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ISSUE 31 : When Memories Collide
When Memories Collide: Revisiting War in Vietnam and the Diaspora
February 9th, 2017Type: Translation
Author: Võ Hồng Chương-Đài, 鄭文琦 (翻譯) Editor: Rikey Tenn
Quote From: 《Fa電影欣賞》no.168/169
Note: The author offers a comparative reading of two documentaries, Đoan Hoàng’s Oh, Saigon and Duki Dror’s The Journey of Vaan Nguyen, to examine how diasporic subjects narrate their memories of the civil war, and how those memories intersect with race, gender and the relationship between the “homeland” and the country of “arrival”. They challenge American and Vietnamese state historiographies that erase diasporic Vietnamese from nationalist discourses on war, democracy and liberation.
Đoan Hoàng, Oh Saigaon (2007) Poster

In her documentary Oh, Saigon (2007), Đoan Hoàng revisits the last days of the Vietnamese civil war not as a Cold War battleground or an anti-imperial war of national liberation, but as “the moment my family fell apart”. Using her family’s flight as a metaphor for the geo-political fracturing of time and space, Hoàng seeks to excavate the suppressed history that continues to haunt the relationship between Vietnam and the diaspora. In addition to iconic images of people fleeing the city and fighting their way into the U.S. Embassy for a seat on the last helicopters, we see South Vietnamese arriving on U.S. soil. By centering the plight of refugees in the Vietnam War narrative, Hoàng reminds us of a past that continues to be contentious and unrepresentable in both American and Vietnamese national historiographies of the war.

In this article, I offer a comparative reading of two documentaries, Hoàng’s Oh, Saigon and Duki Dror’s The Journey of Vaan Nguyen (2005), to examine how diasporic subjects narrate their memories of the civil war, and how those memories intersect with race, gender and the relationship between the “homeland” and the country of “arrival”. These films challenge American and Vietnamese state historiographies that erase diasporic Vietnamese from nationalist discourses on war, democracy and liberation, and that seek simplified narratives of reconciliation in the service of global, neoliberal development

Diaspora and Vietnam’s neoliberal policy

In 2004, almost thirty years after the civil war between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Republic of Vietnam, the Politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party passed legislation that addressed the significant economic and cultural influence of an estimated three million diasporic Vietnamese. Resolution 36 calls upon all “Party organizations, State agencies at central and local levels, the Vietnam Fatherland Front and mass organizations” to “urge” diasporic Vietnamese to contribute to the liberalization of the country’s economy with their skills, financial assets, and ties to educational institutions, corporations, international agencies and governments abroad. Interestingly, the resolution also represents diasporic Vietnamese communities as part of the nation and the Vietnamese state as their ambassador, a representation that is particularly fraught given that these communities largely comprise people who fled South Vietnam after its defeat by the North (see Embassy of Vietnam 11 May 2004).

The Vietnamese term for these diasporic subjects is Việt Kiều, which means “Overseas Vietnamese.” This seemingly neutral term often is used derogatorily and carries with it the baggage of civil war and imperial history—local Vietnamese’s resentment toward those who were able to flee the devastated country and who are now citizens and residents of more prosperous, usually Western countries. In its choice of linguistic terminology and its positioning of itself as the agent “responsible” for the settlement and well-being of diasporic people, the state selectively chose to elide the still bitter history of the civil war. The government welcomes back those “Overseas Vietnamese” who are willing to support the neoliberalization of the country without raising troubling questions about the political system or post-civil war education and employment selection procedures that continue to discriminate against Vietnamese nationals who fought and worked for the former Republic (see Embassy of Vietnam 19 September 2004).

Diasporic Vietnamese contribute a sizeable part to Vietnam’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) through annually increasing remittances, which reached an estimated $6.8 billion or 11 per cent of GDP in 2008 (Small 2010: 1; see International Fund for Agriculture and Development 2008). This estimate is based on money sent through official channels such as banks and money wire services; the actual sum could be two or even three times as much. It is not surprising then that the government has begun an official policy that recognizes this extensive source of capital from diasporic Vietnamese, three-quarters of whom fled the country en-masse after 1975. The state’s position toward diasporic Vietnamese is part of a larger policy of economic liberalization that began in the mid 1980s after the failure of the expansion of collectivization into the South, the fall of the Communist Bloc, and the gradual opening of the domestic economy to the West and international trade and monetary organizations.

As the current Vietnamese state rushes to embrace globalization, neoliberalism has become the policy of choice—appropriating the logic of flexible capital and labor to selectively welcome back diasporic subjects for their educational, economic and social assets free of the burden of history. But diasporic Vietnamese communities largely comprise people who once lived in the Republic of Vietnam, and the return of the stateless threatens to disrupt the homogenous time and space of the current Vietnamese state’s imaginings of the nation. The neoliberal goals of Resolution 36 and the establishment of the Committee on Overseas Vietnamese in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seek to sidestep inherently contradictory notions of national belonging, unavoidably bringing to light the excesses of the diaspora that cannot be reconciled within a nationalist framework.

The state’s attempts to appropriate the diaspora for neoliberal development is particularly disturbing given the suppression of history by the current government in Vietnam. It continues to refuse to acknowledge past war atrocities unless they serves its nationalist agenda, such as the Huế massacre of 1968. The state systematically seized land used by ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands to reward Northerners who supported the Hanoi government. The Northern government imprisoned thousands of those who fought for the South in so-called re-education camps; forced the relocation of Southerners to New Economic Zones; and continues the practice of discriminating against them and their families in employment and education selection processes. Meanwhile, the histories of the dead and living of the Republic of Vietnam are excluded from public spaces such as military cemeteries, museums and monuments (Nguyễn-võ 2005: 159-60; see Schwenkel 2004; 2008).


Fragments of tomorrow

Diaspora carries with it multiple affiliations and identities, to both the homeland and to the new country, subject to the possibilities and hostilities of both locations (Naficy 2001: 14). In their overlapping and contradictory ties to the histories and communities of more than one nation, diasporic communities challenge the homogenous time of Andersonian imagination and the progressive teleology of assimilationist and nationalist narratives (see Clifford 1994). As Brent Hayes Edwards argues in his theorization of black internationalism, we can usefully think about diaspora not as “an easy recourse to origins”, but as a discourse of difference among the dispersed populations, of “a complex past of forced migrations and racialization” (2003: 12-13).

