Before travelling anywhere I always make a list of films set in or related to that country, and sometimes books as well (but I watch films much faster than I read books). Cinema is a good way to immerse yourself in the cultural, socio-political and historical context of a country before you’ve even booked your flight. It’s also way more fun than trawling through facts on Wikipedia.
When we decided to travel to Vietnam, I realised that the only “Vietnamese” films I had seen were American war films, like Apocalypse Now and Platoon. All I remembered of them was a lot of explosions, guns and a strong binary between Americans/Vietnamese as Civilised/Savages.
Unsurprisingly, Vietnamese films tend to focus on the war itself or, if not, focus on the effects of postcolonialism. However, my favourite 4 Vietnam-related films have a few less guns and explosions and a bit more chattering.
The Quiet American (1958 and 2002)
Actually, I’d definitely say read the book over watching the films. Nonetheless, Graham Greene’s dark story of questionable morals and dubious American intervention in France’s war against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, is tremendous. The love-triangle between the three main characters – a British journalist, an American aid worker, and Vietnamese lady – explores the relationship between the “civilising” West and the “exotic” East in a more rooted and sophisticated way than the other films.
There’s a scene in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket that sticks in my mind. Sitting on the side of a dusty road, a Vietnamese prostitute saunters up to two American soldiers asking, ‘You got girlfriend in Vietnam?’ whilst swinging her hips. ‘Fifteen dollar each,’ she sings. As the two soldiers are gawking at her, considering, a skinny Vietnamese man runs up and steals their camera, jumps on a motorbike and rides away.
I never had or saw anyone have something stolen when I was in Vietnam, though I did hear a few stories from other travellers, so maybe I learnt something subconsciously before I even got there.
I’ve heard a lot of other bloggers say that they fell in love with the idea of travelling in Vietnam after watching Indochine. This French-language film tells the story of a French plantation owner (Catherine Deneuve) amidst the Vietnamese people’s struggle for French Indochina’s independence from France. In Hanoi, you can visit the café where Deneuve bought her coffee and croissants every morning when she was filming Indochine.
The Lover (1992)
Who could turn down a steamy French-Vietnamese romantic drama? What I liked most about this film is that the Western man/Eastern woman couple is reversed. Instead, the protagonists are a Vietnamese man and a French school girl, who begin a love affair together in Saigon. It’s an elegant, atmospheric film, although it’s more character-focused than anything.
… and 1 Film Not to Watch
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Controversial? Only because there are so many Robin Williams fans I think. A comedy about the Vietnam War? There is just something that fundamentally doesn’t work about it. Perhaps it’s because the film’s comedy is more slapstick than deadpan that it just feels as though it’s showing Americans (represented by Robin Williams’ character and the cronies who laugh at his jokes) to be oblivious of the horrific reality of the war. It’s mostly really cringey, often unrealistic and, also, the main character appears totally void of cultural understanding or sensitivity. Other people loved it though, so maybe I’m just a bore.
Have you watched any of these films? What was your opinion of them?