A Hard Case of Family Dysfunction: Ieva Ozolina’s Solving My Mother

Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival – 

In Solving My Mother (2017), Ieva Ozolina presents a serious and difficult case of a dysfunctional family that begs for help. The 104-minute documentary follows Raitis Ozols, a 34-year-old mathematician in Latvia who accuses his mother of abusing him. The film starts with humor, builds up to a shocking climax of domestic violence, then subsides into an unresolved ending, effectively capturing a troubled mother-and-son relationship. This documentary isn’t comfortable to watch, but the issue it raises is important, because a similar act of violence may happen again between the mother and son. So who is Raitis Ozols, who is his mother, and who actually abuses whom?


Raitis Ozols is complicated. He is both endearing and dangerous. It’s important to give him credit where it is due because he needs forgiveness. On the one hand, Raitis is a funny man with an idiosyncratic obsession with math. At his birthday party, the man even solves math problems over his birthday cake, which is decorated with geometrical patterns. He tends to rationalize life in lengthy monologues, a trait that brings to mind Woody Allen’s persona in his movies: a neurotic, abstract man who is worried that the universe is expanding and will end some day, making his existence meaningless.

On the other hand, Raitis is unjust to his mother, Silvija. He blames her for everything. He accuses her of emotionally manipulating him and even reports her to the police. She bosses him around, swears at him, and threatens suicide. She only cares about her career and avoids conversations that would resolve conflict. It isn’t only Raitis who thinks so: his father, who abandoned him at birth, his younger brother, and his maternal grandfather all agree that Silvija is a difficult woman. Is she?

In interviews, Silvija, an accomplished university professor and mother who has single-handedly raised her sons to professional success, appears to be a reasonable woman who has the right to be proud and self-righteous. However, at a family gathering on Easter, Silvija reveals her true self. As the conversation in the grandfather’s tiny kitchen heats up between Raitis, his mother, and his younger brother, Silvija demands that Raitis apologize first before answering his questions; and before giving satisfying answers to her sons, she changes the topic to get back to what she considers more meaningful and less vulgar: painting Easter eggs. Silvija’s attitude is so cold and proud that anyone can feel angry with her.


To feel angry inside is part of daily life, but to act upon it is another matter. For all Silvija’s faults, the violence that Raitis is provoked into committing against his mother is shocking. He hits her. The film blacks out this scene, replacing it with a note to explain what has happened. In this pivotal scene, the camera has to do challenging work. As the kitchen is so tiny, the camera shoots from above the characters. This is a wise angle, because not only does it give a comprehensive view of the situation, but its higher position also suggests that the documentary wants to be objective, disentangle itself, and rise above the conflict. When it hides the heinous act, this is just the humane thing to do to spare all concerned: Raitis from something that he may deeply regret, his mother from something that she doesn’t deserve, and viewers from visual attack.

Using a hand-held camera, Ieva Ozolina offers a number of scenes that neatly capture the documentary’s topic and create symbolic value. One is the shot of Raitis at the beginning of the movie. Raitis stands in the middle of his messy room, blaming his mother. This scene immediately introduces the character’s problem. Half-way through, another shot frames Raitis sitting on the edge of the bed in a hotel room with his face turned away from a date who is reclining seductively on the bed. The shot emphasizes how awkward he is in relationships with others, especially women. Toward the end, the camera pauses before Raitis and his mother, who are sitting at a table in an outdoor museum. The mother is working at her computer, Raitis is talking to himself, and between them stands a wooden pillar which symbolizes their unresolved separatedness.

The soundtrack which features the music of one of the most famous arias in Giacomo Puccini’s classical opera Tosca (a staged performance of which is also seen during the film) matches the intense, larger-than-life conflict of Raitis’s family. Set against Napoléon Bonaparte’s invasion of Rome in 1800, Tosca tells the tragic story of a young painter, Cavaradossi, who faces the death penalty for helping a political prisoner. Cavaradossi sings this aria on the morning before he is executed. The use of Puccini’s opera might be said to make the film contrived, rather than realistic. Indeed, Raitis’s dramatic personality makes him as much a fictional character as a real person.

However, what the film captures – the inherent difficulty in understanding and communicating with another human being, and the violence that may ensue, especially in a claustrophobic space – is real.

Solving My Mother isn’t the first film in which Ieva Ozolina has dealed with intelligent but morally questionable college professors who suffer mental breakdowns. Her first documentary, My Father the Banker depicts her own journey to find her father, an economics professor-turned-banker who abandoned his family, engaged in illegal financial operations, fled Latvia to avoid arrest, and years later ended up in a mental asylum in Malaysia. In both films, then, documentary filmmaking seems to be a way for Ozolina to analyze troublesome father and mother figures. In Solving My Mother, the mother doesn’t abandon her family. Yet she is so proud and distant that she drives her son to terrible violence. Domestic violence is a stark physical act, but its cause turns out to be a subtle build-up of psychological discontent.


Archival films come to life, beckoning for more engagement

It was an enriching experience to watch the four films screened recently in Hanoi as part of the Film as a Cultural Heritage event organized by the British Council and the Vietnam Film Institute. The films are all excellent works: Virginia Heath’s 2014 documentary From Scotland with Love; Franz Osten’s 1928 silent feature Shiraz: A Romance of India starring Himansu Rai, a pioneer of Indian cinema; two Vietnamese films: Trần Vũ’s 1974 black-and-white classic Đến hẹn lại lên (We’ll Be Seeing Us Again), and Đặng Nhật Minh’s 2000 movie Mùa ổi (The Season of Guavas).

The films were screened for free on four evenings to packed theatres at the National Cinema Centre alongside a workshop and a conference that discussed the archiving of moving images in Britain and Vietnam. These activities were part of an ongoing two-year cultural project conducted by the British Council to help Vietnam preserve its filmic and musical heritage. Vietnam is one among a few emerging economies such as China, India, Egypt and South Africa that have been identified as those that may benefit from British expertise.