Films made by and about diasporic Vietnamese offer a site for the analysis of the intersection of national identity, diasporic identity, and post-war reconciliation. If, as Henri Lefebvre argues, film is intrinsically a montage of fragmented images, the medium can offer a useful platform for considering questions of fragmented histories (1991). I offer a comparative reading of two documentaries, Duki Dror’s The Journey of Vaan Nguyen (2005) and Đoan Hoàng’s Oh, Saigon (2007), to analyze how these issues are circulating within transnational circuits. Neither contemporary Vietnamese national nor diasporic cinemas can be understood within a national framework alone, but must be read as transnational texts that engage with each other, complicate national categorization, and defy conventional classifications of Southeast Asian cinema and Western cinema as separate genres. My analysis focuses on how diasporic subjects narrate their memories of the civil war, and how those memories intersect with race, gender and national belonging. I argue that these works challenge the neoliberal, teleological construction of history as a progression from war to reconciliation, bringing back the ghosts that continue to haunt post-war Vietnamese society and its diasporic communities.

Dror’s film The Journey of Vaan Nguyen critiques nationalist historiographies by reframing diasporic displacement as a site of alternative affiliations. The film uses close-up shots and archival footage to foreground the fragmentation of history and dissonance felt by diasporic subjects in the “home” and the “new” countries. The two main protagonists—an Israel-born, ethnically Vietnamese woman and her father—go to Vietnam to reclaim the family lands, which were confiscated by the state and redistributed as part of a post-1975 land reform program to reward those who supported the North during the civil war. The father’s recognition of his fractured history and the daughter’s devastating realization that she is not “Vietnamese” reveal the impossibility of reconciliation between diasporic and national parties whose histories split and cannot converge under the auspices of neoliberal imperatives. In the interests of promoting tourism and economic partnerships, the Vietnamese state has endorsed a discourse of reconciliation and forgiveness between Vietnamese national and diasporic subjects. That discourse falls apart on the ground, as seen in the father’s exclusion from the new political order and the daughter’s mourning of social ties that were broken as a consequence of war and displacement, and that cannot be recuperated.

Whereas The Journey of Vaan Nguyen portrays dispossession as an alternative to historical time and space, Hoàng’s Oh, Saigon is a search for reconciliation as the antidote to loss. The latter portrays the diasporic journey as one particularly driven by the daughter’s desire to heal her parents’ wounds of war. There are two plots that use family reconciliation as a metaphor for national reconciliation—between parents and daughter, and between brother and brother. The documentary moves back and forth between Hoàng’s exploration of why her parents did not take her half sister with them as they fled Saigon, and her learning about her father’s past and his communist brother. As the first plot unfolds, the mother explains the tragedy by drawing on the diasporic narrative of the U.S. “abandonment” of South Vietnam. The second plot focuses on the effects of civil war and displacement on the patriarchal figures: the director’s father Nam, a former major in the South Vietnamese Air Force, and his older brother Hải, who had fought for the National Liberation Forces. Hoàng’s discovery that her family includes communists becomes a metaphor for diasporic Vietnamese’s excavation of a still contentious past. Long kept unspoken and buried by their displaced parents, this past carries into the present the uneasy and gendered tensions between the diaspora and the nation. Films about the Vietnamese diaspora offer an important medium for the analysis of the intersection of national identity, diasporic identity and the politics of post-war reconciliation.


Đỗ Minh Tuấn, Ký ức Điện Biên (2004) poster

Transnational Vietnamese cinema and the return of the stateless

Film is an arena in which diasporic subjects are inserting themselves into the nation. Although some films, such as Dror’s and Hoàng’s, have never been screened in Vietnam due to their engagement with the civil war, they are part of the current circulation and construction of what can be called transnational Vietnamese cinema. Thousands of diasporic Vietnamese are living and working in Vietnam for short- and long-term periods, and thousands of Vietnamese nationals are going abroad for education and employment. The same cross-movements are taking place in the filmmaking industry, making it anachronistic to think about it only within a national framework. Once dominated by war-time, nationalist narratives, the film industry has developed into a transnational, multi-genre and multi-style cultural realm.(註2) This sea change can be attributed to a number of significant, interconnected factors: the state’s declined status in the sector as the only player; its embrace of privatization; the influx of media, capital, and labor from abroad; the increased presence of multinational coproduction financing; and the emergence of production companies owned by local and diasporic filmmakers in the country and the diaspora.

The Vietnamese state had funded all production, distribution and releases of major motion pictures up until 1989 (Ngô 1998: 93). However, the unwritten rule was that the funding went to Hanoi-based directors. From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, a crop of Saigon-based directors turned out inexpensive productions shot on video cameras for as low as $10,000. These “instant noodle” films were hugely popular, appealing to audiences who craved entertainment without overtly didactic content tied to socialist nation-building and citizenry (Ngô 1998: 93).(註3) Viewing such films as morally decadent and anxious to maintain the use of cultural production as a tool of national and international image-making, the state reinstituted subsidies for a select number of directors. This stream of funding supported the production of 20 to 25 films annually up until five years ago, according to one well-known producer in Saigon.(註4) Veteran director Đặng Nhật Minh gives a lower count—10 to 15 films annually.(註5) The Department of Cinema now only partially funds five or six films. However, the practice remains of selecting directors who are Hanoi-based. These films are of the phim nghệ thuật (art film) genre, and are made primarily for international consumption—particularly the film festival circuits in Asia, the U.S. and Europe and the university circuits in the U.S.(註6) In deciding its priorities, the Department of Cinema prefers films that promote an image of Vietnam as a modern, democratic society built on a history of revolutionary resistance to foreign domination or films that present romantic and exotic images of the country. Films such as Ngô Quang Hải’s Chuyện Của Pao (2006) (Story of Pao) or Phạm Nhuê Giang’s Thung Lũng Hoàng Vắng (2002) (The Deserted Valley) draw upon the internationalization of the discourse of multiculturalism to portray the liberal democratization of Vietnamese society, even as they showcase Vietnam’s ethnic minorities as the Other.

