jumps back in time several times, to times she spent with her husband and faraway back to the time she met him first time and how both of them fell in love. A few years before the apocalypse, the woman owned a fancy coffee shop. A few years later they have nearly everything lost. The land they still own is under water, the culture is almost limited in strategies to survive.
Beside the love story and the Science Fiction aspect, there is also a thriller element. The late husband of this woman invented a gen manipulated seed which can grow with sea water. Is he killed by the company which breeds on big swimming islands of steel the rare vegetable?
The interesting thing is the mixing of genres framed into a post apocalyptic science fiction frame. The flashbacks before the disaster are clashing against the present, a time of loss, the hope for a better future (in which the water goes back) clashes with the strong feeling that the disaster caused by the climate change is just at its beginning.
Well as Vietnam is a very young film country with a very limited production of feature films and very seldom screened on big festival, this was one of the first films on my screening schedule.
I am not yet sure if this combination with Hard Science fiction, love story and thriller works always. But in general and especially as an unconditional admirer of Dang Nhat Minh, my favorite Vietnamese director, I am very attracted especially by aspects we in the west would call “half-baked”. Nuoc for example has partly serious ambition last but not least about the threat of a climate disaster but in this film there is as well a delight for opulent genre cinema, revealed in often impressing Cinema scope images. That here like so often in nearly all Vietnamese films I have seen again a woman is the central character, is a very sympathetic convention of Vietnamese cinema. The heroine played by Quynh Hoa stays in my memory, because she is not only beautiful but more important- very convincing as a young woman who struggles for surviving but also has to deal with her big losses.
I am not sure but it can be possible that Nuoc is the the first Science Fiction film in Vietnamese film history. I often think that not only in the masterpieces by Dang Nhat Minh – that certain categories like genre films and art house cinema does not really exist in this national cinema. The relatively marginal existence of Vietnamese cinema, seldom invited to big festival is not really justified.
I saw Nuoc quite at the beginning of my festival covering and until just a few hours ago, I thought it was interesting but I let it go. Well, the film, some images, impressions came back. And strangely I feel the desire to watch it another time. For now I have to be lucky enough not to have overlooked this strange cinematic creature which does not really let me go yet.
Monday, October 14, 2013
An Afternoon in Abries with a masterpiece called Thuong Nho Dong Que (Nostalgia for the Countryland) by Dang Nhat Minh
This text is a translation from a review, published in shomingeki No. 4, June 1997 with added comments.
The rice fields are shining greenish golden. Nham, a 17 years old boy works with others in a brickworks. We see how he works, how he sweats and how he moans because of this strain. After the work he lays down on the bricks which are ready to be burnt. The others, exhausted as well are gathering to relax. The money he earned for this hard work he passes to his sister in law. He walks home and the rice field is filling now the whole frame of the image. The film is especially about the planting and harvesting of the rice fields. The kind he picks up a rice spike and how he chews on it is referential. He is looking to the blue sky where a plane is flying.
Nhams father has died in the war. He is living with his mother, his little sister and his sister in law Ngu together. His brother (Ngu´s husband), moved away looking for work to earn his living. Form time to time Ngu receives a letter from him in which he informs her that his return will be postponed, a half hearted promise.
Nham loves poems and works with his family in the rice fields. There is an unspoken love between him and his sister in law. His over voice comments suggest that everything we see is already past. As a sensitive adolescent he resemble Harriet in Jean Renoir´s The River. He experiences in comical and sad episodes the life of this rural community. Seemingly banal episodes interfuse this subjective narration.
A Television antenna is installed of the roof of one of the few houses with a TV. Children are mocking about a fashion parade broadcasted in Television. A pig walks through the kitchen. Villagers are talking about how life might be in the big cities. Seemingly banal events grow on the edges of the film´s story. It seems the point of view of the directors is like an excited child which is so absorbed by all these
neglibilities around Nham´s story.
Nham goes by bike to the station to pick up a niece of his neighbour. This niece has left Vietnam many years before. Sometimes the camera follows him close, another time his drive is observed from the distance. Once the point of view is absorbed by movement, the next time the cinematic space is shallowed and emphasizes the two dimensions of an image.
