Tagged: Vietnam

Monsoon (UK-Vietnam 2019)

Monsoon has just been released in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures and it is available in selected cinemas and online (see where it is playing via the film’s Official website). Nick Lacey reviewed the film on this site when it was screened at the London Film Festival. His review is here. My take on the film is slightly different so it seems worthwhile to offer a second review.

Hong Khaou is a British filmmaker, a writer-director whose first film Lilting (UK 2014) I enjoyed very much. Hong was born in Cambodia but his family moved to Vietnam almost immediately after his birth in 1975, fearing persecution by the Khmer Rouge. After 8 years in Vietnam they were then able to move to the UK. Hong studied film at Farnham in Surrey (now part of University College of the Arts) and made a number of short films and contributions to portmanteau projects before Lilting. His new film received support in the form of a Writer’s Lab grant from Sundance after the success of Lilting. Monsoon is arguably even more influenced by the director’s autobiography than Lilting since it focuses on Kit, a young man born in Vietnam who, with his family, became part of the ‘boat people’ of the 1980s, being picked up in Hong Kong waters and eventually entering the UK. Now, years later when both his parents have died, Kit makes his first return to Vietnam in order to scatter his mother’s ashes. His brother and family will follow a few weeks later with his father’s ashes. Kit has not visited Vietnam since he left as a child, primarily because his parents were so against the idea.

Kit ‘re-discovers’ Vietnam like a tourist

Hong is a gay filmmaker and as in Lilting, Kit as the central character is a gay man in his thirties, but his gay sexuality is not a key issue in the film. Instead, Kit finds himself experiencing Vietnam more as a tourist and it is his sense of ‘dislocation’ that drives the narrative. Perhaps ‘drive’ is not the best word. This is a slow-paced and contemplative film, perhaps too slow for some audiences. The opening shot, an overhead view of a massive road junction with streams of scooters and small motorbikes crossing diagonally, introduces Ho Chi Min City (Saigon). It seems a bewildering, alienating city as Kit’s taxi brings him from the airport to what I thought at first was his hotel, but later turns out to be an apartment he has rented in ‘District 2’. District 2 is a new economic development with accommodation for newly wealthy Vietnamese alongside a developing business centre.

Kit and Lewis visit bars and restaurants in the modern city

Kit is played by Henry Golding, the British Malaysian bi-racial actor who came to prominence in the film Crazy Rich Asians (US 2018), which I missed in cinemas. I didn’t realise this until after I’d seen Monsoon and I spent time during my viewing trying to determine who the character played by this actor was supposed to be – i.e. I began to wonder who Kit’s father might be. Was he a Westerner? Part of Hong’s strategy seems to be to deliver any back story only in small pieces of information, many of which come from Kit’s childhood friend Lee (David Tran). Lee has learned some English working as a tour guide and now runs a shop selling mobile phones and accessories. Kit’s conversations with Lee are strained and difficult. Later we realise that Lee knows things about Kit’s family that Kit himself doesn’t know or has forgotten. Kit also meets two other significant characters who also speak English. Lewis (Parker Sawyers) is an African-American of roughly Kit’s age and the two met on a gay dating site before Kit arrived in Vietnam. Lewis has a slightly different set of reasons for being in the country and these gradually emerge in exchanges with Kit that are also sometimes strained but Kit and Lewis do perhaps understand each other. Finally Kit meets Linh, a young Vietnamese woman from Hanoi who works as an art curator and whose excellent English (learned as part of an expensive education) is useful in her job. All three of these characters seem to be written in order to raise questions about different aspects of the ways in which the ‘new’ Vietnam is dealing with the West and memories of colonialism and the liberation struggles. These are not directly featured but in a sense they represent the kind of buried memories that Kit himself is struggling with.