As it did during wartime, the Communist Party-dominated state sees film as a tool to use in service of the nation. The Department of Cinema gave Đỗ Minh Tuấn an unprecedented $900,000 to make Ký Ức Điện Biên (2004) (Memories of Điện Biên) to revive memories of the Việt Minh-led victory; the film barely made a dint at the box office. Đặng Nhật Minh, the most powerful director in the industry, received 11 billion VNĐ ($687,500) to make Đừng Đốt (2009) (Don’t Burn). With echoes of gendered Orientalist romance tales, the story recounts a former American intelligence officer’s thirty-year obsession with the diaries of a female doctor who had left her comfortable bourgeois life to serve the North during the civil war and who died after being shot by an American soldier. Vietnamese President Nguyễn Minh Triết told the story to U.S. President George Bush, Jr., during the latter’s visit to Vietnam in 2006, as a lesson on setting aside the past to build diplomatic and economic relations for the future benefit of both countries (See Võ 2008). The film did not appeal to audiences in Vietnam and in the diaspora, but was been particularly resonant for American veterans and others who opposed the war.

A Viet Wave has formed as the post-war generation of Vietnamese, both in the “homeland” and in the diaspora, is eager to create its own version of pop culture and globalized modernity, the equal of those that have developed out of Asian metropolises. The two centers of filmmaking in Vietnam – Hanoi and Saigon – are developing distinctly different styles and representations of national and diasporic identities. This accords with the larger context of the country’s rapid integration into the global economy, wherein local, state and foreign investors, cultural producers and classes are vying for their stake in the privatization of national industries, agricultural lands, and urban modernization projects. As Martin Lefebvre reminds us, the relationship between films and imaginings of the nation have been tied since the invention of cinema as a technology (2006: xi-xxxi).

Whereas Hanoi still prefers art films as the genre of choice, Saigon-based directors also offer slapstick comedies, romantic comedies, thrillers, gangster films and action films. The other distinguishing mark between the two centers is the prominence of diasporic filmmakers and producers in the South, many of whom fled the country with their families as children and have their projects. A rising star in Hanoi is the local Bùi Thạc Chuyên, whose film Chơi Vơi (2009) (Adrift) drew international attention at the Cannes Film Festival with its suggestion of lesbian desire as well as its questioning of social norms about marriage – two unconventional thematic concerns. The film also features an unusual soundtrack, a postmodernist exoticization of North Vietnamese folk music. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Vietnam chose it as one of nine films to submit for the 2010 Luang Prabang Film Festival. Another much sought-after name is diasporic Vietnamese Charlie Nguyễn, whose film Đễ Mai Tính (2010) (Fool for Love; literally Think About it Tomorrow) set new records at the box office in Vietnam. In a country where the average theater screening is two to three weeks and the top sales period is the Lunar New Year, the film ran for a dozen weeks. It opened to sold-out audiences in California, due in no small part to media attention in Vietnam and marketing by the Vietnamese American-owned distributor Wave Releasing in the U.S. After its successful premiere in what insiders call the “Golden Triangle” of Vietnamese American communities in Southern California, Northern California and Texas, the film opened in Seattle and on the East Coast. The gay sidekick character, played by Vietnamese actor Thái Hòa, charmed audiences in Vietnam and in the diaspora, and Vietnamese American audiences beamed with pride seeing Dustin Nguyễn star as the lead male. Having played one of the secondary characters in the 1980s American hit show 21 Jump Street, he is still the only Vietnamese American man who has ever had a significant role in Hollywood. Fool for Love is a romantic comedy about a female, lounge singer who feels torn between a ballroom clerk and a wealthy mogul. This heteronormative love story celebrates the neoliberal commodification of gender, class, race and sexuality, and the beginnings of a new star system in the Vietnamese film industry. The film is shot with a red camera, featuring MTV style scenes of mansion pool parties and sports cars.

Such films are appealing to local Vietnamese audiences familiar with global images of pop culture, not only those from Hollywood and MTV via cable television and pirated DVDs, but also from Asian metropolises. For diasporic audiences, these films create ties of community and represent ethnic Vietnamese as the primary actors rather than sidekicks who will never have their time in the limelight. The multiplication of film genres and styles being created by Hanoi-based, Saigon-based, locally raised, and diasporic directors does not necessarily critique neoliberalism or challenge problematic conventions of race, class, gender and sexuality; at the same time, these films are usurping the Vietnamese state monopoly on the construction of viewing experiences and national and diasporic identities.


Đễ Mai Tính (2010) poster

Archival eruptions: Vietnam, Israel and the U.S.

Duki Dror is an independent filmmaker whose parents settled in Israel after fleeing Baghad in the 1950s. He is particularly known for films about minority groups who comprise Israel. His films have been shown on Israeli television and at numerous film festivals throughout the world. His documentary The Journey of Vaan Nguyen focuses on two main protagonists – an Israel-born, ethnically Vietnamese woman and her father. Dror follows them as they go to Vietnam to reclaim the family lands, which were confiscated by the communist state and redistributed as part of a post-1975 land reform program to reward those who supported the North during the civil war.

The Journey of Vaan Nguyen brings together the discordant histories of nations and displaced communities, and reminds us of the complex, multinational geo-politics of the Cold War. While the U.S. was increasing its armed forces in South Vietnam, Israel was buttressing its borders in the Middle East with military and financial assistance from the U.S.; the full display of that came to fruition during the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The hot spots of Cold War maneuvering in the Middle East and Southeast Asia would converge in 1977, when an Israeli cargo ship rescued a boat of 66 Vietnamese refugees. Likening their plight to that of Jews during World War II, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin welcomed them: “We have never forgotten the lot of our people, persecuted, humiliated, ultimately physically destroyed. Therefore, it was natural that my first act as Prime Minister was to give those people a haven in the Land of Israel” (qtd in Afeef 2009: 6). While it was forcing Palestinians to become refugees, the Israeli state was accepting refugees created by their American allies elsewhere. In this ironic twist of Cold War politics, Vietnamese constituted the first non-Jewish, non-Palestinian refugees in Israel, and Israel was the first country to grant them asylum. The Journey of Vaan Nguyen excavates the little known history of the approximately 300 Vietnamese who came to Israel.

