Looking at Vietnam from the perspective of the European cinema usually carries the risk of involuntary exoticism and aestheticisation of the reality. The premiere of 1992 French drama Indochine about a mother-daughter relationship between Éliane and her adopted Vietnamese daughter Camille attracts a large audience to the European and American cinemas. The story is a metaphor for the disintegration of French colonies in the Indochinese Peninsula, and of a rising Vietnamese nationalist movement. The appearance of a French film icon, Catherine Deneuve, emphasises Eurocentric point of view on the independence of Vietnam. In the same year, a romantic drama film based on Marguerite Duras’ semi-autobiographical novel L’amant was released. The Lover, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud is a Franco-British-Vietnamese coproduction that focuses on a sentimental and erotic relationship between a Chinese Man and a teenage girl having the colonial Vietnamese landscape as the background.
The myth of European and American involvement in the independence of Vietnam also echoes in film productions presenting the counterculture of the 1960s. For example the American musical Hair which depicts a bitter-sweet reality of the hippie movement and glorifies peace and love, or Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers – a film about a brother and sister living in a privileged Parisian family who join anti-war manifestations and who are inspired by the communist ideology.
Ann Hui On-wah, a Hong-Kong born film director, producer, screenwriter and actress, brought a different perspective on the history of the post-colonial and post-war Vietnam presenting to the audience the Vietnam Trilogy – a series of feature films created between 1978-1982. In Boy from Vietnam, Ann Hui focuses on a boy who flees his country and arrives to Hong Kong by boat together with other refugees. The film presents his daily struggles with a life in the British colony. Despite his efforts to fit in, he finds neither comfort nor security in his new home. The second part of the trilogy, The Story of Woo Viet, concentrates on a man seeking temporary asylum in Hong-Kong and then on his further journey to the US. The plan to escape to America becomes complicated when the man’s beloved woman is send to Philippines by a group of human traffickers and is forced to work as a prostitute.
The title of Ann Hui’s last film, Boat People, refers to the migration and humanitarian crisis that has begun in the middle of the 70s. The mass exodus of the Vietnamese people was a high-risk enterprise – many of the refugees failed to survive the passage because of the over-crowded boats, multiple pirate attacks, and stormy sea conditions. In Boat People the director portraits the refugees as seen by a foreigner. On the day of the Liberation of Saigon a Japanese photojournalist visits Vietnam and covers the reaction of crowds in the capital city. The country is seen at the moment of the withdrawal of American troops and of formation of its new identity. The journalist sympathise with the Vietnamese and shares their experience of American invasion – all of his family members died during the bomb explosion in Hiroshima. A few years later when the communist regime is finally put into action in both Southern and Northern Vietnam, the man visits the country for more press coverage. He is accompanied by a few representatives of the Vietnamese Communist Party who invite him to an exemplary New Economic Zone. Shiomi Akutagawa witness the prosperity and the wellbeing of the local residents. The kids seem to be kind and happy, the people he meets on his way greet him in a friendly way and praise the system. While strolling at the food market in Danang, he notices a girl who sells the rice noodles and follows her until he reaches the house where the teenage girl lives with an ill mother and two younger brothers. Akutagawa encourages the family to pose in front of the camera. He explains that he was granted a special permission from the Cultural Bureau. The mother begs the man to leave the house and adds that the document might protect the Japanese reporter but the pictures he wants to take will provoke problems and misery to her family. This situation poses multiple questions about the Vietnamese reality and not long after that, the photographer discovers the sad truth behind the propaganda: horror, famine and police repression. He decides to support the family by arranging illegal transport abroad for the teenage girl.
The Boat People is a powerful image filmed by Ann Hui, it is also the first Hong Kong movie filmed in Communist China. The film is devoid of visual embellishment and overwhelms the spectators with the violence and sadness of the dictatorship. Ann Hui’s choice to tell the story of the Vietnamese society from the point of view of a foreign journalist is not a coincidence – her knowledge about the Vietnamese comes from the information she gathered reading the press and interviews while filming a semi-documentary about the refugees.
by Kasia Kurzyniewska