Kit with Lee in some of the more traditional neighbourhoods

Monsoon is quite short and it is much more about mood and feelings rather than narrative, My strongest response to the film was one of recognition of that sense of being in an environment that is at the same time both familiar and alien. In a BBC Radio 4 interview on the Film Programme, Hong explains that in the first half of the film he and his cinematographer Benjamin Kracun shot Kit ‘in reflection’, i.e. as seen in mirrors or windows and other ways to emphasise this dislocation. This was gradually removed as a device as Kit becomes more used to his new surroundings. Hong suggests that audiences might not notice this but that they might feel it – and I think I did. But more than that I was taken by the ‘Scope framing (IMDb suggests 2.20;1 which is an odd aspect ratio) of streetscapes. I haven’t been to Vietnam but I have experienced several other major Asian cities and the long shot compositions of streets, buildings and traffic placed Kit in the environment much as I imagined myself as a tourist being seen. The film also evokes scenes from other Asian films. One other aesthetic decision supports this. In the first half of the film I was conscious of the lack of non-diegetic music, often just with street sounds or of silence in Kit’s apartment. However, in the final section of the film, music becomes important and I was struck by memories of Michael Nyman’s score for a film I love, Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999). Winterbottom’s view of London streets was said to have been influenced by Wong Kar-wai’s ways of representing Hong Kong on screen, so perhaps it’s not such a strange reference.

Monsoon has been well recieved by critics but less so by some audiences if the small number of responses on IMDb are in any way representative. I think it is a quiet thoughtful film that offers much if you allow it to do its work, but if you become impatient with it, it will resist and clam up. I enjoyed it very much, but it took me a while to warm to Kit. The poetic qualities of the film and its rendering of Vietnam as experienced by Kit’s returning migrant moved me greatly.

To the Ends of the World (Les confins du monde, France 2018)

The opening and closing shot (with slight differences) with Robert Gaspard Ulliel

This film is part of both My French Film Festival and MUBI’s current streaming roster in the UK. It screened at Cannes in 2018 and I’m surprised that it hasn’t appeared on release in the UK. Perhaps distributors worry about how it would be certificated by the BBFC? It mixes sexual ‘display’, including full frontal male nudity, with the full horror of guerrilla warfare. Worse for some audiences, this is also an art film with long static takes in which little happens. It’s also fascinating with standout performances. In one sense an ‘interior’ story about one man’s struggle to come to terms with grief, the film is also about nine months of chaos in the long history of anti-colonialist struggles in what the French termed ‘Indochina’ before 1954 and what for those of us growing up in the 1960s became the Vietnam War. I had to research the precise period between March and December 1945 to understand exactly what was happening in the region and what might be absent from the narrative.

In June 1940 the swift German advance into France encouraged the Japanese to invade Tonkin – what is now Northern Vietnam – in order to cut off the last supply line for the Chinese from the port of Haiphong into Northern China and thus aid the Japanese campaign in China. The Japanese forces subsequently moved through the whole of Indochina (i.e. modern Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) in preparation for attacks upon the British, Dutch and American interests in the Pacific. They left the French colonial troops and administrators in charge as Vichy France was, in effect, now a Japanese ally. On March 9th 1945 with France liberated and De Gaulle running a provisional government in Paris, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on French forces in Indochina, an action known as ‘Operation Bright Moon‘. The Japanese were correct in thinking that the Free French, British and Americans were already planning to use Indochina as a base to launch attacks on Japan.

The film narrative begins with a massacre of French forces at a camp in Tonkin. One man, a French soldier Robert Tassen (Gaspard Ulliel), finds himself wounded but still alive beneath a pile of bodies in an open mass grave. Somehow, he escapes into the jungle and is kept alive by local people. Eventually he finds his way to French forces who have not been over-run. We learn that his experience has instilled in him a strong desire for vengeance and that he is now determined to find one of the leaders of the Viet Minh forces who was present at the massacre in which Tassen lost his brother and sister-in-law. This takes a little ‘unpacking’.

The Viet Minh was a political movement led by Ho Chi Minh which from 1941 was opposed to both the French and Japanese and began forms of guerrilla warfare supported by the Americans and by the Chinese (both Nationalists and Communists). During the specific period of the nine moths covered by the film’s narrative this produced some very strange alliances with soldiers switching sides as the political situation became more complicated. The first atomic bomb was dropped on August 6 on Hiroshima and Japan surrendered a few days later. Thousands of Japanese soldiers were still in China and Indochina. By September a British Indian Army force had arrived in Saigon and proceeded to re-arm Japanese soldiers to maintain order. Meanwhile other Japanese were being recruited to train Viet Minh fighters against the French and British. I mention all this to simply illustrate how confusing everything must have been. The other aspect of this that is worth knowing is that the French, like the British, recruited local men to join the colonial army. These were les Tirailleurs tonkinois and Tassen finds himself in a mixed fighting force. Later, he recognises that local fighters will join either side if they are starving.