The film’s use of archival footage and cultural intermediaries highlights the marginalized status of those Vietnamese who would be known as “boat people”, a people drifting between borders with no certain destination. The opening scene recycles archival news footage of 197 Vietnamese refugees arriving in Israel in 1979, being greeted by their predecessors. The montage continues with footage of an Israeli instructor explaining Hanukkah to the arrivals, who look baffled and disoriented as they sit through a lesson in national identity formation. These footage shots are soon revealed to comprise a television documentary being watched by the Nguyen family and their friends two decades later. In the time of the viewing, the second generation—which is the generation of Vaan Nguyen who was born in Israel—is watching the arrival of the parents’ generation to Israel and into the normative practices of Israeli culture. This triangulation of viewing—the news broadcast, the television rebroadcast and the Nguyen family as they are being filmed for another documentary—stages the excavation of state documentation of a public event and the process of revisiting that history with the immigrant not only as a documented Other, but as a speaking subject.

The opening sequence of scenes establishes the overlapping histories of the first and second generations—the Vietnam-born immigrants and the Israel-born; the opening also foreshadows their different experiences of “return” in the second half of the film. The director initially gives prominence to the perspective of the second generation, who are intermediaries between the displaced refugee/immigrant and the Israel-born participants and the viewers. The presence of the intermediary is particularly felt in the film’s use of the voiceover and commentary by Vaan and her sister, Hoa/Vered, the youngest of the five daughters. In a scene that brings together the intersection of language and displacement, Hoa watches her father and two of his friends speaking Vietnamese. The viewer first enters the scene from the perspective of Hoa, who is separated from the men by a couch. She talks to the person behind the camera, saying they speak too quickly for her to understand; the film reinforces the viewer’s impression of their “foreign” language through the inaudible recording of their conversation. The Israel-born Hoa is the “translator” who mediates between the camera/viewer and the first generation Vietnamese in Israel.

The film’s privileging of the intermediary recalls the use of the “native informant” prevalent in Western anthropological studies of “primitive” societies (see Spivak 1988; Clifford 1988). However, it would be too easy to interpret Dror’s use of the intermediary as another reproduction of colonialist structures of power and the appropriation of the voice of the Other. The most obvious reason to complicate such a reading is the film’s exploration of the racism faced by the Nguyen family living in Israel and the film’s inclusion of the father Hoimai’s journal, which he reads in voiceover to explain his forced separation from his siblings and his escape from Vietnam. The film’s use of Vaan and Hoimai’s writings as material for the voiceover constructs a multi-generational, diasporic history that is an alternative to the nationalist histories of Israel and Vietnam. These sources of diasporic history do not offer a progressive narrative of diasporic subject formation and easy return to the nation. The film’s use of the intermediary implicates both the Israeli state’s marginalization of a minority population and the Vietnamese state’s repression of a defeated population.


There’s no place like home

In its excavation of the little known history of Vietnamese refugees in Israel, The Journey of Vaan Nguyen asks us to contemplate the relationship between the international geopolitics of war and domestic racism. Since its founding, Israel has had a two-tiered immigration process that prefers Jewish immigrants and that has resulted in a racialized society that systematically discriminates against non-Jewish immigrants, despite its avowed adherence to Western liberal democracy (see Afeef 2009). Hoimai alludes to this discrimination when he explains that in their search to find a burial plot for their prematurely born twins, he and his wife were turned away by Jewish and Christian cemeteries, but obtained permission from a Muslim cemetery.

Dror highlights the geopolitics of displacement by juxtaposing a scene of Hoa and Jamillah being taunted in the schoolyard with black-and-white footage of newly arrived Vietnamese refugees receiving a geography lesson on Israel’s precarious location in the Middle East. As we see the primary-school aged Hoa walking with her Arabic friend Jamillah, we hear in voiceover Vaan’s journal entry about growing up and being taunted for having “slanted eyes”, being called names of countries, hating her parents and “the elitist Jewish society”, struggling with feeling “ungrateful” toward “family, state, community of any kind”, feeling “the loneliness of a foreigner growing up in the desert.” While Hoa and Jamillah are talking to each other about growing up bilingual, we hear boys yelling taunts at them, calling Hoa “Japanese” and telling Jamillah to “go home”. The camera frames the girls in close-up, and we do not see the boys until the end of the scene, which concludes with the camera offering glimpses of the other parts of the playground and an Asian boy crying in anguish against one of the other boys. These close-ups emphasize the girls’ vulnerability and question the omniscience of the Cartesian perspective. The enclosed space of the frames echoes the sense of isolation that the girls feel as they are being racialized and bullied by their male peers. Unlike the all-knowing observer of classical, Western visual theory, the viewer—like and unlike the girls—does not have complete ontological access to the suppressed histories.

The immigrant’s subjection to the daily subtleties of racism and Vaan’s anger speak to what Jodi Kim calls the “social death” that refugees of war face (2009: 856-57). In her analysis of films about the transnational, transracial and gendered adoption of Asian babies by Americans, Kim argues that a necessary condition for the production of “orphaned” children is the imperial violence of U.S. geopolitics in Asia, which destabilizes and destroys the local economic, social and political structures. Thus, “humanitarian” campaigns such as the adoption of war babies are intricately dependent on the forced severing of ties between the biological mother who feels compelled to give up her child for adoption and the child who experiences what Kim calls a “social death”, the condition of being cut off from the familial and communal relationships of the biological mother. Kim’s argument emphasizes the geopolitical violence that compels people to be separated from the “home” country and marginalized in the “new” country; such violence haunts attempts for reconciliation or the convergence of histories. In The Journey of Vaan Nguyen, the family feels the displacement that comes from being subjected to racism in Israel and the “social death” that is a legacy of the parents’ flight from Vietnam. They were expelled from the history of one nation and have not been fully admitted into the history of another. Their evacuation from history is seen all the more keenly in the second half of the film, which narrates Hoimai’s return to Vietnam twenty-five years after he escaped.