A conference about film archives was held recently in Hanoi as part of an ongoing two-year cultural project conducted by the British Council to help Vietnam preserve its filmic and musical heritage. Source: Thùy Linh

The screenings covered the documentary and fictional film genres and offered a vivid viewing experience of Shiraz in which a Vietnamese narrator translated the film’s written English narration orally. This experience effectively evoked the screening of films alongside live musical performances in the silent film era, reminding that cinema was a young visual  art that partook of various arts that came before to create a total sensual experience. The films themselves provided enlightening snapshots into the different cultures where they were made, and along the way, raised ultimate questions about what it meant to be human.

Cinema reclaimed 

Culled from thousands of hours of archival footage, the 75-minute From Scotland with Love is an epic portrait of Scotland in the 20th century. This film is set to a critically acclaimed original soundtrack which singer-songwriter King Creosote composed based on the footage he saw. Virginia Heath’s documentary sketches the working Scottish men and women who with their sweat and blood have forged a country out of a breathtakingly beautiful land. From Scotland with Love can be considered a counterpoint to German documentary filmmaker Harun Farocki’s insightful critique of cinema, Workers Leaving the Factory.

In this documentary, Farocki argues that throughout its 100-year history, cinema has simply reshot, with a childish fixation to immortalize an original pleasure, the first shot ever made by the Lumière brothers that features workers leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon. Cinema is a self-deceiving capitalistic tool that looks at things from the outside to control and make believe, always shoots workers after work, and whenever possible, hastily moves away from factories, never shows the hell that is inside, and the implications that may arise.

Against this context, From Scotland with Love offers a plethora of scenes about real labor. Scottish men and women are seen working hard everywhere: on the fields, inside the factories, at the docks, under the mines. Cinema, which originally cast working people as its object, is reclaimed here. Workers’ strikes make up an essential part of this film. A dramatic sequence set to King Creosote’s powerful “Pauper’s Dough” song includes footage from the carters’ strike in Dundee in 1911, one of the first strikes in Scotland, and the 1919 Battle of George Square in Glasgow in which the British troops were mobilized to crack down on thousands of workers who fought for 40-hour workdays. Virginia Health’s work is a well-sung tribute to the documentary, cinema’s very first genre with its integral working class subject.

A gendered masterpiece 

Though Franz Osten’s silent feature Shiraz: A Romance of India, which was restored by the British Film Institute, is also a captivating movie, it can best be read not as a tribute to cinema itself, but to another form of artistic excellence with less Western influence and more Indian authenticity: architecture, as exemplified by the Taj Mahal in Agra. With a dramatic narrative, Shiraz captures the gender dynamic that might have empowered the human genius that created the Taj Mahal in the 17th century. The movie opens with Queen Mumtaz Mahal, for whom the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the white marble mausoleum, being a little princess caught up in a bloody ambush. Her mother and followers are all killed.


A still from Franz Osten’s 1928 silent feature Shiraz: A Romance of India fully restored by the British Film Institute. 

A potter walks by and rescues her. He takes her home, names her Selima and brings her up. His son Shiraz, played by Himansu Rai, who founded the Bombay Talkies studio in 1934, grows up falling in love with her. One day, Selima, now a lovely young woman, is kidnapped by slave raiders and sold to Prince Khurram. Shiraz tries but fails to rescue her. He follows her to the royal palace in Agra. Unfortunately for Shiraz, Selima falls in love and marries the prince. Nevertheless, Shiraz keeps an eye on his heartthrob for years until she dies. Her emperor husband later calls for artists throughout the kingdom to submit designs for a palace to house his beloved queen’s tomb. Shiraz, who has turned blind, creates a superb model and wins the contest.

Shiraz draws its gender dynamic with a fine brush. In this story, a woman exists in an inextricable relationship with men. Without an independent identity, power or overt talent, she nevertheless plays a vital role. She connects different kinds of men and drives them to heroic endeavors. Selima serves as the wife to a king and the source of inspiration to an extraordinary artist. The ending sequences in which the two men work to build the Taj Mahal with the queen now being dead and passing out of sight sum up this dynamic. The final shot shows the ultimate players in this great human stage: the aging king and the blind artist looking at their joint venture, a crowning human achievement that Tagore hailed as a “tear drop on the face of eternity”.

Giving voice to woman

Moving from India to Vietnam, through Shiraz to We’ll Be Seeing Us Again, one encounters a more feminine cinema. In Trần Vũ’s movie, the woman occupies a more powerful role: she herself is the artistic genius of Vietnamese culture. We’ll Be Seeing Us Again tells the story of a talented quan họ (northern folk music) singer named Nết (meaning “virtue”) living during the French colonization of Vietnam. This film features substantial quan họ performances in which groups of female and male singers deliver musical challenges and responses. Nết is forced into marriage with a rich French-educated man though she loves a poorer one with a revolutionary touch. On her wedding night, Nết takes to her heels in a highly symbolic sequence.


A still from Trần Vũ’s 1974 black-and-white classic We’ll Be Seeing Us Again

She runs away from the rich man’s house and throws herself on her dead mother’s tomb asking tearfully, “Where can I go now, mother?” This is as if, to borrow from the feminist scholar Gayatri Spivak, Vietnamese culture is on the run, fleeing persecution by the French colonizers and the local upper-class, seeking help from its native roots, which are now dead and so can’t help. Right after, Nết seeks shelter in a Buddhist temple, another symbol of succor in times of distress. Yet, the Buddha statute is also cold and mute to her pleading. As the husband’s men and dogs are fast following closely, Nết runs out and away again, toward the river. Here, the film cuts to a thunderous sky with the year “1945” written on the screen, heralding a stormy but brighter future brought about by the revolution.

Touching ode to memories 

Fast forward in time and we move from this revolutionary optimism of Vietnam in the 1970s to the pervasive postwar skepticism that imbues Đặng Nhật Minh’s The Season of Guavas. If culture is rescued in We’ll Be Seeing Us Again, it is destroyed again in Đặng Nhật Minh’s film. Culture here is a man named Hòa, a kind simple man whose mind is arrested at the age of 13 after he falls off the guava tree in his family’s garden. This accident omens unbearable change that follows: his mother passes away, and his father, a lawyer under French rule, is forced to hand over his house to the new revolutionary government. Hòa grows up under the care of his younger sister into a changing materialistic world, works for a meager wage as a fine arts model, and often stealthily visits his old tree and house.