Quyen the homecoming niece returns to the village of her childhood. She wears sun glasses and differs so much from the people in this village like a foreigner. She tells that she has left the country to escape her husband. Later, she was in a refugee camp in Hong Kongwhere she married for a short time an American for leaving this camp. It is a clear hint to the tragedy of the Vietnamese Boat People who had to leave Vietnam. This village appears sometimes almost like an utopian place where the joys and sufferings of a whole country is gathering, a widow mourning about her husband who dies in the war, the Vietnamese who returned from a foreign country and who is dreaming from her childhood. It is about a return to the earth in a world of technical progress which intervades only in small signs. Quyen, the stranger is rediscovering her home village but at the same times as well her own alienation from her native home.
Last time I saw this film for the 32. time with my friend T. In Abries. I felt that in this nearly two hours I showed a big part of my life. My passion for this films which stayed with me for 16 years includes my love for the films by Ozu Ford and Renoir and – I just discovered it recently – it prepared myself for the wonders in the films by Terrence Malick. The same love for the sensual visible world like Renoir and Malick, the same kind how our point of view is absorbed by the things we see. And yes – long before I even knew the name of Terrence Malick, it was the first film where I sensed the “one big soul” all late masterpieces by Terrence Malick are telling about.
I was strangely moved in the kind how people are touching things or touching their hairs. The technique of the films seems to retrait itself in front of the things it reveals. Sometimes a glance rambles to a river where a boat is driving or where children are swimming. Another time we see plants moved by the wind. Images in European Cinema like that I only knew from another masterpiece by Jean Renoir: Une Partie de Campagne.
Even the identity of Nham the narrator seems to be absorbed in his encounters with the stories of others and especially in his own sensual experiences. In one scene he looks secretly at Quyen who is bathing in the the river. He takes her clothes and begin to smell them. When Quyen sees him, he is scared and disappears in the fields.
Another extraordinary moment in this film. I forgot to mention the most important. The moment Nham takes the shirt of Quyen who swims naked in the river, he closes his eyes. And even his action seems to be caused first by a sexual excitement, the expression in his face has as well something of a silent prayer at the same moment. This is probably one of the most earnest erotic scene in the history of Cinema.
A ritual festival, dedicated to the ancestors with prayers and ritual dances. In the evening a wonderful puppet show will be performed with men who move the puppets from behind a curtain in a pond and who let the puppet dance on the water. We see the fascinated glances of children and adults. In these moments I do not think in the cultural context of this beautiful performance to a culture strange to me. I remember the first puppet show I have seen in my life.
There are two moments which are burnt into my memory, strong moments which remind me that the true meaning of the term eroticism always means the biggest respect in the creation. Ngu, the lonely sister in law hugs Nham in a moment of despair. He answers this hugging. The remain for a while hugging each other. Suddenly Ngu is scared by Nhams ejaculation and takes her arms from his body. We see Nham and how he is surprised feeling the sperm on his fingers.
In another scene Nham and his sister in law discovering on a field a nest with new born birds. Ngu pets them and touches their beaks with her tongue. She smiles and sings an old Vietnamese folk song and is absorbed by this encounter like a child. In Dang Nhat Minh´s film there is always a physical sensation for the caressing of living bodies.
One of the most remarkable aspect in this film is Nham´s gender role. He is grown up almost only among women (men appear only as dead and gone or an uncle who is considered as a failure), small girls, young women, old women. His sexual awakening, one of the central elements of each films in this sub genre “Coming of age-film is connected with this subtle violence who finally puts Nham in his gender role the civilisation dictates him. The military service which follows directly his adolescence is quite a very sharp nobservation for this very gentle film. Finally what distinguishes Nham from his sister in law from his mother and the beautiful Quyen seems to be less biological than a social code.
Drunken truck drivers cause the death of two little girls, among them Nham´s little sister. The death invades with sudden violence into the world of this sensitive boy. From now on the film will be a long and eternal sad farewell. In a vision, Quyen who is waiting at the railway station for her departure, sees a boat where the two dead girls are waving to her. She says goodbye to Nham. A long time he looks after the departing train. Home is for him something concrete a sensual sensation. For Queyen the exile Vietnamese with the sad smile it is nothing more than a lost dream.