The Journey of Vaan Nguyen (2005)

Land and perception

Instead of using archival footage to construct a cause-and-effect narrative that explains the family’s displacement, the director foregrounds the ruptures to suggest an alternative space of affiliation among marginalized subjects. The film is particularly attentive to the erased and foreclosed events and lives that cannot be represented and reconstructed due to the violence of war. Closely cropped, black-and-white footage of a man singing “Vietnam, Vietnam,” the unofficial national anthem of the former Republic of Vietnam, accompanies the audio track for the film’s introduction of present-day Vietnam to the viewer. The extreme close-up and the long take are prominent later as well during scenes of Hoimai attempting to reclaim his family’s lands. In his distinction between the montage and the long take, Gilles Deleuze associates the former with classical, linear narration and the latter with the denaturalization of such “evident” memory-making (1985/2007: 26-27). The insertion of the black-and-white footage between scenes of Hoimai leaving Israel and his arrival in Vietnam resurrects the past death of South Vietnam without offering clear connections. The old ghosts embodied in the audio-visual interrupt rather than explain the narrative of the journey. What we see are fragments of national and diasporic histories brought together with gaps and silences that cannot be explained or fully comprehended—the decontextualized history of the singing of the song, the history of the father’s return, the history of the defeated Republic of Vietnam, the history of the present Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

The film’s recuperation of archival footage of the last days of the Republic of Vietnam remembers its “death” and creates space for its ghostly presence in the historiography of the current Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Drawing on the motif of travel, the film cuts back and forth between black-and-white images of South Vietnamese fleeing their cities and scenes of Hoimai revisiting his hometown in the Central Region, a place the U.S. nearly bombed into extinction during the war. The gaps in Hoimai’s history between his flight and his return are the time and place of the refugee, a time and place that do not figure in the current historiography of Vietnam. This assemblage of discordant worlds becomes more and more apparent with a montage of scenes that speaks of chaos and broken lineages rather than the coherence of teleological histories: archival footage of National Liberation Front fighters shooting American aircraft; Hoimai driving a motorbike during his return; Hoimai writing and reading in voiceover a journal entry about fleeing his war-torn village and taking on the identity of a drowned Southern Vietnamese soldier. To stitch together these disparate images of a fractured history, Dror uses a moving camera—the same technique seen in the archival footage—to film Hoimai driving his motorcycle and school children biking home. These scenes of travel, however, do not circle into one another, tying together the past and the present to create a clear teleology of movement and time. The present-day sequence comprises medium and close-up shots rather than wide-angle images that convey the heroism of revolutionary nationalism favored by the state.

While the moving camera destabilizes the conventional suturing together of interrupted spaces and times, the close-up shot highlights the impossibility of their reconciliation. Despite his brother’s counsel against reclaiming land that they left long ago, Hoimai seeks out the current owner of his deceased father’s former house, Chú Kỳ. An “Honorable War Hero”, Chú Kỳ received the plot as part of the state’s post-war land redistribution program to reward those who had supported the North. Hoimai had told his daughter Vaan that he left the land after the mayor who replaced his father had threatened to kill him. Hoimai and Chú Kỳ’s claims to ownership of the land rest on different systems of legitimacy—the former insists on family lineage whereas the latter asserts the authority of the state:

K: What have you decided to do, what do you want to ask?

H: I would like to ask the reason you acquired this land, and to transfer it back to my family, to give it back so that my children may know their roots.

K: That’s not how it is. The government has the right to grant it to someone else. What was

your father’s name?

H: My father? His name was Nguyễn Khắc Minh.

K: Nguyễn Khắc Minh.

H: Back then, he was a village head.

K: What was he?

H: Head of a village.

K: Head of a village. Why did he live here?

H: At that time, he couldn’t live in Ơn Nghĩa. The village was under the control of the North; he was on the Southern side.

K: Have you met with Mr. Châu?

H: Not yet.

K: He will explain fully the transfer…. I have all the paperwork, all of the (Communist) committee’s paperwork (original pause).(註7)

Concluding with a close shot of Hoimai in profile, speechless, the scene largely comprises close and tightly cropped shots that contain the men in their own spaces, exclusive of the other person. While we see and hear one person, we hear the other person speaking from outside the frame. The visual and audio exclusion of one from the frame of the other accentuates the split history between the speaking subjects. There is no archival footage to provide a clear historical backdrop for the present “return”; the absolute teleological narrative of the masculine state is borne out of that fractured history and it must legitimize itself with each questioning of its authority.


Affiliations of the dispossessed

In contrast to the spatial and temporal unity of nationalist historiographies, The Journey of Vaan Nguyen explores what Michael Chanan calls “an expanded space” created by discontinuities (2007: 106). Urged on by his daughter Vaan’s desire to reclaim the family rural land, Hoimai goes back to Ơn Nghĩa village with her and his male relatives. After being invited into the house by the new owner, Hoimai tells him of his goal. This more sympathetic owner tells him the former villagers had left long ago, and have been replaced by new villagers. The conversation unfolds through a series of reverse angle point-of-view shots, which alternate between cuts and pans of individuals and mostly groups of two or three people. The sequence comprises the following people: Vaan sitting at the dining table, in profile, facing right; Hoimai sitting at the table, in profile, facing left; the owner sitting to Hoimai’s right; a unidentified male villager sitting to the owner’s right; a woman in her forties and a younger woman to her far left, both sitting against the wall behind the men; and Hoimai’s male relatives. While the camera includes Hoimai and the new owner in the same frame, we see Vaan sitting across the table, framed in close-up by herself. This visual separation of Vaan from the other people in the scene captures her feelings of alienation and discomfort in the space of her ancestral land, which in its pastoral surface of wind-blown rice fields and mountains is layered with the losses of war and flight. Frustrated by what she senses is a hopeless mission, Vaan suggests her father ask how much it would cost to buy back the land or if the new owner would agree to exchanging it for land elsewhere. She speaks in Hebrew, provoking laughter from the male villager. The father proposes exchanging land, but like him, the new owner insists “home” is where he is. Shortly after that, Vaan leaves the table, walking out to the left of the camera frame.

