Monthly Archives: November 2010

Eye Level: The Photographs of Jamie Maxtone-Graham


I saw Jamie Maxtone-Graham’s work long before I met him. I didn’t know his was the work I was seeing. This was back in the early 1990s, when Tiana Thi Thanh Nga was taking her highly entertaining documentary “From Hollywood to Hanoi” on the road and came to Berkeley, where I was studying. This was probably the second documentary by a Vietnamese American filmmaker about Viet Nam (the first probably being Trinh T. Minh-ha’s formidable “Surname Viet Given Name Nam”). Anyway, Jamie shot Tiana’s doc as the cinematographer. He also had a hand in shooting Tony Bui’s “Three Seasons” and  Timothy Bui’s “Green Dragon.” But I still didn’t know who he was. Flash forward to the present.  Nguyen Qui Duc found out I was coming to Viet Nam this past summer, and asked if I would do a favor for a friend. So that’s how I ended up carrying an expensive camera lens several thousand miles across the Pacific and handing it off to Jamie at Duc’s bar, Tadioto, otherwise known as Rick’s Café Américain for the Hanoi set.

I’m glad I met him. He’s got a great eye, which means more than just being able to take a technically competent photograph. I checked out his photographs before seeing him in Hanoi, and was impressed by his Long Bien series. These are photographs of the people who live around the Long Bien bridge in Hanoi. These are not the kind of people, and this is not the kind of neighborhood, who appear in your Vietnam Airlines travel magazine. Most of the urban neighborhoods in big and small cities look like this one, and most of the people look like these people. That’s what I mean by having a good eye–looking beyond the usual way Viet Nam gets captured in photography, which is, for the most part, about war, tourism, and the anthropology of rural people, especially minorities.  So diaCRITICS is very pleased to show some of his work. He’s been doing feature films, commercials, episodic TV shows, and indie films for over 20 years. Jamie has a few comments below.

–Viet Thanh Nguyen

The photographs here represent a selection of images drawn from four portfolios made in Vietnam beginning in 2007.  I moved to Hanoi that year and began shooting State of Youth, a series funded by a Fulbright research grant about contemporary youth culture in Vietnam.  In some ways, it is a series I have not finished making and elements of it seem to persist in every body of work I have made since without having to work at it.

The series following were Across Long Bien – photographs in the communities adjacent to the Long Bien Bridge, Rented White Gowns – images of public wedding photography, and When Evening Comes – portraits made at night.  All of these works have been made predominantly in Hanoi.

More can be seen at http://www.jamiemaxtonegraham.com

–Jamie Maxtone-Graham

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diaCRITICIZE: The Stuff Vietnamese People Like


Hello. This is the first editor’s note for diaCRITICS, which we’ve decided to call diaCRITICIZE: The Stuff Vietnamese People Like. It’s silly, I know, but you’ll get over it and so will we. Or maybe we won’t and we’ll change it later.

Who’s that girl? Tila Tequila. Why Tila Tequila? I guess if I wanted a picture of something Vietnamese, I could have chosen a flag (but which flag???) or a dragon or a spring roll or a map of the country (but which map???) or a “representative” of the Vietnamese people like certain unnamed politicians in the USA who are no longer our elected politicians after the November 2nd disaster, er, elections. But Tila Tequila will do just as well to represent Vietnameseness, whatever that is. Plus she is stuff that (some) Vietnamese people like. I like her a hell of a lot more than I like those unnamed politicians. Plus we hope to have some more to say about Tila in later posts. She is, after all, to non-Vietnamese people probably the second most famous Vietnamese person in the world, after Ho Chi Minh. In certain circles, she’s probably the most famous. As Tracy Chapman once sang so eloquently, I’m talkin’ about a revolution. These pictures of Tila as a little girl bring tears to my eyes. This is America, folks! All your immigrant dreams can come true, and one day, your little baby can also become a reality TV star/trainwreck.