Robert will eventually ‘go rogue’. It’s impossible not to think of Apocalypse Now when we see Robert leading his own small band of mostly local fighters into the mountains seeking out his own personal enemy. The senior officers in his regiment have now virtually given up on him as he won’t take orders from regulars he doesn’t trust, but he is now a skilled fighter himself and knows how to organise. On the other hand he may be seriously mentally ill.

Tassen meets the writer Saintonge played by Gérard Depardieu

If Apocalypse Now is one reference for audiences, others might be to films like the two versions of The Quiet American. Writer-director Guillaume Nicloux and co-writer Jérôme Beaujour create two other characters who both have an influence on Tassen. One is a mysterious writer, who might have some kind of intelligence role, played by Gérard Depardieu. This character is accepted by the French military and seems to know local culture. The other is that (over?) familiar figure, the beautiful local prostitute Maï (Lang Khê Tran) who speaks French well and who forms a deep but difficult relationship with Robert. While these two individuals are able in different ways to ‘get through’ to Robert, he has little contact with the other French soldiers – only perhaps with Cavagna (Guillaume Gouix) with whom he has a typical love-hate relationship (i.e. they insult each other but clearly have some form of respect). The narrative has no resolution as such but there is a coda of sorts set in early 1946.

Tassen with Cavagna (Guillaume Gouix)

In aesthetic terms, the film is always worth watching and I would love to see it on a big screen, though I might have to turn away from some scenes. It was shot on 35mm by David Ungaro and is projected in a CinemaScope ratio with the colour palette dominated by blues, greens and greys – which in turn contrast with the blood. It rains heavily at times and many scenes are enveloped in mist. Some of the long shots of the soldiers making their way along mountain and forest trails are very beautiful. (The film was shot in Vietnam.) I think the score by Shannon Wright worked well. It seemed both minimalist and filled with foreboding. The performances, especially by Gaspard Ulliel and Guillaume Gouix, are very good. 

Overall there is no political trajectory to the war – as I’ve indicated by the lack of context (only the months of 1945 are signalled). Nor is there any specific critique of French colonialism, apart from what we read into the exchanges. This makes the film an intriguing addition to the various films I’ve watched from Hollywood, Australia and Hong Kong which deal with the later wars of the 1960s and 1970s in Vietnam. There are other French films set in Indochina as a colonial territory including a number of colonial melodramas and other war films that I haven’t seen. The only one I do remember is Hors la loi (France-Algeria 2010) by the French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb. In that film one of three Algerian brothers finds himself in the French colonial army fighting the Viet Nimh at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the battle that signalled the final defeat of France in Indochina. The Algerian soldier hears cries for the ‘colonised’ troops to join the Vietnamese fighting for independence.

We could argue that the French soldiers in Tonkin were virtually forgotten by the authorities in Europe before the Japanese attack. They had had little contact with Vichy for five years and weren’t sure what would await them back in France. This suggestion is well-handled in the script and provides a humanist discourse that balances the comment about atrocities committed by the Viet Nimh. Tassen refers to the beheaded soldiers he finds in the jungle and someone observes that the French have often beheaded people too.

Maï seems like a generic character. What does she actually think?

This film is well worth watching but it’s a shame that the focus on Robert Tassen and his experience means that we learn very little about the colonised people of Indochina. Though the characters are present, their ‘voices’ are not really heard. One of the few things a Viet Nimh prisoner says is that he’d like to be French. But perhaps the lack of understanding shown by the French characters  is the real message of the film?