The Season of Guavas’ s slow pacing and understated characterization in which the characters often speak softly and interact politely belie Đặng Nhật Minh’s stringent criticism of the erasure of culture and memories. Even a childlike man’s harmless memories aren’t allowed to exist. After being falsely reported to the hospital for his supposed mental illness and being injected with a high dose of sedative medication, Hòa completely loses his mind, unable to recognize even his beloved guava fruits. The guava tree in the old garden is also cut down, to make way for more parking space. Everything and everyone must give room to change. One can reasonably guess that when Hòa dies, all memories will perish with him.


A packed theatre reception of Đặng Nhật Minh’s The Season of Guavas. Soure: Nguyễn Đình Anh Tú/The British Council Vietnam.

Here we come to face with the fundamental inescapable transience of life. As the staff of a Japanese film archive told filmmaker Phan Đăng Di, even though celluloid films can last for 500 years, and digital formats can live infinitely longer, there may still be extraordinary circumstances in which everything on earth, our digital footprints included, are destroyed. By its very nature, film is a time-based art, characterized by a time duration. This modern essence inherently counteracts any vain hope for immortality. So the answer to last week’s conference’s rhetorical question “What way ahead for Vietnam’s film archives?” isn’t so much how to preserve films through time for future generations but rather how to create public space to screen archival films to interested audiences at our present moment in time.

The screenings of the four above-mentioned films in Hanoi are a good start. Virginia Heath’s precious footage of hard-working Scotland, Franz Osten’s captivating vision of the Taj Mahal, Trần Vũ’s feminine portrait of Vietnamese culture, and Đặng Nhật Minh’s touching ode to human memories show such skills and insight that one should not treat them as belonging to the past, but as a present being stored away somewhere waiting to come out. Indeed, according to Lê Tuấn Anh, the vice head of the technical department at the Vietnam Film Institute, archival films at his place are still being shown, but mostly within the institute’s compounds during relevant anniversaries. This leaves us plenty of room to improve our screening of time-based art.

In media, salaciousness no substitute for style

Việt Nam NewsBy Thùy Linh 

On a recent Sunday night, pedestrians flooded the area around Returned Sword Lake in downtown Hà Nội. The high-end Tràng Tiền Plaza was full of window shoppers. Nearby coffee shops were jam-packed with customers. Parking lots were filled with motorbikes. Anyone familiar with life in the city could have guessed why they had come, as if they all had something to celebrate and had known just where to do it.

“It’s because it’s been raining hard, locking people inside for the past few days,” a parking lot guard explained to a friend.

The sight of crowded streets, where too many people jostle for too little space in an endless circle of shopping, eating and drinking, brings to mind something French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss said in one of his last interviews before he died in 2009.

“There is today a frightful disappearance of living species, be they plants or animals,” said Levi-Strauss. “And it’s clear that the density of human beings has become so great, if I can say so, that they have begun to poison themselves…”

How far we have begun to poison ourselves is a matter of debate. As far as visual culture is concerned, I think audiences must be feeling quite sick by now.

Turn on a TV channel these days and you are treated to one dish after another of loudness, vulgarity and mediocrity: endless singing and dancing reality shows, dragging sensational foreign soap operas and Vietnamese melodramas.

quynh bup be

Illustration: Trịnh Lập

Here is a scene from episode three of director Mai Hồng Phong’s 30-episode series Quỳnh búp bê (Quỳnh the Doll) about prostitution:

Two pimps wait outside a hotel room for any sign of trouble from Quỳnh, who has been kidnapped and sold to their brothel in disguise and is now being forced to serve a client for the first time. The pimps hear the client slap Quỳnh and rush inside. The client angrily shouts, “Did you two bring a pregnant hen here to fool me?!” It turns out that Quỳnh, who was expected to fetch a high price because she is supposed to be a virgin, had been raped before she was trafficked and is already four months pregnant.

Sympathy for real victims of human trafficking aside, I’m fed up with the sight of sex workers and gangsters in Vietnamese films these days.

Sensationalised and graphic depictions of prostitutes, gangsters and everyone in between have been a big part of Vietnamese movies and television films for the past two decades. The war classics such as Đặng Nhật Minh’s Bao giờ cho đến tháng 10 (When the 10th Month Comes), with their compact symbolism, have faded away.

What is left now is mostly forgettable stuff ranging from state-owned studios’ laughable attempts to combine social instruction and entertainment, to the private sector’s trash.

An example of the state-produced unintentional hilarity is Sống cùng lịch sử (Living with History), produced by Viet Nam Feature Film Studio, in which a group of youngsters travel with their backpacks to Điện Biên Province. They ostensibly dream about fighting in the Điện Biên Phủ battle then learn a precious lesson or two about national history.

An example of trash is Charlie Nguyễn’s action film Bụi đời Chợ Lớn (Chinatown) which dishes out violence from beginning to end with such relish that the film was banned. The censors found the violence unrealistic. Gangs fight continuously on the streets without police intervention.

The first six episodes of Quỳnh búp bê aren’t unrealistic trash, at least. Filled with brutal language, female objectification, rape, torture and terror, the series is a decent portrayal of the slave-like existence of prostitutes. The film is based on the true story of a former prostitute named Quỳnh herself.

In its dark moments of sheer brute force against women, the film calls to mind historian Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy, which says that it was through the control of women that men first learned how to control other men. Human slavery originated in the exchange of women in marriage among tribes. The first slaves were women of tribes conquered in warfare.

Nevertheless, all things considered, one wonders whether filmmakers’ sincere intention to reflect reality has resulted in a series of images that actually work to fossilise a woman’s identity, rendering us all perpetual victims.

Life is so transient and precious that we must immerse in it fully, while still striving to produce and appreciate those aspects of human existence that occur outside the realm of daily life and banalities—that is to say, art. Yet as a woman and an observer of films and culture, I feel robbed.

The ubiquitous camera and films force me to see countless paralysing images of what is supposed to be me: from Bao giờ cho đến tháng 10’s impeccable classical icon of a heroic, patriotic mother to Quỳnh búp bê’s vulgar pictures of girls raped and sold.