Why now for the first diaCRITICIZE? It’s November 23rd in the USA, and soon we will celebrate Thanksgiving. For those of you who don’t live in the USA, this is the holiday when American citizens who are not Native Americans thank God that they’re not Native Americans; when immigrants to the USA also thank God that they’re not Native Americans; and when undocumented immigrants wish that they were documented so that they, too, could thank God that they’re not Native Americans. So I anticipate a drop in readership during this time and didn’t want to have any attention fade from our worthwhile upcoming posts (we’ll be back on Monday November 29 with “Eye Level: The Photographs of Jamie Maxtone-Graham,” and his work is really, really eye-catching).

After 35 years in the USA, I still find Thanksgiving a strange, exotic holiday. I can remember re-enacting Thanksgiving in elementary school, when we little kids would stage how the Indians brought food to the starving Pilgrims. Funny thing, we never re-enacted the day when the Indians said, why the f@$& did we do that?! Since then, I’ve been invited to one or two genuine Thanksgiving affairs with homemade stuffing and cranberry sauce, but in my own home, we eat the canned stuff, and mashed potatoes made from dehydrated white flakes that look like laundry detergent. For a while, my parents had kind friends who owed them a big favor and who were restaurateurs, and this meant that we had the most awesome turkey ever–Vietnamese style, with bean thread noodles and water chestnuts and diced Asian mushrooms for stuffing, and basted in some kind of Asian sauce which must have had nuoc mam. Heaven. If anybody has a recipe for an Asian turkey, do share with me (if I get enough recipes, I’ll put them up online here; I did find one for soy sauce brined turkey). Otherwise we get ours pre-made from the supermarket. Or we just skip the damn turkey altogether and eat Vietnamese food with a canned ham.

As for diaCRITICS itself: take the occasion of our holiday to do us a favor. We’ve put in a couple of new functions that allow you to rate the postings and to share the postings on Facebook, email, etc. Please help us spread the word about diaCRITICS and increase traffic to the site. Take another look at your favorite post and rate and share it! You’ll note that on the sidebar you can now see the top-rated posts under “What Readers Liked Most” (as distinct from “Today’s Most Critical,” which tracks highest-read posts).

I’m pleased with what we’ve done with diaCRITICS so far since we began in May. We’ve covered a lot of stuff–just off the top of my mind, singers, movie stars, hit movies, avant-garde artists, mainstream writers, writers with indie press books, political and cultural criticism, exhibition reviews, announcements of forthcoming shows and attractions, Paris by Night’s latest, the local swap meet, and more. We’ve dealt with American and Vietnamese happenings, and just did one on Berlin. We’ve definitely got more to do. I’d like to see more coverage of Viet Nam, and Australia, and Germany, and all the other diasporic locations, and I’d like to see more in different languages, especially Vietnamese. It’s not like I want this to be a US- and English-centered site. You know why we haven’t done more of  these multilingual and international things as much as we’d like? Because we’re a bunch of poor, overworked, underpaid academics and artists who do this on our own time. We’ve asked people who are in these places to write for us, but response has been slow, probably because these people are poor, overworked, underpaid academics and artists.

So: if you think that there are things, people, places, events, books, movies, etc. that should be covered and aren’t, and you know how to do it, then get in touch with us via the “Contact Us” page above. We’re always looking for new writers, either as occasional contributors or as diaCRITICS. The only requirement is that you have to know how to write, because we don’t have much time to edit.

Also: if you can’t write, but you know of some great event that is forthcoming, or book you think we should write about, or artist you think we should profile, or movie trailer you want to share, then get in touch with us. We’re happy to promote Vietnamese and diasporic Vietnamese cultural events and happenings and spread the word that Vietnamese and diasporic Vietnamese culture is taking place everywhere.

Tila Tequila today, with her blue Lamborghini

Lastly I’d like to thank Rebekah Linh Collins for her service as managing editor. Life called and she had to step down, but not before helping us get off to a great start. I’d like to welcome Julie Thi Underhill as the new managing editor. She’s terrific and hard-working.

As you read this, I will be on the road, heading home to visit Ba Ma, lookin’ forward to the dehydrated mashed potatoes and the pumpkin pie in a tinfoil dish and spending time with my family and playing with my adorable nephews and niece and wondering if one of them, one day, will become the new Tila Tequila. Happy Thanksgiving, one and all.