Here’s the French trailer (no English subs) which gives some idea of the visual qualities of the film:

The Odd Angry Shot (Australia 1979)

Clearing a Viet Cong machine gun pit in The Odd Angry Shot

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. I’d been researching Australian Cinema and, zapping through the channels on TV, I stumbled across this key film on Sony’s ‘Movies 4 Men’ channel about to start. I’ve always known there was a Vietnam War film from Australia and I thought I’d seen it back in the 1970s, but couldn’t remember anything about it. The Odd Angry Shot was made in 1979 and was based on a novel by William L. Nagle who served in Vietnam as a cook in the later 1960s. The film was written and directed by Tom Jeffrey. Australia became involved in the Vietnam War under the Liberal (i.e. ‘Conservative’) government of Robert Menzies, whereas the UK Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to bow to American pressure. Vietnam became a signifier of the shift of Australia into the American sphere of influence and away from the UK. The war would eventually become the focus for protest movements in Australia, especially after conscripted men started to be sent to Vietnam after 1966.

The Odd Angry Shot belongs to what seems now to be known as the ‘AFC period’ of production in the 1970s. The Australian Film Commission and the funding agencies of the individual states provided a big boost for Australian production in the second half of the 1970s and it was these films that became known in the UK as the ‘New Australian Cinema’ or ‘Australian New Wave’. Several got mainstream theatrical distribution in the UK and others appeared on UK TV. The Odd Angry Shot didn’t make it to the UK until a 1988 video, but it did get a simultaneous Australian and US cinema release in 1979, presumably because of the subject matter.

The ‘mates’ walking through the camp.

The film begins with a combined 21st Birthday/’Going Away’ party for Bill (John Jarratt) who soon finds himself on a chartered Quantas flight to Vietnam. He’s the rookie in an SAS Unit led by Harry, an experienced corporal played by Graham Kennedy. Bryan Brown (‘Rogers’) and John Hargreaves (‘Bung’) make up the quartet who we follow throughout the film. In one sense, The Odd Angry Shot is an unusual ‘war combat’ picture. We don’t get any of the training period for young conscripts – I don’t think we know how Bill gets there. Is he a recruit or a conscript? Does he already know the ropes? Soon we are on patrol and the narrative switches between brief snatches of action – when the ‘odd angry shot’ is fired (and the odd squaddie is killed or badly injured) – and longer periods back in the makeshift tented base camp. This latter is familiar from M.A.S.H (1970) and the TV series that followed. There is a brief R&R visit to Saigon, but mostly the film is about that Australian sense of ‘mateship’. The four central characters are also ‘larrikins’ – that uniquely Australian term for the unruly, whose disdain for authority and search for fun is received with affection by many. There are only a few scenes in which officers appear and they are depicted as quite sensible, the big confrontation comes when the four mates meet a Sgt-Major who tries to be officious and Harry gives him a mouthful. Harry has clearly seen it all before and an officer arrives and backs him up.

The Odd Angry Shot found generally very appreciative audience in cinemas. Reading through the IMDb comments it’s clear that the Australian and US Vietnam vets recognise the accuracy of the film in terms of the preparation for patrols, the quiet and methodical way of advancing on suspected Viet Cong positions and the boredom and attempts to relieve it in the camp. Because of the tiny budget (it was shot in Northern Australia, utilising a military training area in Queensland, for around A$600k) there are no doubt mistakes in the right kinds of helicopters and weapons, but that doesn’t really matter. As several commentators note, it gives a much more realistic depiction of fighting in Vietnam than most of the Hollywood films of the period (the film followed Apocalypse Now and Coming Home but preceded Platoon and Full Metal Jacket). The importance of the film, however, is best articulated in its closing section when Harry and Bill return to Sydney at the end of their tour. There is no triumphant or heroic ending – nothing ‘gung-ho’. They go to a bar (in dress uniform) and answer “No” when the barman asks if they have just come back from Vietnam. They take their beers and sit back with a view across the bay. Earlier, in one of the few ‘speeches’ in the film Harry expresses his world-weary view about being in a dangerous place in Vietnam. ‘We all have to be somewhere, and we’re here.” In this useful review of the DVD, there are quotes from the DVD commentary suggesting that some critics thought the film wasn’t sufficiently ‘anti-war’, but I think that misses the point. The film never attempts to ‘explain the war’, only to present the soldiers’ experiences.

Here’s the trailer for the 2016 restoration of the film by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. The entry on the NFSA website is also useful.

