The following documentary film reviews have been received at Pacific Affairs and will be published in the print edition within the next 12-18 months. Please note that minor textual changes may occur before final publication in our print and official online edition (hosted at IngentaConnect).
Last updated 12 October 2017
Pacific Affairs accepts documentary films for review from distributors and producers/directors that have been released in the previous two years only. Our focus in on current political, economic, and social issues affecting Asia and the Pacific Region. We do not review films on art, theatre, or music. Please send review copies to the following address marked “For Review Only – No Commercial Value”. While we will make every reasonable effort to review all documentary films within our scope that are sent to us, we reserve the right not to review a film.
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FORGETTING VIETNAM. A film by Trinh T. Minh-ha, Produced by Jean-Paul Bourdier. New York: Women Make Movies, 2015. 1 DVD (90 min). US$395.00, Universities, Colleges, and Institutions; US$89.00, K-12, Public Libraries, and Select Groups. In English. URL http://www.wmm.com/filmcatalog/pages/c943.shtml.
Forgetting Vietnam, Trinh T. Minh-ha’s cinematic meditation about the legacy of the Vietnam War on contemporary society, is framed by two ancient myths. One describes how the shape of Vietnam was formed when two fighting dragons fell into the South China Sea (or East Sea as it is known in Vietnam). The second traces the origin of the Kinh (Viet) people to the union between a mountain fairy, Au Co, and the Dragon Lord, Lac Long Quan. The serendipitous coupling of land and sea, which led to the creation of the Vietnamese nation, is reflected in the Vietnamese word for country: dat nuoc. Literally meaning “land sea,” the dyadic term dat nuoc acts as the organizing theme for the documentary, bolstered by other dualities that the film contemplates, such as ascending/descending, leaving/returning, old/new, and remembering/forgetting.
The subject of remembering and forgetting is, of course, the war. The documentary commemorates the fortieth anniversary of the end of the war, which saw the victory of the northern half over the southern half of the country. As the film suggests, even after four decades, the impact of the war remains palpable, etched into the land and people. Remembering and forgetting are difficult, for the trauma and pain have not subsided: “scars of war have surfaced publicly through increasing unearthed hidden remains” [36:34]. Moreover, as the film implies, unlike King Le Loi, who, according to legends, wisely returned the magical sword to its water source after defeating his enemy, the current Vietnamese government maintains a tight grip on power, and its control over the social memory of the war has hindered postwar reconciliation. In one of the most poignant scenes, Trinh T. Minh-ha focuses on the 1968 massacre in Hue, an event that resulted in the death of possibly two thousand civilians, and one that the Vietnamese government continues to deny. It is no wonder that “wandering souls of the unclassified, dismissed or ‘impure deads’ continue to populate Vietnam’s collective memory” [36:44].
Highly influential as a feminist and postcolonial theorist, Trinh T. Minh-ha’s films are often experimental and provocative. They challenge narrative and cinematic conventions while raising critical social issues. It is no surprise, then, that Forgetting Vietnam is not a linear conventional documentary. There is no voice-over narration. Instead, scripts comprised of pithy phrases and questions appear throughout the film, superimposed over images of Vietnam’s landscape and people in their everyday life. The documentary features many lyrical scenes of waterways and lush rice fields, underscoring the critical roles of dat and nuoc in not only sustaining life, but also culture and spirituality. The soundtrack is spectacular and at times steals the show. It features traditional music, such as northern-style quan họ, chèo, and popular ballads of the pre-1975 era. The lyrics (which are occasionally translated) and melodies work powerfully with the images to evoke nostalgia and longing.
The film pays special attention to ordinary women: at work, in the market, and at the temples. Even though the film was shot in 1995 and 2012, with a seventeen-year gap that saw enormous transformation, resulting from the normalization of relations with the United States and Vietnam’s reintegration into the global market economy, the images of women and their daily activities suggest more continuity than change. The implication is that women’s daily activities, which have endured war, revolution, and globalization, have been the mainstay of Vietnamese society. Moreover, as some forms of women’s work, such as mobile and street vending, have been outlawed in recent years, their persistence also represents a form of resistance.
