When I watched Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods earlier this year, I was impressed. I thought it was the strongest film he’d made in a while. The script was interesting, the acting was excellent, and I felt he did a good job of using a genre movie to explore the complexity of the black experience during the Vietnam era.
Then a friend of mine, who’d also seen Da 5 Bloods, sent me an essay on the film by Viet Thanh Nguyen that appeared in the New York Times. Reading Nguyen’s piece was an eye-opener, and it made me realize how easily seduced I was by Hollywood genre tropes. He rips apart the myths that American war movies are based on, and talks about the anger he feels as a Vietnamese person watching the US mainstream media perpetuate destructive stereotypes.
Nguyen talks about the importance of Vietnamese people telling their own stories. That started me wondering. In a lifetime spent watching movies, I’d only seen one film from Vietnam. Did the country have its own cinema? If so, had it been around for any length of time? Does the country have an active film industry today?
The answer to all three questions is absolutely yes. It didn’t take me long to find out that the Vietnamese have been making films for around a hundred years, and they have a rich film culture which is still very much alive. Unfortunately, access to movies made in Vietnam is limited. Recent commercial releases are more or less easy to obtain, but many of the older films made by notable directors weren’t available to be streamed or purchased on DVD. This isn’t too surprising. Let’s face it. The US and Europe dominate film distribution in the Western hemisphere. It can be difficult, if not impossible to view films made elsewhere. (Japan being a notable exception.)
I went looking for a film about the war made by a Vietnamese filmmaker, and the title that kept coming up was When the Tenth Month Comes, directed by Dang Nhat Minh. The good news is, it’s available on YouTube. The bad news is, the quality of the digital transfer isn’t great, and the frequent commercial interruptions are maddening. Still, the movie is definitely worth watching.
When the Tenth Month Comes isn’t actually a war movie in the usual sense. It’s not about the soldiers on the front lines. Instead, it’s a meditation on the impact the war has on a single family. Duyên is a young woman whose husband has gone off to fight. Early on she learns that he’s been killed, but she decides not to tell anyone in her village, including her family. While she’s clearly afraid of how the news will affect her father-in-law and young son, it also seems that she’s in a state of denial. It’s as though by keeping her husband’s death a secret she hopes to bury the grief that’s welling up inside of her. In order to maintain the lie, she enlists the help of a teacher, Khang, who agrees to forge letters from her dead husband.*
Shot on real locations, the film has a quiet naturalism that shows the people as part of the village, the village as part of the landscape. Minh lets the story unfold at its own pace, allowing the rhythm of life in the countryside to set the tempo. While the drama builds as the film progresses, he doesn’t push anything. Instead, he lets the emotional undercurrents build quietly, gradually breaking through to the surface. The performers don’t seem to be acting. Their interactions have an understated realism.
As Khang, Huu Muoi Nguyen let’s us know that the teacher’s calm, respectful manner is masking intense feelings that he’s reluctant to express. And at the heart of the movie is Lê Vân’s quietly powerful performance as Duyên. She’s also hiding fer feelings, but the actress allows us to see beneath the surface, subtly communicating the pain and confusion that she feels as wife, mother and daughter.
Again, When the Tenth Month Comes shows life in the village as an organic whole, and that includes folklore, song and theatre. Minh weaves a tapestry of rural Vietnamese culture, making the characters lives and experiences part of a continuous fabric. Rather than vanishing from the face of the earth, the dead live on as ghosts. One of the film’s most powerful moments comes when Duyên performs on stage as part of a local festival. While she can’t bear to tell her secret, she also can’t hide it completely.
Viet Thanh Nguyen is so right. The Vietnamese people need to be able to tell their own stories. The frustrating thing is, they have been telling their stories for decades, but because of the way the distribution of media is rigged, we hardly ever get to hear them. In spite of all the talk about the internet offering unprecedented access to books, films, music, etc., there’s still so much we don’t have access to. Part of this is due to greed, and part of it is due to ignorance, but another factor is our shameless laziness as insatiable consumers of pop culture. We keep getting the same thing over and over again because we keep swallowing the same thing over and over again. We won’t get anything different unless we demand it.
In reading about the film on-line, I found a number of different spellings for the names of the characters. In this post I went with the spellings most commonly used. If anyone who speaks Vietnamese wants to correct me, feel free to write a response to this post.