–Viet Thanh Nguyen

p.s. Won’t you donate to the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network? It’s tax deductible for you U.S. residents. Did I mention the poor, underpaid, overworked part?

http://www.dvanonline.org/donate.php

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Must See: Binh Danh’s “Collecting Memories” at Mills College


 

BINH DANH Car At Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue, Vietnam, 2009 Archival pigment print

If you’re in the Bay Area, you have to check out Binh Danh’s show, “Collecting Memories,” at Mills College in Oakland from August 1-December 12. Binh Danh’s work is stunning. Also as part of the show, Angie Chau, Truong Tran and Isabelle Thuy Pelaud will be reading at Mills College on December 1st, 7PM, at the Art Museum. Binh Danh’s artwork also graces the cover of Isabelle’s forthcoming book on Vietnamese American literature. The pictures here don’t do his work justice. Check out his website for better quality images.

From the description of the show:

Binh Danh collects photographs and other remnants of the Vietnam War and reprocesses and represents them in ways that bring new light to a complicated, multivalent history.

BINH DANH Military Foliage #2, 2010 Chlorophyll print and resin

Danh is known for his unique chlorophyll printing process in which he imprints the found portraits of war casualties and anonymous soldiers into the cells of leaves and grasses, and then embeds them in resin for preservation. While Danh left Vietnam with his family at a young age, return trips to the country have profoundly influenced the development of his work.

The My Lai Massacre Memorial at Son My Village, Vietnam, 2010 Daguerreotype encased in glass

Danh’s recent work uses a combination of found images from the Vietnam War and photographs taken by the artist on recent visits to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Using traditional 19th-century daguerreotype techniques, Danh juxtaposes these two sides of history to draw attention to the ways in which collective memory is constructed. By confronting the aftermath of war, Danh creates an opportunity to examine history through enduring memories, including residual documents of war, such as photographs. In addition to framed daguerreotypes and interactive daguerreotype books, the exhibition will include large-scale color photographs and an installation of found historical artifacts that together demonstrate the power of photography to form and shape collective memories.

Binh Danh received his MFA from Stanford University in 2004. He lives and works in San Jose, California. Binh Danh: Collecting Memories is co-curated by Lori Chinn and Stephanie Hanor.

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Đồng Xuân – Vietnamesen in Berlin


Xin vui lòng xem bản tiếng Việt bên dưới. Scroll down for the Vietnamese language version.

This looks like it will be a terrific show. Check it out if you’re lucky enough to be in Berlin. We’ve adapted the press materials for this announcement.

Between 100,000 to 125,000 Vietnamese live in Germany, with some arriving in the 1960s and 1970s as refugees yet most coming later to the German Democratic Republic as guest workers. The Đồng Xuân – Vietnamesen in Berlin exhibit (November 21-27, 2010) focuses upon the artworks of the Vietnamese German community, while showcasing films and other works of art from within the larger Vietnamese diaspora.

Đồng Xuân – Vietnamesen in Berlin

Vietnamese Diaspora and Beyond

Hebbel Theater am Ufer Berlin
HAU 2
Hallesches Ufer 32
10963 Berlin, Germany

26.11. – 27.11.2010

While the dominant debates on integration are still characterised nationally and culturally, often not exceeding racist platitudes, there is in social reality a fundamental change in society. With the example of Vietnamese migration that is strongly present in Berlin one can show how life in diaspora takes on various forms, and how this process has to be thought of from the perspective of the migrant subjects. With this change of perspective comes along a shifting from the habitual pattern of perception and the content that goes hand in hand. In thinking newly about the nation from its far corners it becomes possible to evoke questions that have been neglected so far, and to focus on marginalised spaces.

Part of this revision is to not only test essentialist constructs of identity and
the homogenizing understanding of culture, but also to lead the term of “diaspora” towards a contemporary meaning. Migration is no longer being perceived as a problem that has to be solved, but the diaspora is being discussed as a cosmopolitical form of transformation into public ownership, linking Berlin to Vietnam, Orange County (U.S.A.) and other diasporic places. Being at home in-between hybrid cultures, political borderlines and constructed nations, enabling transnational solidarity and provoking claims for a “cultural citizenship” – this all represents the actual task for the future of the migration society.

