For those whose image of Viet Nam comes only from the reel projected by Hollywood, the
version of that country that appears in Hong-An Truong's films may seem alien territory.
Truong's colonial-era Viet Nam didn't exist by that name, but was partitioned by the French
into Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina, which, along with Cambodia and Laos, composed Indochina.
The colonial past she explores so delicately is truly a distant colony, far removed both from the
sweatshop that is the country's semi-capitalist present and from the brothel it was in the
American era. One way for us to measure the difference between the later American style of
domination and the earlier French one is with our eyes, for if the American military swaggered
memorably through Southeast Asia in olive-green fatigues, French colonizers possessed a far more
romantic sense of style. As part of their dowry to the Vietnamese, the French left behind not
only fine coffee and crusty bread, but also cinema-worthy architecture and white colonial suits.
While those effete trappings are no match for the strong-arm seductions of an American like
Colonel Sanders--the only man left in Ho Chi Minh City still wearing a white suit today--they
provide the French, and the world, with the sepia-toned illusions of a more civilized period of
rule. Truong's films quietly but persistently demand that we look twice at these illusions.
For her, as for Viet Nam, the crucial year is 1954, close enough to
the line dividing the century between its black-and-white half and its second
half in color. After the visual and stereophonic blitzkrieg of the United
States' "Vietnam War," the period of French colonialism with its black-and-white artifacts and
scratchy 78-rpm recordings of Edith Piaf felt like it belonged to a different
century. Far removed from our present or the recent past of the American war, French colonialism
is an age that was not recorded in color, and hence is one that we see differently, remember
differently, feel differently. Filmed in black-and-white, the French artillery barrages seen in "Explosions in the Sky" seem like only so much archaic sound
and fury. In fact during this battle of Dien Bien Phu nearly 10,000 Viet Minh
soldiers died, along with some 1,500 of the French forces (Duiker 455). Piaf's "Non, Je Ne
Regrette Rien" might have beeen an obvious selection for the soundtrack, at least from the
of someone who was not Vietnamese, but Truong's choice also makes us hear the event
differently, for the bilingual South Vietnamese version of "Sounds of Silence" that rocks the
film is notably anachronistic. Based on the Simon and Garfunkel hit of 1966, this song earmarks
these scenes as edited from a southern Vietnamese point of view, one that only
comes into being because of Dien Bien Phu. The defining--and dividing--event of 1954,
the catastrophic defeat of the French by Viet Minh forces at Dien Bien Phu, would lead to the
cleavage of Viet Nam into North and South.
Truong subtly insists on seeing, and hearing, from the southern perspective through
both of her films because this perspective is long neglected in the west, where French and
paid more attention, and respect, to Northern Vietnamese or Communist perspectives on the
Indochina wars. In postwar exile, South Vietnamese refugees discovered that they lost not
only their country but their history, too, which was dismembered both by their Communist enemies
and by their western hosts. One way these refugees managed to survive was by resorting to
the tried and true method of losers everywhere: singing and listening to western-style pop tunes
and soft rock ballads about longing and heartbreak, a genre epitomized in the diaspora by songs
like "I'd Love You to Want Me" by Lobo and the bilingual cover of Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang,"
heard in Nguyen Tan Hoang's video, "Forever Linda!" Southern Vietnamese refugees carried those songs with them as the aural equivalent of the shirts on
their backs, so that for decades "Black is Black" and "Hotel California" remained staples for
hard-rocking cover bands at wedding banquets. Playing these songs for southern
Vietnamese refugees was an act of defiant, recalcitrant nationalism, for after 1975 and the
Communist takeover of South Viet Nam, this "yellow music," tainted by its affiliation with
southern comprador decadence, was banned by the revolution in favor of "red music" and its
paeans to political purity. The cover of "Sounds of Silence"
is not one of these yellow classics, but as an archival find the song is a delight,
ironic as a soundtrack to the gunfire, but also laying down an
emotional bridge for the Vietnamese in the diaspora who know it or one of its cousins, allowing
them to cross, once again, to those smoky cabarets of a bygone Saigon.