Other acts of resistance have also been captured by the film. Interspersed throughout are snippets of people’s conversations that reveal frank criticisms of the state and the Communist Party. Trinh T. Minh-ha also managed to get some candid shots of people in the streets and markets, including those who were clearly bored or disengaged. Most compelling are the few people who, when caught by the camera, stared defiantly instead of averting their eyes. These instances provoke discomfort, as the viewer becomes aware of his or her voyeuristic intrusion and of having the tables turned.
While Trinh T. Minh-ha challenges many conventions in documentary making, this film does not abandon all. The documentary unfolds geographically from north to south, mirroring the historical movement of the Kinh people as they expanded from the Red River into the Mekong Delta. This expansion was facilitated by wars and colonization of the indigenous peoples of the south. By following this north-south trajectory, the documentary, like many historical narratives, privileges the story of the Kinh and the idea of the Red River Delta as the cradle of Vietnamese civilization. In fact, the two myths that anchor the film are creation stories pertinent to the Kinh people and not to the other ethnic groups that continue to inhabit Vietnam. Like remembering and forgetting, documentaries are necessarily selective, and one needs to start somewhere. Nevertheless, it would have been interesting and helpful to reflect openly, however briefly, on these choices.
A related issue is that the film seems to reinforce some longstanding assumptions about the north and south, which are antipodes not only in geography, but also in politics for much of the country’s history. The two regions are often stereotyped as polar opposites: the north as the sophisticated, orthodox centre of Vietnam’s culture while the south is seen as heterodox, commercialized, and boorish. The documentary’s choice of scenes, particularly when one contrasts the depictions of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, reify these opposing stereotypes. Dominating the images of the north, notably Hanoi, are charming neighbourhoods, traditional musical performances, and tranquil temples. When the camera turns to Ho Chi Minh City, however, one gets jarring traffic, poverty, and uneven urban development. In contrast to Hanoi’s water puppetry, Ho Chi Minh City offers a performance of a scantily clad female acrobat [1:01:10]. While these are not the only images of the south, the film leaves a strong impression of Ho Chi Minh City as fast-paced and competitive [58:28], even though Hanoi in 2012 could be described in similar terms. Implying a lack or loss of Vietnamese culture, the documentary characterizes the city as: “‘New Thailand’ on target” [1:01:22]. As if to underscore the lack of authentic culture further, the subsequent scenes of the Mekong Delta are accompanied by northern-style quan họ singing rather than a style of music native to the south.
Notwithstanding the above two points, this is a poetic and, at times, provocative and moving documentary that contributes to the contemplation of the war’s legacy in contemporary Vietnam.
Van Nguyen-Marshall, Trent University, Peterborough, Canada
PEOPLE ARE THE SKY. A film by Dai Sil Kim-Gibson. New York: Women Make Movies, 2015. 1 DVD (94 min). US$395.00, universities, colleges, and institutions; US$89.00, K-12, public libraries, and select groups. In Korean and English, with English subtitles. URL http://www.wmm.com/filmcatalog/pages/c935.shtml.
People Are the Sky is a very personal film, and is better for it. Filmmaker Dai Sil Kim-Gibson was born in Sinch’ŏn, in present North Korea, during the colonial era. With her family, she came south to Seoul in 1945. After first leaving Korea for her doctoral studies in 1962, she decided after a brief experience of the repression of the Park Chung Hee government in 1970 to settle permanently in the United States. There she met and married her husband Don Gibson, with whom she eventually lived in his natal Iowa until his death in 2009. Kim-Gibson’s sorrow and her love for Don frame and suffuse the film. The title is something of a mobile metaphor throughout, but its first referent is the love Don had for the open Iowa sky and the open love he had for people, and the love for others that Kim-Gibson herself experienced with and through him.