Explaining the sex and violence in his film, director Phong told local media that viewers might be shocked, but such was reality. “When we talk about corruption, we need specific numbers,” he said. “When we talk about prostitution rings and disgusting crimes that need to be eliminated, we want audiences to confront the images directly.”

Not necessarily. There are certain things that the eyes and mind can’t take. The show is what happens when we push the limits too far. After receiving negative backlash from viewers, Việt Nam Television channel 1 (VTV1) has recently stopped airing Quỳnh búp bê, even though it tried to warn viewers by labeling the series “18+” from episode five, making the film the first one to be so classified on VTV.

Unfortunately, the show has joined the list of trash entertainment that became a “martyr” in the public eye when it was censored for excessive shows of sex and violence.

A common response to VTV1’s decision is to argue that the series could be aired during a later time slot and on a channel more appropriate for adult films. This would create a sophisticated tiered viewing system similar to those in developed countries, where you can pay to watch whatever you want.

Like the cheeky MasterCard’s “Priceless” commercial, I say, in earnest, “There are some things money can’t buy.” And here we see two things that it can’t buy: justice and creativity.

First, prostitution and other social ills should be treated as realistically and seriously as possible. They had better be captured in investigative journalism and documentaries, not a fictional TV series with a sensational soundtrack that can be watched online under VTV’s “entertainment” section like Quỳnh búp bê.

Second, writers and artists of this century seem to be walking behind scientists in terms of deep originality. While scientists are searching for continuing surprises of the universe, many artists still think that the highest ideal of art is to reflect human reality as it is, rather than as what it could be.

Vietnamese filmmakers tend to play out the same old drama between men and women in familiar genres instead of trying something different and imaginative, like animation. After getting an eyeful of human beings around Sword Lake, one must go home and see the same human form again on television.

When one’s heart honestly cares about justice, and one’s mind tries to be really creative, then films will find their rightful places without fuss, without the need for conscientious but shallow classification: Adults watch documentaries about social issues and do something about society, and children have good animation to see.

Phạm Thu Hằng, an independent documentary filmmaker, supports artists’ free expression and experimentation with what is traditionally considered taboo such as sex, homosexuality or incest. But artists should justify why their characters cross the limit.

Hằng said in Phan Đăng Di’s Bi, đừng sợ! (Bi, Don’t Be Afraid!) for instance, the sexual attraction between a woman and her father-in-law looked like mere lust than anything of substance.

As for me, do I want VTV to resume airing the next episode of Quỳnh búp bê? No! With all due respect, let everything stop here. It’s time for a break, a blank, silence. Everybody, move over please.


Taking small but steady steps, contemporary Vietnamese movies exude aplomb

VnExpress November 13, 2016  If the batch of new features presented at the recent Hanoi International Film Festival is any indication, the future of Vietnamese cinema looks alright.

Nineteen Vietnamese movies, including two competing in the Best Feature category with foreign entries, were screened at the Hanoi International Film Festival, a biennial event that began in 2010.

Both of the two movies in competition brought home some honors: Victor Vu’s Toi thay hoa vang tren co xanh (Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass) won the Special Jury Award For Feature Film while Dustin Nguyen’s Trung so (Jackpot) picked up the People’s Choice Award for Competing Feature Film.

While Yellow Flowers has generally been overrated, Jackpot is a simple, though not too remarkable film that deserves its win. Dustin Nguyen’s movie about the struggling life and the luck of a lottery seller was named Best Feature Film at the Vietnam Cinema Association’s Golden Kite Awards held earlier this year. It was submitted as the Vietnamese entry to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Oscars last year, but didn’t make the cut.

The image of lottery sellers in hardship — and of ordinary working people praying for some wondrous stroke of luck in life — has been recycled by Vietnamese filmmakers in recent years. Luu Huynh’s Lay chong nguoi ta (In the Name of Love), for instance, features an angry, violent character who tries to earn a living by selling lottery tickets. Tran Dung Thanh Huy’s short 16:30 also deals with homeless children selling lottery results. But it’s not until Jackpot that lottery sellers have been given the relief that they sorely need.


Actress Truong Ngoc Anh and the crew of Truy Sat (Tracer) strutted on the red carpet at the 4th Hanoi International Film Festival. Tracer was screened as part of the Contemporary Vietnamese Films section of the festival. Photo: Xavier Bourgois/VnExpress.

Yet, the true delight and surprise of Vietnamese cinema at the festival wasn’t Jackpot, or the trivial and almost silly road trip comedy Taxi, em ten gi? (Taxi, What’s Your Name?), which stars rising comedian Truong Giang and has won the People’s Choice Award for Contemporary Vietnamese Film.

The most interesting revelations were actually the more or less “serious” movies, particularly films bankrolled by the culture ministry such as Dinh Thai Thuy’s My nhan (Beautiful Woman) and Dinh Tuan Vu’s Cuoc doi cua Yen (Yen’s Life), or the BDH production Quyen (Farewell, Berlin Wall) by Nguyen Phan Quang Binh.

What’s fascinating about these movies is good visuals (the camerawork in Vietnamese movies in particular has become more eye-catching and confident with plenty panoramic scenery shots) and what’s more important, solid social settings and characters.

These settings and characters provide some sense to counteract the mindless images of expensive clothes, cars and houses and sexy, unrealistically perfect male and female bodies that are common in the so-called “commercial movies” today. Though they aren’t perfect, Dinh Thai Thuy’s period drama Beautiful Woman set in the 17th century, and Nguyen Phan Quang Binh’s Farewell, Berlin Wall about the Vietnamese community living in Germany in the late 1980s are rich, fertile texts, especially from a woman’s perspective.

Patriarchal psychology at work

For those unfamiliar with Vietnamese history, Beautiful Woman is an informative work. The movie sketches a portrait of Nguyen Phuc Tan, the fourth ruler of the Nguyen Lords, who reigned over southern Vietnam for over two turbulent centuries while the puppet Le Dynasty and the Trinh Lords ruled the north. In history, Nguyen Phuc Tan is viewed as a good king and a military talent who defeated the Dutch East India Company, which came to attack southern Vietnam, and who helped expand Vietnam’s territory further to the south.

