Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Close Up: The Female Gaze and Ethnic Difference in Two Vietnamese Women's Films

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Close Up: The Female Gaze and Ethnic Difference in Two Vietnamese Women's Films

Article excerpt

Spanning over sixty years, Vietnamese cinema has undergone a number of dramatic transformations. It is marked by a film history that intersects with the country's own turbulent political history. (1) Some of the most acclaimed films have centred on the two Indochina wars that pockmark the country's past, and the problems that have beset postwar Vietnam. Since the economic reforms (Doi Mol) were introduced in 1987, however, Vietnamese films have become more transnational in their production and distribution. For example, Vietnamese diasporic directors from the United States and other countries now make and screen their films in the country. Also remarkable is the reverse flow of directors from Vietnam who travel to foreign countries like the United States to go to film school or screen their films at various international film festivals. Seeking to develop its film industry in the twenty-first century, Vietnam has allowed for the privatisation of production studios in the country, and in the wake of becoming a World Trade Organisation member in 2006, it has liberalised its film market. Parallel with the country's move towards globalisation, films are now being made, disseminated, and screened with a political and economic imperative.

Vietnamese cinema and the changing shape of its landscape formulate the grounds for this essay's inquiry into two films by Vietnamese women, Viet Linh's Ganh Xiec Rong (Travelling Circus, 1988) and Pham Nhue Giang's Thung Lung Hoang Vang (The Deserted Valley, 2002). It is within the context of a mostly state-controlled and male-dominated film industry that a woman's directorial point of view appears so singular. In an early essay on Vietnamese cinema, John Chariot observes that filmmakers hold a majority of the governmental positions of power in the industry, which has enabled them some flexibility in defining the aesthetic parameters of a national cinema and negotiating with the ways that their films are made and distributed. What Chariot does not note is that most of these filmmakers are male. (2) Only a few of the country's canonical films have been directed by women, and among a handful of female directors, Linh and Pham are two of the best-known women filmmakers working in an industry that is not only controlled by men, but also saturated with filmic images of women as suffering heroines. (3) Because of this dominance, I focus on the female gaze in Linh's and Pham's films to contend that on display in their work is a powerful, desiring female gaze. It is, furthermore, a gaze that stresses a shared oppression between women and the ethnic Other. Such texts by women must be commended for the ways they critique state paternalism and patriarchal control. They also posit an important alliance among minority populations in Vietnam. Indeed, as this article shows, Linh's and Pham's films explore the politics of looking much more incisively than the male-directed films that have come before and after them. However, these women's films can also be faulted for their depictions of ethnic minorities. Minority men and women appear child-like and close to nature in their films, characteristics that lend themselves to the films' tragic conclusions in which they stand outside of a statist calculus of economic development and modernisation. And yet, if such characters are left behind in modernity, the female protagonists are also marginalised within an order of socialist

patriarchy. This marginalisation, I contend, is re-enacted beyond the frames of the films and manifested in the lack of opportunities that are available to women directors in the Vietnamese film industry and its institutions of power.

My study investigates the gaze in Travelling Circus and The Deserted Valley to demonstrate that while Linh and Pham offer insightful perspectives into women's lives, their films also depict the ethnic Other in exoticised terms. It revisits gaze theory to test this theory's utility within the context of Vietnamese cinema and its industry during the country's transition to market socialism and a more globalised economy. …

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