BIFF 2012 #4: Distinguished Flying Cross (US 2011)

The only known photo of Wade Wilkerson's helicopter in combat

Screened as part of a double bill of short features, Distinguished Flying Cross is a 61 minute documentary about a US Army helicopter pilot sent to Vietnam in 1965. According to the festival brochure, Film Comment named director Travis Wilkinson as one of the top avant-garde filmmakers currently active. This turned out to be rather a misleading introduction to the film which is actually a conventionally structured eye-witness documentary. The simple structure uses title cards to announce questions and chapter headings for the statements of Warrant Officer Wilkerson who is shown in a head-on shot flanked by his two sons. The trio drink beer and mull over the father’s memories. Intercut with these scenes are clips of the war taken by unnamed army filmmakers (including some interesting footage of local bands playing for the Americans) and acquired by Travis Wilkerson via US National Archives.

Wade Wilkerson has an extraordinary memory from which he digs out some matter-of-fact observations of what happened and why. He was in Vietnam because he wanted to fly civil jetliners and the only way to get such jobs was via military training. He would have needed a college degree to get into the Navy or Airforce but the Army took him without questions. He wasn’t a very good soldier according to his own account and the incident which earned him the DFC, although certainly heroic on his part, was probably awarded for the wrong reason. An excellent raconteur, Wade tells an interesting story well exposing the bullshit as he puts it. I enjoyed the tales (most of which are familiar enough from the well-known books on the war such as Michael Herr’s Despatches or Philip Caputo’s A Rumour of War) – but I don’t think I’ve heard the specific helicopter pilot perspective before. This perspective is also important because this was 1965 when the US was supposedly ‘aiding’ South Vietnam and the anti-war movement was still in its infancy. Wade is quite illuminating about what it was like to be a mature student at a university a few years later.

If this pops up on TV at some point, I would recommend it.

Cutter’s Way (US 1981)

John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn

I’m delighted that Cutter’s Way was re-released in the UK by Park Circus on 24 June in ‘Key Cities’. This is a ‘limited release’ but if it’s on anywhere near you, I recommend a trip.If you don’t know the film, DVDs are available.

Background

Cutter’s Way is an adaptation by the Czech New Wave director Ivan Passer of the highly acclaimed 1976 novel Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg. The dates here are important because Thornburg’s story is about an angry Vietnam veteran Alex Cutter (John Heard) and 1976 was a year after the last American helicopters left Saigon. Five years on and Passer’s film finally reached cinemas during the first year of Reagan’s presidency when the political mood in America had changed. Cutter’s Way appeared as a film seemingly twice out of place since it more resembled the intelligent downbeat films of the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s than the entertainment films of the new era of Spielberg/Lucas et al. As a result, Cutter’s Way had a difficult release and eventually came out as something akin to an independent film. Since its original release it has become something of a ‘cult film’.

This re-release has been promoted by the BFI which is screening the film on an extended run at the NFT with a feature by Michael Atkinson in Sight and Sound (July 2011). The re-release has been timed to be part of the BFI’s Jeff Bridges Retrospective. This is interesting for several reasons. It’s John Heard who in some ways steals the show in the film and the Bridges on view is the young man who was so beautiful rather than the post-Dude Bridges who is now a cult figure. Audiences who might be drawn to the film by Bridges’ presence may be surprised by what they find. Lisa Eichhorn is mesmerising as an alcoholic. She never got another major role of this quality and the American Film Institute reckoned her performance to be the most under-rated of the era.

Outline (no spoilers)

Santa Barbara, Southern California. Part-time yacht salesman and occasional gigolo Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) witnesses an odd incident on a rain-swept backstreet when his car breaks down. He only realises later that a murder has been committed and that since he was at the crime scene, he is a suspect. Bone spends much of his time at the home of disabled and often drunk Vietnam vet Alex Cutter and his wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn). Alex is quick to persuade Bone that he has seen the murderer – local business leader J. J. Cord. Alex wants revenge on the people who have caused all the trouble in the world, not least the useless war, and Cord fits the bill. Can Cutter and Bone finger Cord?

