Contemporary films by Vietnamese directors span a wide range of themes, from warfare to modern romance.
In Nguyen Khac’s The Retired General (1988), the central character copes with adjusting from his life as a civilian family man, thus symbolizing Vietnam’s difficult transition to the post-war era.
Returning to Ngo Thuy, a recent production by directors Le Manh Thich and Do Khanh Toan, revisits and pays homage to the women of Ngo Thuy village. In 1971, at the height of the American War, these women were the subject of a widely shown propaganda film aimed at encouraging people to join the war effort.
The period of doi moi reform in the 1980s and ‘90s has had a powerful influence on Vietnamese film, in particular the effects of the new market economy on women. Popular subject-matter includes how Vietnamese women contend with the struggle between traditional duty and modern desires. Vu Xuan Hung’s Misfortunes End (1996), for example, tells the poignant tale of a Vietnamese silk weaver faced with the reality of being deserted by her two-timing husband for an upwardly mobile business woman.
Dang Nhat Minh is perhaps Vietnam’s most prolific film maker. In The Return (1993), Minh hones in on the complexities of modern relationship, while The Girl on the River (1987) tells the stirring tale of a female journalist who joins an ex-prostitute in the search for her former lover and Viet Cong soldier, whose life she had saved, and whose heart she’d been promised. His tragic films When the Tenth Morning Comes (1984) and Nostalgia for Country-land (1995) tell of the hardships, suffering and loss the Vietnamese people have endured in the recent past. His latest work (1997), Hanoi – Winter 1946, recalls H o Chi Minh’s campaign against the French colonialists.
Though few of Vietnam’s domestically produced films ever make it outside the country, young overseas-Vietnamese film directors are steadily carving a niche for themselves in the international film festivals worldwide. Sadly, few of these films have been screened in Vietnam.
Tran Anh Hung’s touching The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), which was filmed in France, celebrates the coming of age of a young peasant girl working as a servant for an affluent Saigon family during the 1950s. Cyclo, Tran Anh Hung’s visually stunning masterpiece, digs to the core of HCMC’s gritty underworld. His latest film, the French language production La Verticale de l’e’te’ (2000) tells the story of three Hanoi an sisters and the borderless bonds of kinship.
Vietnamese – American Tony Bui made a splash in 1999 with his exquisite feature debut Three Season (1999). Set in present-day HCMC, this beautifully made film weaves together the lives of four unlikely characters and their interplay with a US war veteran (fleshed out on the screen by Harvey Keitel) who comes to Vietnam in search of his long lost, grown-up daughter.
Lesser-known overseas-Vietnamese film markers include Van Phan Sylvian, whose post-war documentary Goodbye Vietnam focuses on the hardships of Vietnam’s mixed race ‘Amerasian’ children left behind by Western soldiers and the discrimination they’ve had to face at home and abroad.
Contemporary Western Films
The Americans might have lost the America War, but Hollywood has spent the last 30 years claiming a moral victory on screen. The best offerings reflect the futility of war, but rarely offer a balance portrayal of the Vietnamese people. Instead, the focus in on American soldiers as multiple victims – of the Viet Cong; the US government, which sent them to war and cheated them of their youth; and their own society, which, sadly, shunned them when they returned – often suffering from extreme mental and physical illnesses.
Director Oliver Stone made the fascinating movie Heaven and Earth, adapted from Vietnamese-born American immigrant Le Ly Hayslip’s book When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. He also directed Born on the 4th of Fuly based on Ron Kovic’s book.
Some of the most popular war films include Rambo, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, The Deer Hunter, Good Morning Vietnam and Air America. In 2001 Francis Ford Coppola, the director of Godfather, released a new version of his 1979 classic, Apocalypse Now. The film, title Apocalypse Now Redux, in the nearly an hour of previously unseen footage.
The lead role of Harold G Moore and Joseph L Galloway’s action-packed saga We Were Soldiers was fleshed out on the big screen in 2002 by Mel Gibson. Written and directed by Randall Wallace, the film hit the top of the charts.
French films include Indochine (colonialist nostalgia with Catherine Deneuve) and Pierre Schoendoerffer’s Dien Bien Phu, which examines the human side of the French-Viet Minh war and the last days of French-colonial rule. Amazingly, it was filmed in Vietnam with the full cooperation of the Vietnamese government.