South East Asia and Soviet Russia Linked by Vietnam War Films

In the films When the Tenth Month Comes, Karma, White Badge, Three Seasons and The Beast, there are at least two key themes the writers and directors have implemented in order to represent the impact of the Viet Nam War on the people involved in different geographical locations and in different generational perspectives.

The first key theme is that war can not only effect those involved during the conflict, but can also have an adverse effect on those not directly involved for generations to come. The second is that one does not have to live in Viet Nam in order to have been or be influenced by the effects of the war.

The general formulas used in the films to demonstrate these points are to take a centralized hero, heroine or both and place them in situations that test the limits of their cultural and traditional beliefs. Particularly with the Vietnamese melodramas, the heroes and heroines must suffer some form of loss in the form of a lover, family or both in order to reach a point of desperation. It is in this desperation that the traditional Vietnamese values are either maintained or cast aside in order to make an attempt at survival in the face of a changing world.

In Dang Nhat Minh’s When the Tenth Month Comes (1984), the above formula is followed to a certain degree with the heroine Zuyen carrying on in the traditional manner of both a dutiful wife/mother and a responsible daughter-in-law to her ailing father-in-law. While her husband is deceased, she must maintain that he is alive, not for her own sake, but because she fears the pain of knowing he is dead would be too much for her father-in-law to bear. She knows he doesn’t have much longer to live, so she holds out as long as she can.

This also buys her more time to figure out how she can best tell her son of his father’s death. Throughout the film, she is so occupied with trying to create and cover up lies and half-truths about her husband that she little to no time at all for her own grieving, which was/is a facet of a traditional Vietnamese married woman’s life that was perfectly acceptable and understood. Even when the father-in-law dies, she still must deal with living in a post-war world, raising a young boy.

Zuyen’s interactions with the teacher, Khang, result in the demonstration of the traditional concept of gossip and controversy which exists not only in Vietnamese culture, but virtually every culture throughout the world with the human element of having to know what one’s neighbor is up to, even though it may be their own personal business.

Even though it is revealed that Zuyen’s intentions are somewhat noble in her attempts to ease the burden on her son and father-in-law through the fabrication of false letters, the bustle created around the initial discovery of the letters and the uncomfortable knowledge that Khang might harbor some feelings for Zuyen has led to the residual presence of an unpleasantness. The traditional manner to deal with an “unpleasantness” is to simply ignore it or make it go away, as is what happened to Khang via a decision by the village’s council.

Another aspect of the film which parallels the ongoing formula is that of introducing a religious or culturally spiritual element into the film’s narrative. In When the Tenth Month Comes, Zuyen interacts with the village god with whom she converses about her husband. And up until her performance in the traditional warrior play about the life of the village god, she seems rather solid in her demeanor, even though her husband has just died.

Through her portrayal of the warrior god’s wife and her melancholy song, her true emotions about the loss of her husband are finally revealed, thus fulfilling the realization that tradition or no, we are all human and thus cannot ignore the pain of being such, no matter how much it hurts.

During the festival at the market, she is eventually able to interact with the spirit of her husband, whose appearance represents yet another aspect of — not just Southeast Asian, but Asian in general – spirituality in the presence of a ghost or spirit. Spirits play large parts in religious and cultural identities for many Asian cultures, including the Vietnamese who revere them with monuments and tend to the grave sites of the departed out of respect for their spirits.

Similar themes are present in Ho Quang Minh’s Karma (1985). In this film, we are exposed to yet another heroine figure in the form of Nga, whom must take care of the ailing mother-in-law figure while her husband is away fighting in the South Vietnamese army. Even in the opening sequence, traditional Vietnamese values are displayed and then tarnished by American-esque authoritarianism on the part of the government in South Viet Nam. Nga and the mother are driven out of their village home by the army.

Their home is literally set on fire, in a way symbolizing the American destruction of traditional values in Viet Nam, and if they return or refuse to leave, they will be considered communist sympathizers and subsequently shot on site. However, this troubles the mother-in-law figure due to the fact that this will mean leaving behind the family tombs, which is a major dilemma. Traditionally, the family would care for the tombs to ensure that the spirits of their ancestors and past loved ones would be content.

This view is in itself very traditionally American. In McCarthy-ism, anything that goes counter or challenges traditional values is considered anti-American and thus is a threat to that way of life. Through the American influence on the government of South Vietnam, they are attempting to spread their own ideals to an impressionable nation.