Commentary

When I began to think about the film I realised that there is a great deal to explore – possibly too much for a single post. Let’s begin with the background to the adaptation. The Sight and Sound coverage of the film by David Thomson (Spring 1982) is an excellent read. Thomson reveals that the rights to the book were bought by an independent producer, Paul Gurian, who first interested EMI (which at this time was seeking to distribute films in North America as well as the UK). At this point, Robert Mulligan was to direct with Dustin Hoffman as Cutter and John Heard as Bone. But this didn’t happen. Mark Rydell was then going to direct before the script (by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin) was picked up by United Artists. This was at the time that Heaven’s Gate was in production and UA decided to go with Cutter and Bone if they could persuade Jeff Bridges – one of the younger players in Heaven’s Gate to play Bone, allowing Heard to become Cutter. Passer came on board at this stage. Unfortunately, when Heaven’s Gate crashed, nearly closing UA down, a $3 million production like Cutter and Bone was not a priority. The film was released and withdrawn almost immediately in March 1981. Only spirited critical responses could persuade UA to reconsider and it was passed to the new ‘UA Classics’ division (with a name change to the less helpful title of Cutter’s Way). Gradually the film began to pick up fans and festival appearances and it was released in the UK in early 1982.

Jeff Bridges in beach boy mode

I’ve introduced Cutter’s Way as in some way the a late entry into the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s. I need to explain the term. The period between 1965 (the date of the last major success of the traditional Hollywood studio musical, The Sound of Music) and 1975 (the appearance of the first modern ‘blockbuster’, Jaws) was a time when the studios to some extent lost control of American filmmaking. They still made films – or at least acquired them for distribution, but the nature of the films changed and many of the conventions of Hollywood production fell away – like the Production Code, the tedious happy ending, the genre certainties. The new films attempted to engage with the counter-culture and with politics – ‘personal’ and ‘hard political’ – and social issues. This period is often confused with the rise of the ‘Movie Brats’ and indeed Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin did initially make films which seemed to challenge ‘Old Hollywood’, but Lucas soon followed Spielberg into making the new form of blockbuster – essentially in homage to 1940s Hollywood. Coppola followed later. For me the interesting purveyors of 1970s Hollywood were older, wiser or more embittered and had histories in television and theatre. They weren’t Hollywood at all: Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, Alan J. Pakula and Robert Altman. (I’ve read somewhere recently that Pakula was judged to be a nouvelle vague follower.)

Passer has an affinity towards this group but he properly belongs to the European émigré group of the period – Passer’s old colleague from the Czech New Wave, Milos Forman plus Roman Polanski and the Brits, Karel Reisz, John Boorman and John Schlesinger. All of these directors made films in the 1970s which explored American genres. The other two films that share some elements with Cutter’s Way are Polanski’s Chinatown (1975) and Karel Reisz’s Dog Soldiers (Who’ll Stop the Rain?) (1978). Cutter’s Way has a similar trio of characters to the Reisz film with the aggressive Vietnam vet Cutter, the indecisive commitment phobe Bone and the depressive Mo. In a sense this trio represent three responses to the craziness of America in the post Vietnam era. Andrew Britton put it very well in a 1980 piece in Movie 27/28. His argument includes the observation that the Vietnam War cannot be ‘explained’ satisfactorily within American ideology. It’s no use just assuming that the war is morally wrong since the war was inevitable given the American commitment to imperialism and fighting communism. For that position to be tenable would mean endorsing socialism in an American context which Hollywood can’t do. I haven’t space to go into the full analysis but it means that the normal ‘heroic’ role for the ‘US male’ is not available in a Vietnam film. Thus the hero is forced either to be ‘passive’ (‘acted upon’ rather than acting) or psychotic – there is no available way of being heroic. Cutter and Bone are in effect psychotic and passive. So does this then mean that the woman in the threesome must be depressive since neither man can offer her a fulfilling relationship?

Inevitably perhaps Cutters Way has to be carried by the performances and it is here that Passer’s direction works so well. The film is engrossing because the characters are believable and all three actors grasp their roles and deliver. This is a film you can keep on watching.

The opening sequence to Cutter’s Way featuring Jack Nitzsche’s wonderful score: