Vietnam Cinema Recalls the War. Touring film series gives American audiences a rare view of movies made in Vietnam for Vietnamese audiences - films that focus on the troubling subject of the war's complex effect on the land and its people, rather than ideology
NEW YORK — WITH the popularity of ``Platoon'' and the ``Rambo'' movies, it might seem that American filmgoers have a monopoly on the Vietnam war and its aftermath. But others care just as deeply about that troubling subject: the Vietnamese people themselves. Vietnam has its own film industry, and in recent years it has explored not only the war, but its complex effect on the land and its people. As in Hollywood pictures, scenes of combat and aggression are common. But since these movies were made by Vietnamese filmmakers for Vietnamese audiences, they address a far wider range of situations, from the violent to the quietly domestic and even romantic.
Now a number of Vietnamese films are being shown in the United States for the first time. Following a debut engagement in Los Angeles, the First United States Festival of Cinema From Vietnam is now on view at the Asia Society in New York, where it continues through Friday. It will then have an extensive American tour.
It's an unusual program in two ways. For one, it's rare for movies from any Southeast Asian country to appear on American screens. For another, this is the first time a festival has been arranged by the United States and a country with which it has no diplomatic relations. The series is sponsored by the Vietnam Film Project, a collaboration of the Asia Society, the Hawaii International Film Festival, and the Film and Television Archive of the University of California at Los Angeles.
Seen as a group, the films have some things in common. They share a delicacy of approach, and a tendency to focus on intimate situations (often involving characters who are friends or relatives) rather than complicated dilemmas or scenes of action. They're sometimes corny - more than one pair of lovers can be seen bounding toward each other in slow motion - but they're sincere even at their most emotional. Beyond this, they're as diverse as they are appealing. While they all deal with the war in one way or another, they use a variety of techniques that prevent too much sameness from setting in.
Cinematically, the best movie in the program is ``The Abandoned Field,'' a wartime melodrama filmed in the southern part of Vietnam and marked by sophisticated visual strategies. The heroes are a young man and woman who live with their baby in an abandoned rice field that American helicopters are turning into a depopulated no man's land.
The lurking nemesis of all state-controlled film industries - propaganda - does rear its head in some scenes, when a Vietnamese commander enters the story and suddenly everyone starts speaking in slogans and catch phrases. But other episodes are startlingly vivid: When the father and infant flee a helicopter attack, for instance, predator and prey are seen in superbly controlled long shots that would be impressive even from a well-bankrolled Hollywood director.
Another superior film is ``A Quiet Little Town,'' a genuinely biting satire that shows Vietnamese filmmakers to be unafraid of criticizing their politically complex society. It's about a government minister from Hanoi who has a car accident in a small village, where the local physicians can't wait to operate on him and - they expect - reap a bundle of new privileges from grateful officials. The trouble is: Nobody has the courage to approve a course of treatment for such an important personage, who almost dies (or so it appears) before a surprise ending that shows all the main characters to be even sillier than they seemed.
Other movies range from ``When the Tenth Month Comes,'' about a woman who can't face the wartime death of her husband, to ``Fairy Tale for 17-Year-Olds,'' about youthful romance in the shadow of war. ``Brothers and Relations,'' about a veteran trying vainly to resume his old life after a combat tour, depicts the Vietnamese culture as increasingly materialistic.
``The Victory at Dien Bien Phu,'' a film dating from 1964, gives a Vietnamese version of that historic battle. Its charts, maps, grainy combat footage, and breathless narration place it squarely in the tradition of ``The Big Picture'' and other American efforts to place wartime events in an officially approved perspective for mass audiences.
Movies have been shown in Vietnam since around 1910, and films have been made there for more than 50 years. The modern Vietnamese film industry was founded by Ho Chi Minh in 1953, shortly before the end of French rule in what was then Indochina, and moviemaking has flourished there ever since. In recent years, it has been enjoying a Southeast Asian version of what the Soviets call glasnost, according to Geoffrey Gilmore of the UCLA Film Archives, one of the festival's organizers. ``There's something of a liberalization going on in politics in Vietnam right now,'' he told a Monitor correspondent in Los Angeles, ``that has allowed for a greater development of artistic freedom and even political expression.''
MR. GILMORE acknowledges that elements of propaganda creep into some Vietnamese films made during the war, but he says this shouldn't be surprising. Such wartime productions, he explains, ``are clearly made as propaganda vehicles. They're films about liberation; they're films about heroic struggles; they're films about people trying to fight ... against massive odds, and they're very heavy-handed.'' Such movies aren't represented in the festival, however. By contrast, the films Gilmore and his colleagues have chosen ``are humanitarian in their perspective. They tend to deal with tragic sides of the war. ... In that sense, they're human stories.''
Gilmore says it's simplistic to put an ``antiwar'' label on the films in the series, even though some lean in that direction. ``They're also pro-victory,'' he asserts. ``They're pro-struggle. They're dealing with the struggle of a people toward ... the establishment of their own nation.''
He feels these movies can correct an American impression of the Vietnamese as ``fanatics'' or ``overly committed ideologues.'' Rather, he notes, the films paint a ``portrait of real people with families ... fighting heroically ... and defeating the strongest power on Earth.''
The festival has generated some controversy in the US, says Gilmore, especially from Vietnamese immigrants ``who find any contact with the socialist republic to be anathema.'' He notes that the films themselves represent ``a new point of view in Vietnam,'' however, which is ``very anxious and interested in opening itself up to the West.''
Gilmore describes himself as ``not a great optimist in the sense that a program like this will have a major impact,'' but he calls the festival a first step in ``opening up channels of communication that heretofore haven't really existed.''
The festival might also counteract images fostered by American films, Gilmore adds. He cites the widely seen American documentary, ``Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam,'' saying it dwells on ``the numbering of American casualties, and never once mentions 2 million Vietnamese casualties, never once mentions the suffering of ... the Vietnamese people.''
The festival, which took two years of negotiating to plan and organize, represents Vietnam's first attempt to reach the US with its view of recent history. Gilmore calls it ``an opportunity for Americans to see and learn something ... that has been basically ignored ... behind the issue of the war.'' If it bears fruit of increased empathy and understanding, others may call it something else: movie diplomacy.