Set to this melody, Truong's film also allows some of us to experience the ecstatic
pleasure found in watching big guns go boom. Truong can afford to treat French artillery as a
show of fireworks, knowing that it must seem quaint compared to the "all-owning spectacle" that
is the American edition of Viet Nam (Trinh 1991). Typified in the genre of the "Vietnam War"
movie, this spectacle is Hollywood's version of shock and awe, projecting both American military
might and American atrocities in full color. While the moral of these movies may be that war is
hell, the subliminal message advertises for the antiheroic American self--tortured and
flawed, yet utterly charismatic. But when Truong turns to the period before 1954 in "The Past is
a Distant Colony," she enters a time when the French still possessed movie star qualities,
albeit those of a more classic era. This suave French colonialism is glamorized in Régis
Wargnier's vehicle for Catherine Deneuve, Indochine, a romance that works like
Hollywood war movies, ostensibly condemning colonialism but always reminding us of how lovely
life on a rubber plantation was, forced labor and all. Faced with these seductions of
colonialism and the classic narratives of a cinema-industrial complex, Truong is unafraid to use
stiff-arm tactics to hold off their charms. She sets her film to a funereal pace and composes a
soundtrack of two women's voices murmuring in French and Vietnamese, most of which she refuses
to translate for the viewer's ease. Truong also refuses to give in to the temptation of staging
and spotlighting black-and-white or sepia-toned photographic images of colonial life, which one
can find fashionably sentimentalized in the galleries of restaurants with names like Le Colonial
or Indochine both in the United States and in Viet Nam. In these eateries, the painful past
isn't papered over. It's merely hung on the walls themselves, a kind of soft-core exotica to
stoke the customer's appetite for an other's culture.
Truong won't permit "The Past is a Distant Colony" to be dolled up in such a fashion.
This can happen even to a film like Apocalypse Now, which I recently saw projected
onto a downtown L.A. skyscraper for the entertainment of chic bar patrons who didn't spill a
drop as Martin Sheen hacked Marlon Brando to death. Truong's film can challenge the bland
palate of consumer culture because it is still fresh enough to be raw, provoking us through the
filmmaker's signature strategy of selecting obscure film reels and duplicating their images
side by side, as if mirrored. Obscure and evocative, elusive and allusive, these cinematic
Rorschach blots compel reactions that might tell us more about ourselves than about the film.
in the structure of the mirrored images a brilliant formal expression of the 1954 division of
Viet Nam itself into North and South, a cleaving evident in the chiasmus between the mirrored
images. While it would be difficult to say that there were ever only two sides to any one issue
for the Vietnamese, the overriding historical urgency after 1954 and the departure of the
French was this sense for the Vietnamese of having to choose between one side or the other.
Instead of representing heterogeneity and endless difference, as we see happening in Trinh
T. Minh-ha's meta-documentary Surname Viet Given Name Nam, "The Past is a Distant
Colony" opts for the visual metaphor of a duality that is not only elegant but threatening,
signaling as it does the way that neutrality and the suspension of choice are restricted during
war time to that thin demilitarized zone between the two opposing images.
If this duality is suitable for expressing the political cleavage between communism and
capitalism as well as between North and South, it's also a visual reminder of the film's concern
the duality of gender, which it voices through women's speech. Soldiers, artists and politicians
on both sides of the colonial divide use metaphors of gender and sex in their
propaganda, but Truong firmly silences that language of power in favor of a Vietnamese nun
speaking of suffering, in Vietnamese, and another woman speaking of her Indochinese life, in
French. The French woman's account is suffused with sadness and sensuality, as she recounts a
childhood and a failed love affair. Is she French or is she Vietnamese? Is she colonizer or
colonized? Truong leaves her nationality ambiguous, suitable for the confusions and
contradictions created by the mission civilisatrice and its lesson that all
its colonized could count among their forebears "our ancestors, the Gauls," regardless of their
or obvious exclusion from French culture and citizenship. Perhaps these indigestible confusions
and contradictions, part of the malnourished diet of colonized life, account for the other
duality in the women's stories between Vietnamese Catholic sacrifice and French colonial ennui.