Such complex, composite identities in diasporic communities reflect diverse historical experiences with exile, gender-specific exploitation and racism. On the one hand they are being processed culturally, and on the other they contain a socio-political dimension. However it is by no means about deficit-compensations and integration efforts, but about the same rights and democratic standards. At the same time these universal categories indicate the necessity not to stumble into the “ethno-trap”, but to open up the discussion about anti-Asian racialisation and exotisms for other experiences, and to look for trans-boundary forms of solidarity.

~ Kien Nghi Ha

With Trinh T. Minh-ha, Anna Babka, Nguyễn Quốc Toản, Sun-Ju Choi, Urmila Goel, Jee-Un Kim, Nivedita Prasad, Kien Nghi Ha, Ruth Mayer, Iman Attia, Uta Beth, Pham Thi Hoai, Anja Tuckermann, Petra Isabel Schlagenhauf, Tamara Hentschel, Thúy Nonnemann, Günter Piening, Alke Wierth.

Đồng Xuân – Vietnamesen in Berlin

Người Việt hải ngoại và hơn thế nữa

Hebbel Theater am Ufer Berlin
HAU 2
Hallesches Ufer 32
10963 Berlin, Đức

26.11. – 27.11.2010

Trong lúc các cuộc tranh luận chính về hội nhập vẫn mang đậm dấu ấn văn hóa quốc gia và thường không tránh được lối mòn chủng tộc, trong thực tế xã hội đang diễn ra một sự thay đổi căn bản. Người Việt nhập cư, một cộng đồng lớn ở Berlin, là ví dụ cho thấy rằng cuộc sống hải ngoại mang nhiều hình thức đa dạng, và quá trình này cần được tiếp cận từ góc độ của người nhập cư. Sự thay đổi trong cách nhìn này dẫn đến sự thay đổi trong mô hình nhận thức quen thuộc và những nội dung đi kèm với nó. Tiếp cận khái niệm dân tộc từ ngoại biên giúp phơi bày ra ánh sáng những câu hỏi từ trước đến nay bị sao nhãng và đặt lại những vấn đề bị đẩy ra ngoài lề vào trung tâm.

Trong khuôn khổ này di cư không còn được hiểu là một vấn đề phải giải quyết nữa mà cần được thảo luận như một hình thức xã hội hóa quốc tế nối Berlin với Việt Nam, quận Cam (Mỹ) và các địa điểm nhập cư khác. Nhiệm vụ thiết thực của xã hội nhập cư trong tương lai là một định nghĩa “quê hương” có khả năng vượt qua các biên giới văn hóa, chính trị và dân tộc để tiến tới sự đoàn kết xuyên quốc gia và mang lại nội dung cụ thể cho khái niệm “công dân của một nền văn hóa”. Thay cho những đền bù thiếu hụt và thành tích hội nhập có tính chất nghĩa vụ, quyền bình đẳng và dân chủ phải là trọng tâm của các cuộc thảo luận.

Chương trình

Thuyết trình: Twilight Walk: The Time of Metamorphoses

Thuyết trình: „Qua cầu gió bay“. Kinh nghiệm nghe nhìn về trốn chạy, tha hương và di cư

Thảo luận: Quá trình tự tổ chức và Căn cước của Châu Á Thái Bình Dương

Thuyết trình: Á Châu Hải Ngoại: Khái niệm, Lịch sử, Tranh Luận

Thảo luận: „Quê hương là nơi mọi người hiểu ta“. Cộng đồng người Đức gốc Việt, thế hệ thứ hai và những trải nghiệm nhập cư khác nhau.

Thảo luận: Một tranh luận hội nhập mang tính chất khác – Từ mafia thuốc lá ngoài vòng pháp luật đến học sinh kiểu mẫu?

Với Trinh T. Minh-ha, Anna Babka, Nguyễn Quốc Toản, Sun-Ju Choi, Urmila Goel, Jee-Un Kim, Nivedita Prasad, Kien Nghi Ha, Ruth Mayer, Iman Attia, Uta Beth, Pham Thi Hoai, Anja Tuckermann, Petra Isabel Schlagenhauf, Tamara Hentschel, Thúy Nonnemann, Günter Piening, Alke Wierth.