America not only made an impression on the government, but on the civilian population as a whole through the glamorization of women and the slow decline in the use of traditional clothing by younger generation (Three Seasons), the presence of commercial food goods and vices (Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Lucky Strike cigarettes), the general use of popular music (rock music and Blondie in White Badge) and popular films (Three Seasons).

While Nga’s husband, Binh, is away she must support herself by taking on the job of a bar girl, a common occupation and theme played out in Viet Nam representations outside the Hollywood smoke screen. She is caught in a dilemma. She has to choose what’s right morally, or what’s right by way of having to survive. Nga makes her choice, not at all knowing if her husband is actually going to be coming home. In her mind, she is alone, but eventually realizes she is not when Binh returns.

Unlike When the Tenth Month Comes, Karma features a hero or anti-hero with more secondary characters to bring out character features and flaw in the heroes and heroines. Binh, the hero, returns home to find that his dutiful wife has turned to a life as a bar girl. To him, this is a sort of betrayal, regardless of whether or not it was one of only a few ways she could survive.

In response, Binh turns to the only thing he knows as “real” or that he can count on to not betray him, and that is war in the jungle. Out there, he knows where he stands and he knows what the consequences are. Back home, he thought he knew what was going on and what to expect, but Nga’s decision negated his civilian life as a possible option.

Now, all that remained for him was the military and the war. As he stated to his friend and ally, Tri, “Once the war accepts you, nothing else counts.” For him, this is true because to him the war is the only thing he can count on for stability.

This runs parallel to the film First Blood, in which Rambo stated that in the jungle he and his comrades lived by a certain code: “You watch my back; I watch yours.” Out there, one knew where they stood, and who they could trust unless of course they were an incompetent commanding officer, in which case they were at high risk of being “fragged” and couldn’t trust anyone.

When there’s the option of finally choosing either his “betraying” wife or the war he has come to love (or has consumed him depending on perspectives), he chooses to remain with the conflict indefinitely by facing death, and being blown to bits during an air strike. In this manner, he will always be part of the war, and won’t have to ever face the pain of returning to the outside world. Even through his hostility toward her and in his death, Nga has always remained faithful to him in her mind. It is to their traditions which she has been forced to betray, but Binh couldn’t see it in that way.

Another aspect of the directorial formula is to place the focus of a Viet Nam film predominantly in the post-Viet Nam War era, and not necessarily in the country of Viet Nam either. Geographically, even though Korea wouldn’t ordinarily have been involved with Viet Nam or the United States in the war, President Park signed over the lives of young Korean men to serve as, quite basically, cannon fodder for the U.S. forces in Viet Nam.

In Ji-yeong Jeong’s The White Badge (1992), this element is explored in the sense of what “combat fatigue” or “shellshock” all have on those soldiers after the fact. One of the many results, as illustrated in the film, is of course Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which knows no cultural or ethnological boundaries.

Throughout the film, the viewer is given the comparison between the combat scenes and the civilian scenes involving Han and Pyon. These scenes, including the cutting-off of an ear and the experience of being continually shot at, all demonstrate just what kind of horrible effects traumatizing events can have on the psyche, thus leaving a permanent scar for years, decades, perhaps even the remainder of the person’s lifetime.

This negative experience has more or less ruined Han’s and Pyon’s lives so to speak. Han’s wife left him and he resulted to drinking for self-medication. Pyon had lived with his pen pal sweetheart who had been a stripper. They lived together while he worked as a painter. Eventually the PTSD prompted erratic behavior in him, resulting in him beating the girl, thus causing her to leave him and return to her life as a stripper.

In the end, Pyon depends on Han, whom realizes his role in the erratic behavior of Pyon. Every loud noise makes Pyon absolutely terrified, thus rendering him incapacitated to fend for himself in the crowd of angry student protestors. Eventually, Pyon’s nature becomes so adverse that Han realizes his role in making him that way by exposing both of them to the added carnage of combat. Han had trapped him in that world, and so took it upon himself as his responsibility to release him from it by any means necessary, including killing him.

The protestors represent the younger generation rejecting the constructs of the old regime. They’ve seen what it has done to their fathers, uncles and so on, and are reacting against it, not unlike how Han and Pyon had been disenchanted with big-budge Hollywood war films when they were involved in the war. Each subsequent generation became increasingly disenfranchised, ultimately resulting in upheavals and demands for not only political and social change, but ultimately traditional as well.