Both are understandable responses to the trauma of being colonized, which saturates
both women's voices and the visual images they speak over: little boys learning how to cross
cheering people at what may be a political rally; Pham Van Dong, Ho Chi Minh's lieutenant, both
as an older man and when he was young, pacing in what may be the courtyard of the Palace of
Fontainebleau in 1946; and glimpses of the exodus of over
800,000 northern Vietnamese refugees fleeing south on flimsy boats, most of them Catholics who
feared persecution in a Communist north after 1954. Many of these refugees would flee yet again
in 1975 at the end of yet another war, doubly displaced, doubly erased.
These stark snapshots from a distant colony lead up to a string of advertisements about
the good life of a faraway metropole, during the unreeling of which the women's voices are
silenced, as if their voices cannot carry over the geographic and cultural chasm separating
Indochina from France. Here we see the French version of the spectacular in all its grandeur,
especially the architecture and boulevards of Paris, which served as the model for the French
urban planners of Saigon, channeling the crowds, on foot or on streetcar, to cafes and shows, to
see, perhaps, Josephine Baker, who once even performed as a "petite Tonkinoise." Despite their silent era patina, these metropolitan pleasures were no
doubt as sensuous as our own, although any delight we feel in these images is reduced by the
eerie absence of music. It's as if we were invited to sit down to a feast but not allowed to eat
it, even as we could smell it. Our sensuous engagement is further curtailed when Truong cuts in
testaments to the colony burning far in the distance: wounded soldiers, the wreckage of a
bombing, and the heads of rebels decapitated by the French and ensconced in baskets. In what
may be the climactic shot of "The Past is a Distant Colony," Truong pans silently over these
heads and the unnervingly peaceful expression of the man in the center, in whose eyes we see the
last moment of his own life, offered as a silent rebuke.
Truong wisely chooses neither to sentimentalize this image nor to demonize its makers.
The matter-of-fact tone of her film perfectly suits the actual banality of the photograph, which
was not suppressed by French authorities; indeed, French colons could
purchase it on a postcard and send it to relatives and friends. This more innocent time in the
history of media and of foreign domination would be over by the time of the American war in Viet
Nam, when GIs
realized they could only smuggle home Polaroid snapshots of atrocities. For some French
recipients of this postcard it was undoubtedly little more than a conversation
piece, but for others it must have left a retinal imprint. I like to imagine that
some of them, after turning out the lights, would remain awake and unsettled, the anonymous
man's unblinking gaze staring back at them in the darkness. Truong's film arrives like that
postcard in our mailbox--a brief, insistent and disturbing reminder that not everyone saw French
civilization with the same two eyes.
View Hong-An Truong Films
Department of English and Department of American Studies and Ethnicity
University of Southern California
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1. See Taylor for a discussion of yellow music in the
postwar era (39-45, 120-22).
2. Ho Chi Minh and Pham Van Dong's trip to
Fontainebleau, where they fruitlessly negotiated with the French government for recognition of
Vietnamese independence, is discussed in Duiker (373-76).
3. Brent Hayes Edwards mentions Baker's performance
Duiker, William J. Ho Chi Minh: A Life. New York: Hyperion, 2000.
Edwards, Brent Hayes. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of
Black Internationalism. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003.
Forever Linda! Dir. Nguyen Tan Hoang. 1996.
Indochine. Dir. Régis Wargnier. Perf. Catherine Deneuve, Vincent Perez,
Linh Dan Pham. Paradis Films, 1992.
Minh-ha, Trinh T."All-Owning Spectatorship." When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation,
Gender, and Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1991. 81-105.
Surname Viet Given Name Nam. Dir. Trinh T. Minh-ha. 1989.
Taylor, Philip. Fragments of the Present: Searching for Modernity in Vietnam's
South. Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 2001.