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Burning Man


Everybody’s seen this picture:  the cross-legged priest in the saffron robe, burning, blazing orange.  His shaved head—a black and white skull—emerges, chiseled, from jagged, wind-swept flames.  A can of gasoline sits carelessly tossed beside him.  The popped hood of his Citroen forms a gaping maw—the mechanized cross between an alligator and a beetle—in the background.  The arc’d edge of a phalanx of white, robed bonzes is discernible; they are only a cross-section of a ring that forms the human barricade keeping policemen from extinguishing the flames before Thich Quang Duc’s spine collapsed and the body slumped down upon itself.

Google it.  You’ll see this picture in spades.  If it was an edge-y image back then, it’s still quite edge-y now.  It’s so edge-y, you can buy a T shirt from Burning Monk Apparel, emblazoned with its imagery:  a radically cropped image of only the priest, grafted onto the body of an American Apparel T-shirt.  Above it sits the declarative “Burning Man,” as if in reference to that carnaval in the Sonora Desert.  Below it, “Since 1963,”  echoing the proprietary language of restaurants, banks and malls.

The T-shirt recalls that ever so memorable debut album by Rage Against the Machine, which too features the image of the monk Thich Quang Duc, engulfed in flames.  In that album—voted one of the “Heaviest Albums of All Time” by Q Magazine—only the name of the fledgling band marks the image: this, done in the sloppy, tumbling script suggestive of refrigerator magnet poetry.

Should you already own too many T-shirts, you can also buy a skateboard deck silk-screened with this iconic image.  It comes in eight different styles and retails for $59.95.  Both the T-shirt and the skateboard are available on Zazzle.com.  Both come in a number of styles and sizes.  Quantity discounts apply.

The Rage album is now an image in and of itself.  You can buy just the poster itself; it comes in a variety of sizes and is available both in paper and, for the connossieur, fabric.  But also, I’m sure, you can download the album on i-Tunes and the image, no doubt, will come bundled, along with the sound recording, as a digital freebie.

Ironically, there was a lag between the taking of the picture and its emergence into our national consciousness.  Malcolm Browne, the photographer of this image could not place it with any of the major media organs, immediately. The New York Times refused to print such a picture.  And no wonder: even the first reporter on the scene, David Halberstam, would write:  “I was to see that sight again, but once was enough.”

Still, it would eventually make the rounds, becoming published in such mega-venues as Life magazine, where it made enough of a stir that people, for a time, forgot about the domestic issues of the Civil Rights movement and focused their eager eyeballs upon what Madame Nhu, the sister-in-law of Vietnam’s bachelor president, colorfully termed a “monk barbecue show.”

We all know how T-shirts are edge-y, sardonic statements upon our subjectivity— they are one of the last vestiges that allow us to express the absurdity of the human condition.  We all know how skateboards are anti-establishment echoes of a teen spirit, railing against the atrocities of divorces, curfews and the random room searches of the parent-gestapo.  So, I am glad that this image has found its place on the shelves of America’s creative pantry, along with the other staples that make the repast of our popular culture a veritable smorgasbord of toothsome pleasures.

Every time I see an angry youth with the shifty-up-to-no-good look of a serial tagger, I see a world of quiet desperation and a burning monk underneath the underneath.  And I know that, were it not for my war, they would never find adequate expression for their angst.

– post by Khanh Ho, assistant professor of English at Grinnell College

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In Conversation with artist Hoang Duong Cam


I met artist Hoang Duong Cam on an art trip to Vietnam in 2007 and was immediately struck by the impact of his artwork—at once deeply personal and thoughtful as well as fantastically creative and culturally relevant.  As I perused his website I came across a diverse range of recent and upcoming work.  I asked if I could send him a few questions with hopes of possibly unveiling a deeper understanding of the influences behind his art making…  he generously agreed.

LT:   When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

HDC:  I decided to become an artist very early, in the eighties. At that time, life in Vietnam, particularly mine, was very difficult. Everyday I had to deal with the significant short in necessities and entertainment, the “bullying” culture and also the tension that seem to be permanent in my family.  I was in a drawing class taught by the [now] deceased painter Pham Viet Song and found the passion for pursuing art. It was an old-school studio classroom, where the belief in love and art is generously disseminated. I felt protected and appreciated what art offered to me. That made me determined to become an artist. During that time, doing drawings and paintings seem to be the only way out for me.