Rather than returning to one of the speaking subjects, the camera cuts to the above mentioned young woman, likely a member of the household; her face is the last image we see inside the house. Like the image of Hoimai at the end of the scene inside Chú Kỳ’s house, we see a subject who does not have a position at the table. Through these reverse angle point-of-view shots, the film expands the conversation beyond what is being represented through the verbal, and foregrounds alternative perspectives and possible forms of affiliation, which in this scene takes on the figure of the feminine. By constantly shifting its focus, the film destabilizes the notion of a singular history, and reminds us of the subjects who occupy the margins, whose presence is constitutive of the narrative.

To offer a confident teleology, national historiographies must create truths by repressing conflicting narratives. Reflecting on the visit to the village, Vaan tells the camera of her imagining “myself roaming these fields, running in the fields as a child”, and lamenting the impossibility of having lived it. This imagined childhood speaks to Vaan’s sense of feeling alienated and “landless” in Israel. There is no room either in contemporary Vietnamese nationalist historiography for stories of loss endured by supporters of the former Republic of Vietnam and their families. This is most subtly executed by the mayor, Anh Tư, whom Hoimai claims had held a gun to his head and told him to leave the village. When Hoimai accidentally sees him, Anh Tư is standing on a narrow paved road, which is higher than the dirt ground on which the former stands. Anh Tư remains on the elevated ground during their conversation, and the camera captures the spatial and symbolic disparity in the two men’s positions by shooting Hoimai at eye level and Anh Tư slightly from below, to convey the perspective of the dispossessed returnee. When Hoimai asks the mayor if he remembers putting a gun to his head, Anh Tư deflects the question by insisting on their communal kinship and instructing Hoimai on how to remember the past:

Home is the crown of the roots. You cannot leave it regardless of how successful you are, how much you have. You have to remember the place where your paternal grandfather was born, where your father was born, where you were born. You should always remember your home.

In his lesson on fidelity to one’s roots, the mayor evokes patriarchal lineage as the signifier of land ownership and history making. However, as seen in Chú Kỳ’s claim, the state has superseded the former family as the legitimating institution of home and belonging; patriarchy is not a naturally occurring genealogy, but one that must be re-inscribed with meaning by each new historiography of the nation.


Evacuation into exile

While Duki Dror’s The Journey of Vaan Nguyen stitches together discordant histories to show the impossibility of their convergence, Đoan Hoàng’s Oh, Saigon strives toward a suturing that can give form to the work of reconciliation. The opening montage sets up this desire to find a coherent narrative, draw lines of descent despite their destruction by war and displacement, and extend the ties of history within the nation outward to the diaspora. Reminiscent of a common motif seen in films made during the Republic of Vietnam era, Oh, Saigon opens with an audio track of the Southern favorite “Sài Gòn ơi”. These older films often featured a song about love, a lament in homage to the war dead, or a waiting for a husband or son’s return; Hoàng’s use of “Sài Gòn ơi” evokes a lost way of life, an homage to South Vietnamese history. The audio track sets the pace for the montage, which changes with each metrical progression and follows the convention of establishing shot giving way to medium and close-up shots. After a brief black-and-white, archival footage showing the hustle and bustle of downtown 1960s Saigon shot in wide angle, we see market scenes of the pre-war era shot in color that lead to a scene of boat vendors shot three or four decades later. The lack of distinction between the earlier footage and the more recent ones gives the illusion of a linear, stable history in which little has changed. One has to be attentive to notice the markers of time. In one of the shots of an outdoors market, the camera pans in close-up across six calendars featuring Natalie Wood, a Chinese star and other glamorous actresses of the 1960s—images of the seduction of global regimes of pop culture, commodity goods and imperial powers in the history of South Vietnam. But the line between history and its recycled double can be blurry, as seen in the presence of American 1950s and 1960s model cars and Italian vespas, which have been refurbished by the hundreds and become trendy again in contemporary Saigon. While the opening montage of accumulated time offers the promise of a linear narrative of national identity and formation, the illusion quickly breaks down amidst images of chaos.

Hoàng revisits the “Fall of Saigon” as not just an endpoint, but as a shared event in divergent histories—thus interrupting American and North Vietnamese meta-narratives that predominantly portray the civil war either as a Cold War chapter or an anti-imperial war of national liberation. The playful tune of “Sài Gòn ơi” becomes ironic as we see scenes of panic and death. Anticipating the aerial images that will come later, the montage of present-day Saigon ends with a close-up shot of a group of boys looking over their right shoulder at a flying object, and cuts to a 1970s news clip of American jets sweeping across the sky and dropping bombs on Vietnam. What follows are images of the last days of the civil war: unidentified Vietnamese soldiers dead on the battlefield, their bodies mangled and heaped onto one another; a white male American journalist reporting from the field; helicopters overwhelmed with people fleeing. With this ubiquitous image of April 30, 1975, the song “Sài Gòn ơi” ends and the director’s voiceover begins. What the U.S. mainstream calls the “Fall of Saigon” is for diasporic Vietnamese “Black April”, “Day of National Loss” and “Day of National Anger”. Hoàng ties the last days of the civil war to “the moment my family fell apart” and the fraught continuation of that history in the U.S. The montage ends with archival footage of civilians desperately fleeing; North Vietnamese tanks crashing through the gates of the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace; youth wielding handguns to enforce the new communist order; an aerial shot of a camp set up to receive South Vietnamese refugees in the U.S.; and close-ups of refugees arriving. These cross-cut shots and shifts in time and space present the North’s takeover of the South and the flight of South Vietnamese as simultaneous events within a linear narrative that broke apart in the chaos of war. By reexamining the ashes out of which the diaspora emerged and that bear the traces of its relationship to present-day Vietnam, Oh, Saigon seeks to find possibilities for familial reconciliation despite geopolitical and ideological conflicts that did not end with the war, but continue to haunt the nation and the diaspora.