As far as religious implications are concerned, some shots of Pyon and Han in the city depict a service in the Catholic-influenced church, which is commonly considered a symbol of overwhelming American Christianity pressing down upon the old traditions of places such as Korea and Viet Nam, replacing them with those of the church and of America. In essence, the American government had manipulated the South Korean government, just as it was manipulating the South Vietnamese government. The White Horse soldiers hadn’t just been drafted, they’d been bought.

Tony Bui’s 1999 film, Three Seasons, stands out from among the other three films in that it doesn’t really have a centralized hero or heroine, but is more so based upon modern-day Vietnamese citizens struggling to survive and come to terms with their place in society, as well as a returning G.I. coming to terms with his own past as well as with the modern-day Viet Nam represented by his illegitimate daughter (who quite characteristically is a bar girl).

While older traditions have found their place in the rural parts of Viet Nam as displayed by traditional means of living, harvesting lotuses, and singing traditional songs, the more modernized Viet Nam has in a sense lost its original identity and is on the verge of becoming another industrialized entity. This is mostly through the presence of high-priced hotels and business that attract out-of-town and out-of-country business people, as well as places such as the Apocalypse Now bar whose clientele were mostly people from other countries.

The young boy, Woody, when seen in places like the hotel and the bar seemed dwarfed by the over-all size, not unlike a metaphor for the traditional Viet Nam being dwarfed by the over-powering modernized world. Yet even Woody is a victim of Americanization through his adoption of the name Woody from his Woody Woodpecker t-shirt, his taste for American cartoons and his trading-up from the traditional warrior sword to the contemporary American six-gun shoot-out as demonstrated in High Plains Drifter.

Woody attempts to sell the returning G.I., played by Harvey Keitel, a Zippo cigarette lighter which bears inscriptions relating to a fallen U.S. Marine from the Viet Nam War. This parallels the idea of the modern Vietnamese having to live off the carcass of the old Viet Nam, because the newer modernized Viet Nam isn’t even really theirs. It belongs to the elite and the tourists. The regular Viet Nam belongs to the actual people who have to live in shacks and sell themselves to live in even a modest home, as cyclo driver Hai’s prostitute love interest must do to stay just a step or two above being a bum on the street.

Hai himself represents the middle generation which is still struggling in some ways to live up to the older traditions, such as proper courtship of a love interest and maintaining traditional medicinal practices. The majority of this will be lost by the time the next generation reaches adulthood, if any of them in fact wish to learn about the time-honored tradition of holistic and herbal medicine. In a sense, everything and yet nothing has changed about Viet Nam since French colonization. There’s still a sharp difference between the rich and the poor. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, except it’s under a different government.

The 1988 film, The Beast, directed by Kevin Reynolds, deals with the concept of role reversals. At first glance, this is a film about the Russian army occupying Afghanistan on request of the Afghan government to stop rebel uprisings that threaten the government’s stability. The way the film is written inspires the viewer to route for the rebel force since they are allegedly being oppressed and want their freedom. Also, since Russia is involved, American’s naturally have a sense of resentment toward them as perpetuated by negative representation in films such as Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III.

However, this situation is not entirely different from that which occurred during the Viet Nam War. The Russians are substituted for U.S. forces being invited in by a South Vietnamese government, fighting against the Vietcong and guerilla parties for control of the country. Similar methods of using our own weapons against us, as demonstrated by the Afghan rebels’ desire to use helicopters, tanks and an RPG (rocket powered grenade).

The Muslim rebels demonstrated their religious beliefs many times over through prayer and references to Allah. At one point, the Muslim interpreter for the Russians wished to pray, but was denied it by the tank captain. Religion in itself goes against communist codes anyway. The tank captain’s contempt for the interpreter’s native religion is not unlike America’s attempts at substituting Christianity for native religions throughout the world. America, like Russia, is the invader, not only in Viet Nam but also in Iraq.

The different film formulas presented throughout the unit dealt with key elements of having heroes and heroines experiencing life struggles stemming from religious, cultural and even generational and geographical conflicts. The films demonstrate that the effects of not only the Viet Nam War but war in general aren’t always superficial and can run deep for generations to come. Judging from how things are in that country, perhaps the U.S. did win after all, although not so directly through warfare as one might expect.

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