In 2013, Kim-Gibson made a journey first to Seoul and then onwards to P’yŏngyang and finally to her hometown of Sinch’ŏn. People Are the Sky intersperses a chronicle of this trip with archival footage, over which Kim-Gibson narrates her own memories of important moments in modern Korean history, as well as interviews with scholars and activists in the United States, South Korea, and, eventually, North Korea. Many of these figures are quite well-known authors in the field: Charles Armstrong, Bruce Cumings, Suk-Young Kim, Kim Dong-choon, and Hwang Sok-yong, for instance, all make significant appearances. As a result, the film offers both a personal and a critical-scholarly review of important turning points in modern Korean history, from colonialism and its end to the US-Soviet occupation, division, the Korean War, postwar development, and political shifts in both South and North. One could do much worse than to show this film in a classroom or public education setting as an introduction to how the Koreas became divided and why they have stayed that way, along with connected issues such as the ongoing US military presence in the South, human rights, and the North Korean famine of the 1990s.
Yet to watch People Are the Sky only as a critical documentary would be to miss much of what is moving and important about it. At one point, Kim-Gibson makes a short narrative detour to discuss the nineteenth-century Korean indigenous new religion of Tonghak. At first, this struck me as an odd tangent in a film otherwise concerned with the present and more recent past—and in truth, the significance of the moment may be lost on many audiences. But as she goes on with her explanation, it becomes clear that through her journey and through the film itself she seeks to embody the Tonghak belief in innaech’ŏn, the immanence of heaven in humanity. People, once again, are the sky. Kim-Gibson brings this deep humanism to her encounters in both South and North Korea. She is at once a forward, vivacious, and sympathetic interviewer of ordinary people. For example, while her scholar and activist interlocutors present a critical evaluation of US aims in South Korea since 1945, when she interviews ordinary people she allows the diversity and ambivalence of South Korean opinion on the ongoing US military presence to come forth. She seeks out children in public places when she has the chance, making older ones practice their English, addressing younger ones with the sort of patter familiar from many a Korean grandmother (“What’s your name?” “How pretty!”).
Indeed, who Kim-Gibson is both socially and personally and thus the character of her rapport matters a great deal to the high quality of People Are the Sky, and makes it stand out from other films that promise—the trope itself is tired—a glimpse into North Korea. She possesses a common historical experience and social intimacy with many of the people she interviews, and at moments takes advantage of the sort of social license accorded older women in Korea. When she asks older people about their lives during the war, they open up to her as someone who shared the same tragedy. When she goes to a North Korean veterans’ event and talks with one old soldier, it is the mutual emotional catharsis of liberation in 1945 that comes through over and above his glorification of the role of Kim Il Sung. And when, in a P’yŏngyang park, her minder curtails her attempts to ask questions of schoolchildren (the mediation of her trip by guides and minders is addressed quite directly), Kim-Gibson is annoyed but also has a laugh with him in a way that releases the ideological tension of the moment by asking one final inappropriate question to someone she recognizes as doing his job. May I talk to those trees over there, and are there questions I should not ask? Notwithstanding the painful history the film explores, Kim-Gibson’s warm humour is prominent. She makes self-deprecating jokes about her wild hair, and invites others to join in. “Fashionable,” one old North Korean woman finally says, and everyone laughs; Kim-Gibson crows in triumph to her guide.
When she finally gets to Sinch’ŏn, she recognizes little from her youth. She is taken to another North Korean memorial to another act of American malfeasance, the Sinch’ŏn Massacre of 1950, and joins a site interpreter, whose family was killed there, in a wider sorrow for the human losses of the period. But then she goes to another park and meets more children there, on a school trip from across the country, and has with them the easy dialogue she was unable to have in P’yŏngyang. Shortly after, she goes to Kŭmgang Mountain, and is surprised by how hard the climb is, but is patiently assisted by her uncomplaining guide for the hours up and down. From these last incidents Kim-Gibson arrives at a heartfelt, if not unexpected, conclusion: her home place may be gone, but she shares the sky with North Korea’s people. As a historical film, People Are the Sky is excellent; as a work of art, it is beautiful.
Robert Oppenheim, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, USA