LT:  You moved to Ho Chi Minh City after living in Hanoi.  Why did you move and how has it influenced your work?

HDC:  In 2001 I moved to Ho Chi Minh City after five years of practicing contemporary art in Hanoi. I was about to lose my job as a graphic designer for a magazine at that time and it was much easier to find a good job in Ho Chi Minh City. That’s why I chose to settle down in Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s economic center.  At first, it was difficult to adjust to the enormous difference between the two places, and the very marginalized environment regarding art and culture in the city. It was really a challenging situation and it made me work hard in my studio. In a very good way, this city with all its charm and dynamism gave me lots of energy and inspiration.

LT:  Your work weaves fluidly through the mediums of painting, sculpture, photography and video.  You write, “In my practice, I’d like to imagine the aesthetic as a liquid and the art-making process as a mold, so that the aesthetic, to a certain degree, could be molded by the artist naturally, flexibly even without any awareness by the artist.”  Does each medium serve as a different voice for different ideas?  How would you describe your relationship/artistic intention with regards to each?

Ideal Fall, 2009

Still from Falling Cloud, 2008

HDC:  The most important to me is the freedom of expression and experimentation. Looking back at my previous works, I realize that most of them do not firmly belong to any category, but in between. It’s the conceptual approach that I often use to develop my artwork, even in several painting series. For example, for “Ideal Fall”, I started with Plato’s “ideal form” that lead me to create an utopian paper sculpture. With a conceptual approach, I want to highlight the performative aspect as well as the ‘falling’ process. Eventually, I ended up using photography to express this idea. My intention is not to make cross-categorical artwork, it’s about the conceptual approach and its development.

Painting is my long-time devotion. I find the process of making painting is psychologically and meditatively evoking. During its making I try to figure out the fragile connection between its concept and the unconscious. I am always rewarded in considering this process as it nurtures my conceptual art practice. I find the process to be very personal, very direct. I love the way it revolves around the most sensible connection between mind and action.

The Weirdness of an Ideal Mind, Painting No.5, acrylic on canvas, 2010

LT:  What do you like to do most when you are not making or thinking about art?

HDC:  Well, I spend most of my free time with my family. I am fortunate to have a wonderful family to be proud of. Whatever you do at the end of the day, being with your loved ones is the most precious thing on earth.

LT:  What are you working on now?

HDC:  I am still working around the concept of “idealism,” put it in the context of Vietnamese custom. Several works have been done, like the “Falling Cloud” video installation, “Ideal Fall” photography series, and a painting/sculpture duo series titled “The Weirdness of an Ideal Mind”. In the next few months, I will be back at studio for a new painting series and develop a 3-D animation project.

Hoang Doung Cam’s work and press can be visited at his website.

– post by Lien Truong, who lives and works in Northern California, where she teaches painting and drawing at Humboldt State University

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First Take: “New Voices From Vietnam” Film Series


I’ve gone to two of the “New Voices from Vietnam” film series events in Los Angeles, the opening night screening of Phan Dang Di’s terrific “Bi Dung So”/”Bi Don’t Be Afraid” at the Hammer Museum, and the celebration of Dang Nhat Minh at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, where his quite enjoyable film “The Guava House” screened.

First thing to know: the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences won’t let you photograph inside their hallowed halls, so I didn’t take pictures of the venerable and delightful Kieu Chinh, or Dustin Nguyen looking snazzy in a black bowler hat and a hip-length bronze, fitted trench coat, or any number of up-and-coming Vietnamese directors.

Second thing: the Academy serves free booze, and it’s not bad. I had a Johnny Walker Black on the rocks and was glad I came so late to the reception I could only have one, or otherwise I would not have been clear-minded enough to note much of what came next. Plus it’s pretty cool that the bar is hidden within a wall, which closes when the reception’s over, telling you that a) you’ve had enough and b) it’s time to go watch the movie. I wonder if Tom Hanks gets a higher grade of scotch.