Duki Dror, The Journey of Vaan Nguyen (2005) poster

Strategies of silence

The film’s reconstruction of these lives and histories continually comes up against gendered and nationalist silences and conflicting memories that disrupt its search for coherent narratives and post-war reconciliation. To show the effects of war on Vietnamese who fled the country, Hoàng brings together unofficial sources from the ground-up: home videos, family photographs, and interviews with family members in the U.S. and in Vietnam. We hear the silences that haunt the telling of South Vietnamese history and the fraught relationships between the diaspora and the new nation: shame, racism, cultural alienation, and the dramatic downturn in the socio-economic status of the dispossessed.(註8) Hoàng foregrounds her parents’ loss of privilege and status by introducing her mother, Ann, as a former Saigonese socialite who became a seamstress in Louisville, Kentucky, and the maternal figure who resisted assimilation by making sure her children would continue to speak Vietnamese, eat Vietnamese food, and maintain Vietnamese customs at home. Nam, Đoan’s father, attaches his sense of identity to his former public duty as a military officer. He speaks of his loss in socio-economic status, as a former major in the Republic of Vietnam Air Force whose work now entails refueling and washing American air force planes in Kentucky. Unlike Ann, he feels little connection to anyone beyond his nuclear family, and he speaks of the pressures of assimilation to give up what little he has left of his history.

The sudden and dramatic loss in his socio-economic status contributed to Nam’s internalization of the defeat of South Vietnam as a personal failure, what he describes as a life “without meaning” (vô dng), and his withdrawal from both family and society. In her study of immigration and labor, Yen Le Espiritu argues that because the majority of heterosexual Southeast Asian American households must rely on two incomes and the men have less employment opportunities than the women due to the gendering of racialization and work, the wife gains more agency and the husband feels doubly displaced both outside and inside the home (1997). Although the American-backed Republic of Vietnam endowed Nam’s education and military credentials with prestige and honor, his achievements have little value in the U.S. In response to his displacement, Ann became the head of the family and took on the roles of both father and mother.(註9) The end of the Vietnam War propelled millions of South Vietnamese to flee the country, and in that flight they lost not only land and material possessions, but an entire network of social, political and economic relationships that gave meaning to their way of life and their work. The current Vietnamese state encourages both national and diasporic subjects to work together for the country’s future. The logic of capital, however, depends on an accumulation of labor, economic assets and network relationships; when war and displacement suddenly cut those ties, the continuity of history is not available for an easy trajectory forward to reconciliation.

The post-war destruction that the first generation must endure is not theirs alone to bear, but also suffuses the lives of the second generation. As Espiritu argues in her study of American newspaper coverage of the figure of the Vietnamese refugee, one of the reasons the U.S. government purposefully dispersed the new arrivals throughout the country was to lessen the local communities’ resistance to them. As it replaced the images of bombings and massacres, American humanitarian discourse propagated the idea that refugees should be eternally grateful to the country that took them in (Espiritu 2006). Therefore, the children of war learned to cope with domestic racism—the home front of U.S. imperialism—by keeping quiet. Nhật, Đoan’s brother, recalls feeling out of place and not talking much as a child growing up in Middle America: “I definitely felt proud about my heritage and my roots, but you don’t go up to everyone and say, ‘I’m Vietnamese.’” We first see him playing golf, and later interviewed by his sister against a green wall with few props other than an office desk and chair, both backdrops devoid of “ethnic color”. He was reluctant to participate in the documentary, and besides this interview and a few shots of him upon his first return to Vietnam with Đoan and their mother, we do not see him again. His reticence parallels that of his father, while Hoàng’s directorial work can be read as an inheritance of her mother’s assumption of a more public role as head of the household. U.S. cultural stereotypes of Asian/American men have a long genealogy that portrays them as emasculated. Nam and Nhật’s reticence may be read as a strategy to distance themselves from these racial and sexual stereotype; the silences also allude to the “social death” that the refugee must endure when severed from the nation of birth. These gendered strategies of survival enable the men and women to adapt to the post-war fracturing of history and their forced displacements.


Unrepresentable pasts

These trajectories of gendered adaptation and remembering form the drama of the film, becoming allegories for suppressed histories that had to be erased for the new family to form and for post-war survival to be possible. Mimicking the process of slowly finding pieces of a broken history with each stage of an excavation, the film later introduces three other protagonists whom the director comes to know as she digs into her parents’ past and her own. One of these characters is Văn, Đoan’s half-sister with whom the parents have an estranged relationship. During the last panic-stricken hours of the impending defeat of Saigon by the North, the U.S. evacuated its military and civilian personnel and tens of thousands of South Vietnamese affiliated with the Republic by plane, ship and helicopter. Nam and his family were among those who managed to flee at the last second. For unknown reasons, Văn was not with them, and Hoàng’s attempts two decades later to find out by interviewing her parents and her half-sister only offer fragmented stories that cannot be pieced together. Nam explains how he persuaded a U.S. Embassy guard to let him and his family climb over the compound walls and how they made it onto the last helicopter out. Ann recalls being pregnant with her youngest daughter at the time, and feeling overwhelmed by the bombings and seeing death everywhere.(註10) Nhật also speaks of the bombings, saying they had to seek shelter in a ditch. Văn recalls the complete despair of being left behind without family and friends. None of the stories offers answers as to why the family fled without her. Văn later made two attempts to escape from the country by boat. The first effort failed, and the Vietnamese government imprisoned her. During her second attempt, Thai pirates robbed and rammed the boat she was on, killing most of the people and picking up Văn. In recalling that story, she obliquely mentions that Thai pirates often kill the men and rape the women; when Đoan asks her something that we do not hear in the audio track, Văn tells her not to ask in-depth. Văn joined the family in Kentucky six years later, but eventually moved to California—blaming the parents for abandoning her.

The silences in the family members’ recollections are emblematic of the suppression of memories too painful to recall, and of the suppression of memories that have no place in national history—neither in the U.S. nor in present-day Vietnam. In the context of U.S. historiography, to acknowledge such loss would disrupt the narrative of American Exceptionalism that portrays U.S. involvements in Asia as acts of benevolence rather than imperial violence that caused the displacement and severing of family ties that must be borne by people like Văn, her parents and siblings. For contemporary Vietnamese historiography to recognize the history of the diaspora, it would have to acknowledge resistance to its version of the civil war as a war only of anti-imperial resistance that ended with what the Northern leadership called the “Liberation of Saigon”.


