Academic journal article Film & History

Toward a New Canon: The Vietnam Conflict through Vietnamese Lenses

Academic journal article Film & History

Toward a New Canon: The Vietnam Conflict through Vietnamese Lenses

Article excerpt

What is "Vietnam"? We know that before it was an adjective it was a proper noun, signifying not a war but a country. However.. .for Americans there has long been no country there but the war.1

One of the most serious problems with works addressing films about the Vietnam War is that, to some degree, they will always participate in the reduction of Viet Nam the country to Vietnam (or in especially derogatory cases 'Nam) the war. Where Vietnam is spoken of, it is always in the context of America, as half of an uneasy but seemingly indissoluble historical couple. To reduce Viet Nam to the war between that country and America (a war that is significantly referred to as the "American War" in Viet Nam), or to any war for that matter, is obviously problematic. Nevertheless, films about war have a unique ability to reveal important historical and cultural aspects of a people as a result of the necessary intersections of nationalism, art, and history that they contain.2 Because Viet Nam has endured many wars throughout its long history, not the least of which was the American conflict, studying Vietnamese films that treat issues of war might be seen as especially instructive. This paper focuses on films about the Vietnam/American War as a way into the problems of cross-cultural communication between the United States and Viet Nam with the hope that the incorporation of Vietnamese and Vietnamese diasporic films into the international canon of films about the war might be seen as a first step in recognizing the existence of Vietnamese national and diasporic identities in cinema. These filmmakers bring to bear their own histories and future aspirations which differ from, intersect with, and translate those of America and Viet Nam independently. My project attempts to expand the familiar canon of films about the Vietnam War to include not only films made in Viet Nam but also Vietnamese American interventions into the established formulas of both countries' portrayals of war.

War and Humanity on the Home Front: Vietnamese Voices and Visions

When the average American thinks of films about the Vietnam War they no doubt recall canonized classics such as The Deer Hunter (Cimino, 1978), Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick, 1987), and Platoon (Stone, 1986). However, the recognized corpus of American films about the conflict fails to offer a complete and balanced picture of the war, even in the rare instances where these films feature Vietnamese characters. While American fiction films about the war have been duly criticized in recent years for their often blatantly stereotypical or derogatory treatment of the Vietnamese, such criticism does not adequately redress the striking absence of Vietnamese subjectivity in these films.

One of the problems with the American conception of Vietnam War films is that films about the war from Viet Nam have not been largely available. It is most likely not until 1989, when a group of films made in Viet Nam toured the United States under the aegis of the Vietnam Film Project, that Americans were able to see Vietnamese films about the war with English subtitles.3 Three of these films: Nguyen Xuan Son's Fairytale for Seventeen-Year Olds (1986), Dang Nhat Minh's When the Tenth Month Comes (1984), and Nguyen Hong Sen's The Abandoned Field - Free Fire Zone (1979), which are available on site at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, will be discussed here. However, it is disheartening to note that today, fifteen years after the Vietnam Film Project sought to make Americans aware of Vietnamese history, culture, and subjectivity, none of these films are readily available on video or DVD in the United States.

Both Nguyen Xuan Son and Dang Nhat Minh's films are similar in that they provide an altogether different definition of the war film from what we are accustomed to in the United States. These films scrap the battle-centric, individual quest narratives of Hollywood Vietnam War films for narratives which center on families who, despite their distance from the battlefield, feel the effects of the war every bit as acutely. …

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