The real drama of the movie, however, isn’t his military triumphs and general wisdom. It lies in his relationship with a beautiful concubine whom he loves but his courtiers disdains. They beg him to get rid of her because his infatuation makes him negligent in handling national affairs.

Nguyen Phuc Tan’s difficult final decision here brings to mind a similar case in Woody Allen’s great psychological thriller Match Point. In both instances, there is a man who has to choose between his sexual passion for a woman and his non-sexual interests.

[WARNING: The following two paragraphs contain spoilers about the movies]

In both instances, the man decides to exterminate the woman. The Vietnamese man however is much less selfish, because what he has to think about isn’t just his own petty material concerns. Woody Allen’s anti-hero has to kill his girlfriend because she may jeopardize his marriage with a wealthy wife. Nguyen Phuc Tan, by contrast, is already a powerful ruler who is responsible for the welfare of his subjects.

Still, the cruel act done toward the female seductress in both movies is the same. It reveals the ultimately similar patriarchal psychology at work: Woman is held as a sexual object which, after satiating man’s desire, will be eliminated if it threatens his higher, or more important, callings.


A man’s movie


A scene from the BDH production Quyen (Farewell, Berlin Wall) by Nguyen Phan Quang Binh.

The idea of women as passive sexual victims finds its fitting cinematic expression in Nguyen Phan Quang Binh’s Farewell, Berlin Wall.

Like his previous film Canh dong bat tan (Floating Lives), Farewell, Berlin Wall also features some great camerawork that showcases the breathtaking grandeur of snowy mountains and forests in Europe. And against this backdrop, lost is the woman.

Like many other Vietnamese in the 1980s, the movie’s protagonist Quyen follows her husband from Vietnam to Russia and to Germany to search for a better life as the Berlin Wall dividing East from West is falling down. As they illegally cross the border, Quyen is snatched away from her husband by the guide, a Vietnamese gangster who desires her. The gangster, Hung, rapes her, makes her pregnant, then upon her entreaty, returns her to her husband. Yet things can never be the same again. When the husband, Dung, finds his wife now a dishonored woman, he kicks her out of the house. Desperate, Quyen attempts suicide but is saved by a kind-hearted German man named Hans.

In Binh’s movie, Quyen is a beautiful, quiet and helpless chess piece moved around between the three men. The opening sequence in particular pitches the vulnerable woman against the overwhelming nature, part of which is Hung’s forceful nature of a rapist. He allows Quyen to escape him if she can. But though she tries, Quyen alone can’t find her way out of the snowy mountains.

This movie sounds like a boast of gritty masculinity. Hung, Dung, and to a lesser extent Hans, are engaged in a tragic but epic battle of men in their efforts to survive in nature and society. The woman is the victim and the reward. She plays an essentially minor and passive part, ranging from the beautiful, helpless object of man’s rape to the forgiving, nurturing and untouchable mother of man’s child.

Better ideas about woman that sell

After watching Beautiful Woman and Farewell, Berlin Wall, which are set in older times, and understandably, reflect the gender values of traditional societies that don’t give women any sense of agency, it is a breath of fresh air to watch movies portraying contemporary women who are strong and active and to a considerable extent, do run the show.

Though it is based on the Thai movie The Love of Siam about gay men rather than a home-grown idea, Viet Max’s Yeu (Love) about lesbians flips the gender switch and gives the long overdue stage to female characters here in Vietnam. It is especially interesting to see how men are portrayed in the movie, how they are rejected by the gay women.

Though Love doesn’t have the complexity and depth of the original Thai version, it is nonetheless a creative remake which has to come up with new male characters to help portray the lesbian relationship. The pictures of those male characters aren’t far from reality and quite convincing. One can understand why the girls would still reject them even if they weren’t homosexual. One guy in particular, who comes from a rich family, leads such a boyish, clueless and wasteful life that any smart girl could hardly be able to put up with.

Another remake about strong women is Phan Gia Nhat Linh’s Sweet 20, a close copy of the Korean box-office hit Miss Granny. With total box-office takings of $4.76 million, the Vietnamese version has also become the biggest hit of Vietnamese cinema ever. Though some criticize the film for its lack of originality, the original Korean premise is certainly a brilliant one that deserves attention.


A scene from Phan Gia Nhat Linh’s Sweet 20, a remake from a popular South Korean movie.

Miss Granny is about an old woman who has a magical chance to be young and 20 again. Now she can do what in the past she couldn’t or what she can’t now in an aging body: be strong and healthy, sing on stage and have a nice romance with a desirable bachelor. Yet, despite the temptation, the woman chooses to return to the reality of aging.

The fear of aging and death and the desire for youth may be common feelings to both men and women. But it is appropriate to let a female character handle this challenging existential issue since woman has traditionally been associated with nature, biology and the body.

The female body has also been subject to greater scrutiny and control than the male body. It is to the credit of global popular culture that movies like Miss Granny let a woman be the main character and let her affirm the value and beauty of aging.

And yet popular culture is still part of the patriarchal landscape. Instead of watching a more serious movie about an old woman and her true-to-self statement, we watch instead Miss Granny, an entertaining, easy movie about an old woman being fantastically given the chance to be young. Though we love the old woman, we are also deeply attracted by the youthful, beautiful looks of her young version.

Deep down, we are still driven by our baser emotions. We want beauty, fantasy, laughter and entertainment. Popular culture both creates this and caters to it in an endless circle. Would you see a more realistic movie about old women aging?

In Hanoi, sounds of the past resonate amid noises of vulgar age

VnExpress October 29, 2016 – In this age of fast-food pop culture, crash materialism and vulgarity, some good old music may bring you back to a purer past.

In our intensely mediated, globalized era, the practiced exuberance of life as shown in the show business environment everywhere can reach an unbearably annoying pitch.

It’s killing me every time I turn on TV and see another new reality show where people get on stage to sing and dance. To treat life as a stage or even as art, to take photos and try to capture every moment, to shine the spotlight on everything is an adolescent, vulgar value that many people are believing in these days.

