Karma: Vietnamese Face of War
Alan Farrell, Virginia Military Institute
The Vietnamese are about due their chance to tell a war story. Us gringos have had it our way so far. We may have lost the war--and there are those who say that with more joy than I do--but by God we've the told the tale on our terms up till now. And I'm thinking we'd best be prepared to watch big, dumb, round-eyed, fumble-footed Yankees snarl and pummel and leer wickedly from out behind those sunglasses just the way American flicks have offered to audiences smirking, bandy-legged, off-the-shelf World War II vintage Asians (Played, one suspects darkly, by whoever shows up first on the lot: Chinese, Philippine, Japanese, Korean... What's the diff?) in the various Vietnam War sagas burned on celluloid so far. Seems only fair to allow the Vietnamese the privilege of iconizing racial type, objectifying women, dehumanizing brutality, simplifying complexity, and rewriting History; Western filmmakers have claimed these evidently unalienable perquisites of what they call "creativity" long enough.
It is surprising, then, to stumble across a film like Karma (1985, Ho Quang Minh)--and you wiiiiiiiiiiiiiill have to stumble to find the thing--in which a pretty watchable cast is set before a pretty plausible stage with a pretty catchy tale about human weakness and human obsession and human endurance and suffering and whether sex is love. Those of us who fought the Vietnamese should probably be less surprised than others to discover that when this dynamic and imaginative people turns its collective talent to filmmaking, the result is likely to transcend mere imitation and claim a place and a criticism of its own. The French were surprised to find--Franz Fanon has pointed this out unambiguously and with little ménagement of French sensibilities--that when the colonial peoples to whom that gracious nation had lent its idiom expropriated the French language for their own purposes, even the staid canons of French literature had to make room for a new--and rich--expression: la Francophonie.
Karma is a plain old vanilla good yarn, and far from new, though the reanimating of an old trope seems to me not the least of the beauties of this obscure little film. Binh, a Republican soldier in the South in 1972 has just been repatriated after a 2 year captivity during which his beautiful wife, Nga, has become a "joy girl," evidently with some relish if her facial contortions carry the same weight they would in Western culture. Unable to forgive or forget, he leaves the disconsolate and repentant young woman, wandering off--where else?--to join the
Luc Luong Dac Biet:: the Vietnamese Special Forces. Skip ahead in time. We see the completely altered Binh--originally handsome and well-kempt--now sporting a bushy head of hair, beard and mustache ("Relaxed grooming standards," we call that in our Special Forces) together with a much-changed identity: he is subjecting candidates for the LLDB to a harrowing initiation with live hand grenades. "There's no place for hope in the Special Forces," he announces with an oracular scowl. "When War accepts you, nothing else counts." Same thing my mom told me at the train station.
Follows an extreeeeeeeeeeeeeemely well-wrought combat reconnaissance mission in which terrific special effects and a virtually flawless attention to the detail of a small-unit recon operation combine to make up one of the most moving battle-sequences this viewer has seen in a long series of disappointing big-budget and purportedly "real" war flicks. The Vietnamese, if one dare generalize, dwell in a land scoured by light and have a particular gift for the play of light. I fear that a better informed critic might find what I think is called "composition" unsophisticated in several scenes, but this film, in black and white, makes the most extraordinary use of texture and shadow, especially in these scenes of jungle fighting. Somebody has been there, and that's no jive. In a bit of whimsy and by an irony not unknown to combat men who have used the computer-generated combat codes, the recon team initiates the ambush and reports its progress using the vocabulary of cinema as a cipher: "spectator," "screening," "film," "camera" for "enemy," "kill zone," "ambush," and "detonation." Anyhow. Binh reveals an indifference to death on this jungle mission, startling his former friend, Tri, who has joined the LLDB to restore him or perish with him. Vive la mort! Tri contrives a meeting with the again-relapsed Nga, but Binh stalks off, preferring the company--apparently in aloof chastity--of the bargirls of the dancing outside his base. Tri is persistent, however, and manages to plant a drunken Binh in Nga's bed one night. Alas, as Binh leaves the next morning, though, he drops a sheaf of bills on the night stand. He has not forgiven!
The next mission Binh pursues his fate with bitterness. He is wounded and horribly disfigured, his faced burned and scarred. In a final testament to his obstinacy and the depth of his mortal pain, Binh rejects Nga once more, consigning the young woman "back to your makeup"! Breaking a shard of glass from her compact, she slashes her face in a parting tribute to her irretrievably lost love and slinks off into loneliness, darkness, despair. The film closes with a parenthesis opened by an initial dream sequence in which Nga struggles up a long dune to confront a bandage-swaddled soldier we now know to be Binh. Tri, the silent witness to this sad affair accompanies home the spare wooden coffin with his friend's body in the final scene. Long suffering villagers, their time-and-weather-etched faces stoic and emotionless, freight the hero's corpse now across the endless river. Tri watches the grieving Nga, never more lovely--or more sterile--than with this livid scar slashed across her cheek. Did Tri have a life and love of his own? Only the elusive and hauntingly beautiful Hanh knows! "This circle of pleasure," she announces, waving a graceful hand at the joy girls about her in the dancing, "this is my Karma."
A moody, brilliant flick, and a coup d'essai as far as I can tell, but surely a coup de maître into the bargain.