Third thing: the Academy has an international outreach committee, and its first target was Viet Nam. This was interesting; as the Academy’s host of Dang Nhat Minh’s night said, President Nixon had given him an invitation to go thirty years ago, and he had declined. So it makes sense that the Academy wants to look at Viet Nam in its postwar years, and that the Academy has sent its members to Viet Nam  as tourists and to offer technical training.

Fourth thing: the kind of Vietnamese cinema that the Academy likes has a certain style. Six feature films are being screened, and clips from all six were shown at the Academy’s celebration of Dang Nhat Minh. In order, they were: “Bi Dung So”/”Bi Don’t Be Afraid,” “Floating Lives,” “The Moon at the Bottom of the Well,” “Adrift,” “Clash,” and “The Owl and the Sparrow.” With the exception of “Clash,” the films are all what you might call International Art House–slow, moody, drifting, mostly humorless and light on plot and high on global cinematic technique. I like that kind of cinema, but there’s definitely something that’s overlooked by the Academy: the raunchy, comic, melodramatic, perhaps mindless fare–depending on your taste–that circulates in Viet Nam (for example, “Long-Legged Girls,” “Souls on Swing,” “Bar Girls”). “Clash” is an action movie, lots of big guns and bang-bang, and I like that, too, and it certainly did interject a different note into the lineup. But it also shows off global cinematic techniques that are necessary to get films from national to international showings, as in what’s happened with Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korean Cinema. I asked the director if he had been influenced by Hong Kong movies, which seemed pretty obvious. He said no and didn’t want to talk to me any more.

Fifth thing: this kind of cinema is a boys’ club.  Before Dang Nhat Minh was brought to the stage, the other six directors sat down for a discussion on stage. All men, as was the Academy host. The boys’ club dimension was brought home by having the one woman on stage be the translator. Vietnamese cinema looks like it’s following Hollywood cinema–and global cinema, too–in reserving opportunities for male directors.

Sixth thing: the maleness was emphasized by the generational conversation. The Academy host kept asking questions about what the difference was between the earlier Vietnamese film generation and this one, and hammered the Oedipal point home by asking the younger directors what they felt they owed to, or what they thought of, Dang Nhat Minh, who became sort of the father figure of Vietnamese cinema for the evening. Perhaps predictably, not all the directors said something, and not all who said things were effusive.

Seventh thing: I met Gene Kelly’s widow, who had been an English graduate student. We talked about Herman Melville and Gene Kelly for fifteen minutes. I love it about Los Angeles that these conversations can happen.

Eighth thing: “Bi Dung So” is a shocking film. You’d think by now that we’d be used to full frontal nudity, but the sight of a penis still has some shock value. Or maybe that’s just me speaking. In any case, Vietnamese cinema hasn’t seen the graphic kinds of sex that this film has. Sex on a rocky beach looks more painful than erotic, as does masturbating with a piece of ice, but whatever. Besides that, as the director said, the movie would be nothing without its sex scenes, which is what the government wants him to cut for a domestic release. I wouldn’t agree with that assessment. I still thought  the movie’s portrait of urban alienation and marital disaffection and sexual despair very compelling, although waiting for those sex scenes did really kick up the tension. Informal poll: 5 people I know didn’t like the film and found it boring and unaffecting, and 3 people I know including myself really enjoyed the film. What this tells you is that democracy and a Rotten Tomato score has nothing to do with movie-making and movie-liking. Go see the movie for yourself.

Ninth thing: um, the festival’s really a landmark and all quibbling aside, a wonderful event for Vietnamese cinema.

Tenth thing: I knew there was a tenth thing. When the Academy says “Vietnam,” it really means Viet Nam and not the Vietnamese diaspora. So no films set overseas, even if some of the people who made the films came from overseas. This, to me, seems narrow-minded and typical of a nationalist and American mindset–there’s the U.S. for Americans and Viet Nam for the Vietnamese and there’s nothing much in between, which illustrates why Vietnamese American filmmakers have a hard time getting work done in the U.S. And why so many of them are choosing to go to Viet Nam to make movies, where, ironically, they can get more recognition and opportunities. That’s the American Dream in a globalizing nutshell–some have to go overseas or go “home” to make their dreams come true.

–Viet Thanh Nguyen

p.s. This is a first take on the series, as we hope to get some reports from others who’ve seen the movies.

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