Vietnam, with a young population, is fast becoming an integral part of the global show business. Indeed in recent years, Hanoians have been living high with a variety of offerings ranging from popular culture to high art — a distinction that isn’t important as blurring boundaries is a motto of this age anyway. And though the number and scale of cultural events in Vietnam are still modest by international standards, there are enough for locals to choose from.

Free cultural events of good taste offered by foreign institutions such as the Goethe Institute, the French Institute and the Japan Foundation for instance have become beloved dishes in the cultural banquet. Local sponsors with money are also jumping in to provide Vietnamese audiences with “authentic” experiences such as events featuring Richard Clayderman in 2014, Kenny G in 2015, and classical French ballet earlier this year.

And this October, Hanoians, especially those born in the 1980s or earlier, were lucky to have the opportunities to see their idols perform live. Boney M and Chris Norman performed at the National Convention Center early this month, and Modern Talking will sing at the same venue in late November. And just a few days ago, the German rock band Scorpions delivered a set list of well-known old songs at a very interesting place: the over-one-thousand-year-old Imperial Citadel of Thang Long.


The German band Scorpions performed in Hanoi on October 23 as the headliner of the Monsoon Festival. The event was held at an unusual venue for rock concerts: the Imperial Citadel. Photo: Giang Huy/VnExpress.

The Scorpions’ show was part of the annual Monsoon Musical Festival, an initiative started two years ago by Nguyen Quoc Trung, a respected producer in the local music scene.

This festival, featuring many local and international acts, has become a big success, positively received by audiences, the media and cultural authorities, who allowed it to take place at the Imperial Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site usually reserved for only high-profile cultural events.

Dao Tram, who went to see the Scorpions and loved it, said attending a modern, Western rock concert within such a historical setting didn’t bring any jarring feeling. She simply loved the fact that the venue was so spacious.

Tram’s friend, who asked to be called by her nickname Hana, said the concert was so good in every way that it did justice to the dignified setting.

“Though they aren’t young, Scorpions still sang very well,” Hana said.

She said credit must be given to Trung, the music producer, for organizing such a high-quality festival and for never trying to aim for any cheap glitz that one may easily find in the showbiz today.

Outdoor musical festivals that run for a few days on end are not rare in other countries but in Vietnam, so far there has only been Monsoon, Hana said.

The Scorpions ticket alone cost VND660,000 or around $30, which was more expensive than a 4-day pass for last year’s festival. Most of the people who went to the concert were 30-somethings who could afford the cost and could keep their manners. Trung left nothing to chance. He constantly, shyly and politely reminded his audiences to pick up trash and be friendly to each other.

Born in 1983, Hana and her friends said they didn’t just enjoy the music but also the atmosphere, feeling a certain bond with strangers who grew up in the same era and were all familiar with old songs.

The two friends also loved the idea of opening up the Imperial Citadel, instead of being stiff-necked and conservative and keep it for history and tradition, and sometimes for young married couples to take photos.

If such a precious historical site can be used for great events like Monsoon, it can become a new cultural symbol that stands for the connection between history and modernity, in a good sense of the relationship.

The duo’s positive attitude about the best of pop culture, modern life and Vietnam forces me to search hard within myself to find if there is any place that remains untainted by skepticism and cynicism, which I blame on this crash, vulgar age.

There isn’t much innocence in me, but recently I did have a moment of sorts. I was at a decent hairdresser’s shop. The hairdresser was a capable one but I didn’t like the fact that he had increased the price for a cut by VND50,000. I was deciding in my mind that I wouldn’t come here frequently.

Then a shop assistant turned on the music.

It was a collection of old songs like the ballad “Big Big World” from Swedish singer Emilia, which was popular in Europe and Asia back in the late 90s.

For a moment, I felt a surge of strange, pure love for the song and its era, when I was in middle school and Hanoi wasn’t developing as much and there were far fewer entertainment programs and reality shows on TV.

The song reminded me that once upon a time, I didn’t hate pop music and showbiz and many other things too much. And that I could still find some small things that speak to me in some quiet corner somewhere.

Vietnamese writer’s English novel is another excellent, masculine war narrative

Written in minimalistic style, Debris of Debris is fast-paced, dramatic and sexy.

Vĩnh Quyền’s Debris of Debris, a novel about post-war Vietnam written and published first in English and now in Vietnamese, is an enjoyable work of masculine sensibilities.


Cover of Vĩnh Quyền’s novel Debris of Debris written first in English and published by the College of Saint Benedict in the US in 2011. All photos provided by Vĩnh Quyền.

American War narratives have been drawing attention lately with Vietnamese-American writer Việt Thanh Nguyễn’s debut novel The Sympathizer winning the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the US.

While The Sympathizer deserves a separate reading, Quyền’s novel, titled Mảnh vỡ của mảnh vỡ in Vietnamese, has also created a buzz.

Published earlier this year in Vietnam by the Writers’ Association Publishing House, Quyền’s novel won the second prize at the Vietnam Writers’ Association’s competitive 2011-2015 Novel Prize.

Quyền’s work shared the second prize with two other novels and there was no first prize.

Yet, long before it was recognized by Vietnamese literary circles, the novel had caught the eye because he wrote it first in English rather than Vietnamese, making himself the first Vietnamese writer living in Vietnam to ever do so.

Quyền was inspired to tell his own story about Vietnam in English by the Canadian writer David Bergen. While visiting Vietnam to research for his novel The Time in Between, Bergen often met with and heard Quyền tell stories about Vietnam.

In his acknowledgements in The Time in Between, which is about an American veteran returning to his former battlefields in Vietnam, Bergen mentions Quyền as a friend who, through conversation and company, guided him deeper into the heart of Vietnam.

Quyền said some of the characters in The Time in Between were based on his stories, his friends, and the people he saw around him every day.

This prompted him to ask himself a profound question that had never occurred before: “Why don’t I myself tell the story of my people to the world?”

Quyền then painstakingly completed Debris of Debris with the help of some good friends who helped correct and edit his English. With luck, he also found foreign publishers for the work. The novel was published as a limited edition for in-house use by the College of Saint Benedict in the US in 2011, then printed commercially by Austin Macauley Publishers in the UK in 2014.