Nham gets his draft into military service. Sitting on a truck he writes following sentences on a paper: My name is Nham. I am missing my village. But I will return none day. He throws the paper into the lands ape. In another shot we see the heavy wheels of the truck on a plastered street which separates him and his beloved earth. The paper he wrote, is floating through the air. Nham´s declaration of love to his native village is lost. We see Ngu on a rice field. With the clothes and her dress protected against sun and the sharp edges of the plants she is bent over doing the hard work on which the life of the whole village depends on. Suddenly the image freezes.
Thuong Nho Dong Que is a remarkable film. Except some very few artificial moments and a few shots I almost have forgotten its form. There is so much tenderness and attention to details that every approach of analysis must fail What I have seen and what I almost believed to have touched seems to me like a personal memory for which I have to find a form for myself.
The miracle of this film is that it evokes the longing to rediscover this world with all senses of my body.
And yes, this text is written before this film became an obsession for me. I saw it just a few time when I wrote this text. Even though I saw it 32 times, I am not yet finished with this film and I never will. It came back when I saw The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick. The film came back when I saw Robert Mulligan´s wonderful The Man in the Moon – and this film is a very close relative of Jean Renoir´s masterpiece The River.
It is one of these films which became a part of life and there is nothing I can do about.
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Only recently have I seen the films directed by Dang Nhat Minh that are not very well-known in Germany. However, my admiration for his directing began several years earlier when I gained my first glimpse of him in Thuong nho dong que (Nostalgia for the Countryside, 1995). Halfway through the film, I realized that this was one of the best films I had ever seen in my life. The unforgettable characters and the images of fields immersed in sunshine had instilled themselves so much into my mind that I even dreamt of them.
With the sole exception of one of the films of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu from the realism movement, there has never been another film whose characters I feel so close to as those in Thuong nho dong que. The film is about poverty, farm work, despondency, separation, and death. Strangely, I feel secure in this part of the world, which is described so affectionately in the film. The destructive influence of war was clearly revealed to me through the Vietnamese characters, animals and scenery. True love in the movie overshadowed the images of the war-torn Vietnam etched in my mind.
Minh’s love for all living beings is conveyed with incredible insight. Humans, animals and plants are so intimately portrayed that they make viewers shiver. Such characters as Nham (the young boy who likes to daydream and write poetry), Quyen (the sad Viet Kieu), and Ngu (the lonely sister-in-law) are the most extroadinary characters I have ever seen on screen.
In Bao gio cho den thang muoi (When the Tenth Month Comes, 1984) – the first of Minh’s film to be shown outside of Vietnam – war is still prominent. It is primarily about the misery of a young woman whose husband has died in the war. Even though both Thuong nho dong que and Bao gio cho den thang muoi are set in a peaceful rural background, the dreary black-and-white scenes are enough to reveal the suffocating atmosphere of war. The photographs on the altar of dead family members who died in the war uncover a daily reality of Vietnam’s history. Minh describes the rural aspects of the characters with affection, as he did in his later works; however, the overarching theme is the sadness and inevitability of death. Duyen’s late husband only appears in long flashbacks or in dreams, as swiftly as shadows of ghosts. Above all, this movie is about the painful separation of the living from the dead. Without any exagerration, Minh demonstrates enormous sympathy for the efforts of the common people to overcome this pain. For me, this film is a eulogy to Vietnamese cinematography.
Co gai tren song (The Girl on the River, 1987) is a voice of courage as it criticizes the adverse situation of post-war Vietnam. Nguyet, an injured laborer in the hospital, tells her life story to a journalist there. During the war, she was a “girl on the river,” a prostitute who worked on small boats. During this time, she saved the life of a soldier and subsequently fell in love with him. Years after the war ended, she meets him again, but he is now a successful government official and pretends to not even recognize her.
The journalist meets up with her own difficulties when she tries to publish her article about the girl. Minh clearly sides with the journalist and her quest for truth and with Nguyet and her condemnation by society. There is an interesting twist in the film: The person who prevents the article from being published is a high-ranking Party official and the journalist’s own husband. Although once committed to noble ideas, he too is just another case of the callous and extroadinary misuse of power.