History is for the living

Oh, Saigon shows the inadequacy of nationalist narratives to represent losses that cannot be recuperated, losses that neoliberal narratives of reconciliation erase. In recalling their flight out without Văn—that moment of rupture in family and national histories—Nam and Ann reiterate common diasporic Vietnamese discourses. He explains that he had little choice but to leave the country for his family’s sake, otherwise he would have to face imprisonment or commit suicide. Ann describes Văn’s being left behind as a “tai nn”, which translates in English as “disaster” or “misfortune”. She explains the magnitude of her pain by making an analogy between the mother-daughter separation and the U.S.’s abandonment of South Vietnam. The parents’ uses of these discourses to narrate their family tragedies underscore inseparable relationships between the private and the public, and the geo-political violence that informs the silences in all of the family narratives about why Văn had to endure post-war imprisonment and trauma alone.

In addition to this tragedy, the film explores another fracture – the tensions between Nam and his older brother Hải, who fought for the Việt Minh. Their youngest brother, Dũng, fought for the Reserves in South Vietnam, but shot his trigger finger so that he could be discharged. While Nam and Hải each still strongly hold to the Southern and Northern positions on the civil war, one anti-communist and the other anti-imperialist, Dũng tells Đoan he did not have allegiance to either and did not want to participate in the war. She only learned about both uncles during her first return to Vietnam, when she also discovered that half of her family had died during the war, including an aunt whose grave she visits. Reflecting on the family stories and tragedies she unearths, Đoan says in voiceover, “I wasn’t crying just for my aunt. I didn’t know her. I was crying for my father. I hadn’t understood what he had lost in Vietnam.” Đoan’s discovery of her dead aunt’s grave exposes the gaps in nationalist histories, which tell mainly of the exploits of men and erase the struggles of the women. In finding affinity with her dead, unknown aunt, Đoan points to the feminine as an alternative to nationalist historiography, a theme also present in The Journey of Vaan Nguyen.

As the film concludes, it is clear that a family reunion is not a political reconciliation. Three decades after his escape, Nam visits Vietnam because his older brother’s health is failing. The return does not provide political resolution, as seen in the lack of narrative development in the sequence about the two brothers who fought on opposite sides of the war. We only see short scenes of them embracing at Đoan’s urging, accepting each other as brothers, and celebrating with the extended family the Lunar New Year, a time when family differences are set aside. In her article on the thirtieth commemoration of April 30, 1975, in Orange County, California, home to the largest diasporic Vietnamese population in the world, Nguyễn-Võ Thu-Hương examines the ethics of remembrance and the ideological work of mourning one’s history and suppressing the histories of others. Cautioning against using the dead to construct simplified histories and to justify contemporary regimes of neoliberal exploitation, Nguyễn-Võ argues, “A single version of history means a single version of ourselves condemned to retrace dead-ended paths of accomplished moments that would truly have passed, allowing others to consume our history for their own ends, as though we have all died” (2005: 172). Both official American and Vietnamese histories represent the war in simplified, Manichean terms—a war between democracy and communism in the former case and a war between domestic defense and foreign aggression in the latter. The work of excavation that Oh, Saigon engages in exposes the multiple, complicated layers of allegiances and unknown histories that do not fit into either narrative. The dead are not just dead, but provide histories that we tell or disavow at our risk, histories that can become magnified or fall out depending on whether they provide ready proof of a straightforward anti-communist or anti-imperialist position.



If nationalist historiographies insist on coherence and a teleologically determined future, diaspora recalls the ghosts of broken lineages that cannot be recuperated and easily assimilated. With overlapping and messy transits, diaspora continually disrupts monolithic configurations of nation. In the construction of a transnational Vietnamese culture, film has become a rapidly expanding and prominent source of memory-making in Vietnam and in the diaspora, due to multi-national collaborations, capital investments, and distribution channels made possible by the globalization of neoliberalism. In their excavation of multiple and conflicting sites of history-making and contestation, Dror and Hoàng’s documentaries point to the impossibility of reassembling wholeness despite the imperatives of neoliberalism for return without the inconvenience of history. These films remind us of the gaps and silences that can be productive sites for a critique of the violence of war and neoliberal nation-building.



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[1] An earlier version of this article was published in Film in Contemporary Southeast Asia: Cultural Interpretation and Social Intervention. Eds. David C.L. Lim and Hiroyuki Yamamoto. London and New York: Routledge, 2011/2012. 73-92. Print.
[2] Scholarship on Vietnamese cinema largely takes as its starting point films produced under the aegis of the communist state, the former Democratic Republic of Vietnam, due to available publications in present-day Vietnam in the archives and in the bookstores. The cinema industry in the former Republic of Vietnam, also known as South Vietnam, developed differently. Copies of films that survive from that era can be found in video stores in places such as Little Saigon in Orange County, California, but not in Vietnam. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to include that material, which offers much for future research.
[3] Nguyễn Như Khuê, producer and co-owner of the Saigon-based production company HK Film, confirms this. Conversation in Saigon, Vietnam, 15 July 2010.
[4] This estimate is according to Nguyễn Trinh Hoan, director of productions and co-owner of the Saigon-based production company HK Film. Conversation in Saigon, Vietnam, 13 July 2010.
[5] Talk, The Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, Los Angeles, California, 10 November 2010.
[6] For example, the New York-based nonprofit Institute for Vietnamese Culture & Education has established itself as a liaison for Vietnamese films touring the U.S. A recent event brought Đặng Nhật Minh’s Don’t Burn (2009) to Brown University, Wesleyan University, Smith College, College of the Holy Cross, Yale University, Harvard University, University of Washington, Temple University, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, George Mason University, New York University, Cornell University, and Texas Tech University.
[7] All translations of the Vietnamese dialogue are my own. At times, the film’s subtitles provide incorrect translations of the Vietnamese dialogue.
[8] To distinguish between the director and the character, I use her last name “Hoàng” to refer to the former and “Đoan” to refer to the latter.
[9] Conversation with Đoan Hoàng, Los Angeles, California, 25 January 2010.
[10] Đoan Hoàng’s younger sister refused to participate in the documentary because she was wary of the camera as a recording device. We see an image of her as a child in one of the photographs included in the film. Conversation with Đoan Hoàng, Los Angeles, California, 25 January 2010.