And now Mảnh vỡ của mảnh vỡ is available in Vietnamese, providing yet another view on the American War in Vietnam: not the view of Northern soldiers like Bảo Ninh’s well-known work Nỗi buồn chiến tranh (The Sorrow of War) or other mainstream stories coming from post-war Vietnam; nor the view of American soldiers like the works of David Bergen, Tim O’Brien and other Western writers.

Rather, Quyền from Vietnam and Nguyễn from abroad seem to be moving from opposite directions toward a common meeting point to help create a richer, more complete picture of Vietnamese identities and interpretations about the American War.

The two interpret the war with a humanistic attitude that seeks to see different sides of things through equivocal narrators (or main characters) who can’t be easily defined, while at the same time providing captivating, enjoyable writing that good writers, however sad and serious, often achieve.

If the narrator in Nguyễn’s novel is a South Vietnamese officer who fled to the US after the war but remained a communist spy throughout, the main character in Mảnh vỡ của mảnh vỡ is a South Vietnamese intellectual who stayed in Vietnam after 1975 and remained unimpressed by the communist government.


Cover of Debris of Debris published by Austin Macauley Publishers in the UK in 2014.

The story of Kha, a high school teacher in Đà Nẵng hailing from an old royal family and whose late father was a high-ranking official in the South Vietnamese government, frames the novel. After the war, Kha is spared the re-education camps which are reserved for more “dangerous” groups such as former military officers, policemen and government officials of South Vietnam. Kha’s punishment, however, is to be relocated to an inferior rural high school.

Kha has an easier post-war life than other major characters many of whom fought for North Vietnam and some for South Vietnam. The numerous stories of their individual lives during and after the war are smoothly interwoven and told through many flashbacks in a narrative journey that travels back and forth in time to recount the havoc of war, especially the great romantic relationships that war creates and then tears apart, and pick up those old relationships again in the post-war era. Some relationships reach happy conclusions while others suffer unsalvageable damage.

Written in a sparse, minimalistic style, Mảnh vỡ của mảnh vỡ is quite fast-paced, dramatic and has a good dose of sex, suggesting commercial appeal for such a serious topic.

This energy isn’t lost on local critics.

In an essay written for Văn Nghệ (Literature and Art) magazine, literary critic Nguyễn Chí Hoan said that perhaps no novel after 1975 had ever told such a youthful post-war story as Mảnh vỡ của mảnh vỡ.

This novel is also reminiscent of some action-packed popular old Vietnamese war movies about Southern spies and rangers working undercover for North Vietnam such as Ván bài lật ngửa (An Upturned Game of Cards) and Biệt động Sài Gòn (Saigon Rangers).

Indeed, besides Kha, the other main characters in this multi-character novel are a group of young men, some of them Kha’s old college friends in Huế who, unlike him, fight for the communist cause and work for the rangers in Đà Nẵng during the war.

A large part of the novel is devoted to the stories of these valiant heroes – Quang, Phan and Long – and how they meet their lovers during the war and try to reunite with them, or fail to do so, after the war.

Each of the men have their own interesting stories which can be read as individual short stories, showing Quyen’s resourcefulness as a storyteller.

In fact, over the years, the writer has sometimes teased out these stories and published them independently.

One of the best stories is that of Phan and his lover, Lai. Lai is a prostitute. During the war, when Phan tries to flee from the Southern police after his unit is busted, Lai shelters and saves him. The two fall in love but part ways as Phan has to continue fighting in the jungles. Lai stays behind, gets pregnant but can’t keep the baby, quits her work and works for a hospital instead.

After the war Phan and Lai reunite and get married. However, the social stigma against prostitution causes too much trouble for Phan (though he doesn’t mind them) and guilt for Lai. She decides to leave Phan and go back to her home village in the southernmost region of the country. Phan searches hard for his wife and finds she has gone back to her old profession. The two make love and Lai leaves again. Phan runs after her while Suchia, a young, innocent local girl who happens to meet and help Phan during his trip and is now falling in love with him, runs after him.

This love story, especially its final chapter with Phan, Lai and Suchia, shows Quyền at his best. The writer is able to capture in an elegant, compact plot a seemingly inexhaustible topic: the impossible romantic love in which a man and a woman are thrown together and then torn apart through events they cannot control. The three characters are also neatly drawn. Lai is the quintessential prostitute with a tainted body but a heart of gold; Phan is a seasoned soldier, a man’s man; and Suchia is a pure, impressionable girl who is obviously still a virgin who can heal Phan in every way.

Interestingly, however, it is also here — and elsewhere throughout the novel — that Quyền’s work reaches its limit – a limit he doesn’t have to cross but can serve as a mirror for anyone interested. It is the limit of a novel written from a fine, subtle, maybe unconscious, but essentially vain and complacent male point of view. It is the limit of Quyền taking women simply as they are found in history or in reality, of not being aware of their deepest problems which have nothing to do with war but with eons-old gender inequality, and of not exhausting options to help them.

With some extra touch, some of Quyền’s seemingly hopeless “debris of debris” of war can perhaps be patched up together.


Cover of Mảnh vỡ của mảnh vỡ, which was published earlier this year by the Writers’ Association Publishing House. Vĩnh Quyền himself designed the covers for the three editions of his book. He said the foreign publishers opted for his designs rather than use the designs of their own artists, explaining they didn’t know enough about Vietnam to design the covers.

Take Lai’s problem, for instance. The unhappy ending to her love story is one that Quyền can’t blame on the war. Lai was already a prostitute before the war; she isn’t pushed into prostitution by the war in any obvious manner. So the social stigma against her that she deeply internalizes and prevents her from finding happiness has more to do with traditional patriarchal double standards that glue women to sexual purity on the one hand and allow men sexual freedom on the other, which Quyền does not explore.

In fact, the writer lets Lai flagellate herself with her guilt. Somehow, Quyền seems harder on Lai than his male character Phan. Phan doesn’t mind Lai being a prostitute and would never exchange her for anything. Yet Quyền, in a profound way, trades and negates Lai with the creation of Suchia, a woman who is everything she is not.