Tro ve (The Return, 1994) is another movie about daily life in post-war Vietnam, but set in big cities. Minh follows the path of Co gai tren song and anticipates the pessimism of Mua oi. Tro ve portrays the emotional changes in a woman married to a wealthy businessman. However, this time the heroine is enmeshed in an extensive network of various relationships with other characters. Since I first watched this movie in its original Vietnamese without subtitles, I was able to notice how Minh reveals his characters’ emotions and relationships through gestures, eye movements and facial expressions. These techniques demonstrate a musical delicacy that I have only witnessed from Ozu.
In Thuong nho dong que (Nostalgia for the Countryside), we can see the great compassion Minh lavishes on his characters, despite his obvious agitation over the changes in society and the loss of values. For example, near the end of the film, the female protaganist decides to leave her husband. Even after making such a bold decision (which Minh seems to support), she takes time to feed the dog, lock the door, and drop the dog off at the neighbor’s. This particular scene shows a great affection for living things and I think it beautifully confirms the conflict between Minh’s ability to capture an intimate portrayal of society and his deep love for Vietnam’s ordinary life and people.
Mua oi (The Season of Guavas, 2000) has almost as many layers within it and is inarguably Minh’s darkest film. Hoa, a man who lost some of his mental faculties from a boyhood fall, appears as a counter-balance to the young poet Nham. Hoa’s strange existence and failure in the real world produces bitterness in viewers. In many aspects, this film is a demonstration of the two potential abilities of cinematography. Images of Hanoi are shown in documentary-like objectivity while the meeting scene between Hoa and the girl beside the gate of his former house is shown in poetic beauty (remininscent of the final scene in Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights ). Another example is in the delicate distinction between Hoa’s sister’s retrospections as milestones in the story and Hoa’s own instantaneous flashbacks, which are mostly sentimental moments. Both the story line and the unforgettable moments reflect cinematographic poetry. Besides a realistic portrait of daily life in modern Hanoi, the film also contains moments that show the marvel of magic lantern effects (a camera style that mimics an early version of the slide projector called the magic lantern): feet run, climb, or rest in the beginning of the film. Strangely, they remind me that even a realistic film is first of all based on our optical illusions and that movements are the combined result of a number of separate images.
As a real human with his own emotional life, Hoa earns money by working as a model for students of an art college to paint. Later on, Hoa is admitted into a mental ward where he is forced to take medicine that rids him of his own voice, which also despises his body of its soul. As time passes, Hoa is no longer able to feel anything and his long-term memory is gone. He is simply dead while still living. He has become the truly perfect model.
For the first time in his films, Minh allows the practicality of society to win over the poetic beauty, signalling a pessimistic future. Though I love this film, I sat shocked after watching it. Minh once commented, “I come from Asia, but I often think of Jesus’ words: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ [Matthew 18:3 NRSV]. Today I strongly believe that we will never reach heaven. This is our own disaster.”
Of the movies I have seen lately, none have revealed such a great concern for the world we are living in as in Mua oi.
a vietnamese and a german version was first published 2003 in the Online magazine talawas.
This english version was supposed to be a chapter on a book on Vietnamese cinema. If this book exists, I can´t confirm.
Just recently I saw Dangs latest film Dung Dot (Don´t Burn, 2009), a film about the moving story around Dang Thuy Trams diary “Last Night I dreamed of Peace”, about which I will write later. Dang Thuy Tram was a young medicine who died 1970 in the Vietnamese-American war. A young GI found her diary and despite the strict order to burn everything he found he kept the diary, brought it with him to America and lat it translate. When he was an old man he gave it back to Dang Thuy Trams family.
Dang Nhat Minhs film is not (like I guessed the adaption of the diary but on the moving story behind. I met Dang Nhat Minh in Berlin , August 22, this year where his recent film was screened at VIET HOUSE.
Dang Nhat Minhs film is not (like I guessed the adaption of the diary but on the moving story behind. I met Dang Nhat Minh in Berlin , August 22, this year where his recent film was screened at VIET HOUSE.