Is there anything in the internal logic of a good story that makes Suchia an absolute necessity? If not, there is no reason why when Phan and Lai break up he is offered such a good alternative so soon, so easily. He could have stayed single.

Quyền’s virile heroes are in general a lucky lot, especially Kha. Women fall for them easily and when one woman fails, there is surely another to fill her place. Through the novel, Kha has good sexual or sexually charged relationships with five women. Another interesting thing is that the women in the novel often offer to have sex with the men when they fear they will be killed in the war.

They say the same thing, “Love me,” to the men, but the men don’t crassly jump at the offer. One of them, Thăng, a documentary filmmaker who has a talent for distancing himself from life (a talent that truly befits filmmakers, artists, writers and abstract thinkers in general, who, thanks to historical patriarchy, are often men), even politely declines an offer. All of this sounds as if for women sex with men is life’s greatest gift and protection in the face of death.

In terms of storytelling, in Mảnh vỡ của mảnh vỡ, it is also men who narrate the stories. Even if some stories seem to be recounted by women (Vĩnh Quyền smartly adds two letters written by the female characters), women don’t offer any new voice but simply fill in some missing facts, repeat and reinforce men’s accounts, and, especially, reaffirm their undying love for men.

The presence of exclusive male voices is shown most clearly in chapters 15 and 16 in which Kha, now a publishing house editor and writer, intends to write a collection of short stories about women during wartime. What is both interesting and ironic here is that those stories about women are told to Kha by men, not by women themselves.

Kha lists five such stories. The obvious reason why there are no women to tell Kha stories is that they are either dead or missing or otherwise absent and thus unable to tell their stories. If so, then Kha, Vĩnh Quyền, or other male writers should let the matter rest or make it clear that they are telling men’s stories.

It is because wars in patriarchal societies, including the American War in Vietnam, are men’s wars. Women are most likely just dragged into them and there may be no unique voices from womankind regarding wars to take account of.

That said, when there is no pretension or confusion from male writers regarding this issue, then their works are a pleasure to read, even to their most hard-hearted, hard-headed feminist readers.

(This article was originally published on Thanh Nien News on Tuesday, May 24, 2016.)

Love and Romanticism to dictate star-studded ballet show in Hanoi

World-renowned pianist Henri Barda and the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra will also join the special event.

The sponsors and organizers of “Paris Ballet par VPBank” at a press conference at L’Espace on May 25, 2016. The show will be held on June 11 at the Vietnam National Convention Center in Hanoi. Photo: Thuy Linh.

Love and Romanticism in ballet are the special threads that will weave together the star-studded “Paris Ballet par VPBank” show to be held next month in Hanoi.

The event will take place on June 11 at the Vietnam National Convention Center. It is sponsored by the French Embassy and the French Institute (L’Espace) in Hanoi, organized by VPBank, and produced by media and event management company Opal Vietnam

“Paris Ballet par VPBank,” designed especially for Vietnamese audiences, will feature excerpts from nine ballets that best represent the classical Romanticist as well as Contemporary styles of French ballet, known for its elegance and refinement rather than its virtuosity.

Though ballet originated in the Italian courts during the Renaissance, it flourished and took its classical form in France, thanks to the efforts and talents of such men as King Louis the 14th and Molière.

Romantic ballet emphasizes intense emotion and often focuses on female dancers and features pointe work, flowing and precise movements while Contemporary ballet is much more open.

The nine ballets are Roland Petit’s Carmen, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, Adolphe Adam’s Giselle, Marius Petipa’s Don Quixote,  Jerome Robbins’ In the Night, José Martinez’s Children of Paradise, Ivan Favier’s No, I Don’t Regret Anything, Roland Petit’s Proust or the Heart’s Intermissions, and Angelin Preljocaj’s The Park.

The excerpts are selected to best showcase the love themes of the nine ballets as well as the most famous pas de deux (literally “step of two”), a dance duet characteristic of classical ballet in which two dancers, typically a male and a female, perform together.

The classical part of “Paris Ballet par VPBank” will be accompanied by live music performed by the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra, a rare thing since ballet shows in the world are generally just performed with recorded music, according to Frédéric Fontan, the show’s art director.

World-renowned French pianist Henri Barda will also take part, playing Chopin for In the Night.

The ballet will be performed by some first-rate stars from world-leading theaters such as the Paris Opera Ballet, the oldest national ballet company in the world, and the San Francisco Ballet.

The star dancers include Agnès Letestu, Mathilde Froustey, and Alice Renavand, whose mother is Vietnamese.


Agnès Letestu (L), one of the stars to perform at the event. Photo: Website of “Paris Ballet par VPBank”.

Eva Nguyễn Bình, director of L’Espace, said it was this idea of organizing a ballet show with a dancer of Vietnamese origin that first made her interested when Fontan proposed it to her over a year ago.

Eva said she thought it would be a tool to promote French culture in Vietnam, though she also loves ballet personally. So she contacted VPBank, which, for the past three years, has been establishing itself not just as a sponsor but an organizer of high-class concerts.

Trần Tuấn Việt, director of VPBank’s Marketing and Communications Center, said that by bringing top-notch, “authentic” world cultures (such as Richard Clayderman in 2014, Kenny G last year and this year “Paris Ballet”) to Vietnam to inspire people, VPBank hoped to be known as a cultural, responsible brand by the public.

Việt said VPBank had to actively seek out world artists because for various reasons, Vietnam was not their priority destination. Performance art here in particular is still a much empty field, he said.

For his part, Fontan, who has been creating “Paris Ballet par VPBank” as part of “Paris Dance Galaxy,” a global tour program that he and his company Alfalibra have been organizing, said he chose Hanoi as the first Asian destination of his upcoming tour. He was very attached to Hanoi and the partners here were very enthusiastic and determined to make the show happen, Fontan said.

His next destination will be Dubai next year and he is also considering Seoul.

Only 500 tickets out of the 3,000 seats available at the Vietnam National Convention Center, 57 Phạm Hùng Street, Từ Liêm District, will be sold to the public. The rest are reserved for organizers and sponsors.

More information can be found on the event’s website and the official fanpage.

(This article was originally published on Thanh Nien News on Thursday, May 26, 2016.)