"Making Real Movies": From Hollywood to Hanoi
Cynthia J. Fuchs, Film Studies Program, George Mason University
Imagine it. A movie about Vietnam that doesn't obsess over self-sacrificing grunts, green lieutenants, and the loss of US innocence. Thi Thanh Nga's From Hollywood to Hanoi offers a different view of the cultural and emotional fallout from what the Vietnamese call the American War. While it's being marketed with a conventional and virtually meaningless blurb from Oliver Stone ("A must see!"), this is a serious, intelligent, and intensely personal film about Nga's ongoing movement between the two disparate cultures of the title.
As shorthand terms, "Hollywood" and "Hanoi" refer to the political and ideological distances that Nga asks her audience (especially those who are used to Stone's version of "Vietnam") to bridge. But these terms also suggest a doubleness of identity, the persistent self-discovery and self-displacement depicted in Nga's literal journey from the US to Vietnam.
After she moved with her immediate family from Saigon to California in 1966, Nga assumed the name Tiana Alexandra. Her memory of this life-shift begins with a voice-over description of her "two identities," as a Vietnamese immigrant and as a properly assimilated American taught to hate "gooks." The movie opens with images from a biker movie starring "Tiana"; as it turns out, she became a black belt, chop-socky star of B movies and, banking on her status as Bruce Lee's only female student, the somewhat notorious perpetrator of "karate-size!" exercise videos.
The film begins again: from off camera, she asks a young student (with a yellow school bus behind her), "Do you feel American or Vietnamese?" That the question is put in such a way--either-or--is the problem of identity that Nga's film addresses. The choice is clearly an impossible one, compounded by the sexism, racism, and class anxieties which continue to shape both cultures. From Hollywood to Hanoi illustrates the effective insulation of US pop culture in the 1960s through Tiana's own fascination with The Wizard of Oz, JFK, baseball, and the deadpan racist dictates of Jack Webb. As a teenager, she was anxious to fit in. "I tried to be everyone," she says in voice-over, "from Judy Garland to Jane Fonda to Tina Turner." And yet, despite being "Americanized to the max," she was unable to "tune out the war" in the other world where her relatives still lived.
Linking her own experience to its intercultural context, Nga also combines rhetorical strategies with humor, passion, and wit. Comparing her work to, say, Rambo, Nga has said that she's "making real movies." And in part, From Hollywood to Hanoi (partially financed by Stone and Michael Moore [Roger & Me]) responds to the resounding lack of authentic, Vietnamese-produced representation in US media. But this "real movie" doesn't just present a single alternative view (the Vietnamese view?) and deem wrongs righted. It pushes harder than that, resists orderly resolutions, and demonstrates that the past is constantly being rewritten to serve present regimes. One interview with another California child emphasizes that what he knows about Vietnam is what he sees in mainstream movies: it's a place replete with violence and "bad things." But, Nga insists, this idea is not only produced by the movies.
We also see two interviews with General Westmoreland. The first is familiar, borrowed from Peter Davis' Oscar-winning Hearts and Minds (1975): Westy in a white suit, seated by a gently flowing stream. "The Oriental doesn't put the same value on life.... Life is cheap." Cut to Nga's own interview with the retired general, backstage at a Miss Saigon Benefit. He leans on a cane, his face leathery with age. When she asks why he would have said such a thing. "I did not say that," he says. So much for the difference between documentation and fiction.
And Nga doesn't shrink from looking at more "bad things." She also includes an interview with her father, who was in charge of the South Vietnamese foreign ministry's press relations and whose brother, still in Vietnam, was the South's Defense Minister. Nga's father condemns the legendary brutality of the Communists, longs for the resurrection of the South, and tells his daughter not to go back.
She does return, however, bringing with her a camera crew and gifts for aunts and uncles she hasn't seen for some twenty years. She starts in Ho Chi Minh City. "Everyone still calls Saigon Saigon," she reports in voice-over, a detail that only begins to hint at the ways that life in Vietnam is both unchanged and profoundly altered since the fall in 1975. She observes, without a trace of nostalgia, that "the city was jumping... [once more] the Paris of the Orient." Accompanying footage reveals busy streets renamed after North Vietnamese war heroes, signs of affluence and poverty, and scattered tourists. "The [US-imposed] twenty-year trade embargo," Nga says wryly, "didn't seem to be very effective."
While expressing anger at her adopted country's revenge strategies, Nga's irony also underlines mainstream US misperceptions of Vietnam as an ideologically backwards, woefully repentant, and wasted nation. Punctuated by the very emotional responses of Nga's relatives to her reappearance, her filmed visit shows us a Vietnam not typically visible to stateside audiences. The film offers an obvious but useful metaphor in a pair of Siamese twins in a hospital's Agent Orange Ward. The product of the war--and specifically from Cao Nguyen, a free fire zone--the twins appear to Nga to represent the ruinous division of the North and South, and her self-division between Vietnam and the US. Nga returns to the twins periodically, tracking their difficult separation surgery, suggesting, perhaps, that any similar self-separation would be as onerous for individuals living across two cultures.
If, as the Village Voice's Manohla Dargis points out, the film plays loose with chronology (for example, cutting from General Nguyen Ngoc Loan's execution of a prisoner in 1968 to a 1987 movie starring Nga and Rod Steiger to the 1975 fall of Saigon), it also never pretends to present an intact "history." Indeed, what the movie does particularly well is to call into question any single version of the war, to scramble the standard, linear narrative of its effects, to draw attention to its multiple meanings. It's a clever, affecting combination of social anecdote and analysis. For example, just after we see villagers fishing in bomb craters, the old "Rawhide" theme accompanies images of a dude ranch outside Hanoi, where Vietnamese tourists ride horses and camp out like cowboys, thus juxtaposing the consequences of very different US invasions (military and cultural).
"I am now in the center of reality," Nga says. "The history echoes." The camera pans ravaged rural landscapes, children playing as their elders work in rice paddies, traditional lives undeterred by the horrific "reality" Nga documents. The history echoes in the faces of Amerasian teenagers as they describe the racism and abuse they suffer, as well as in the faces of My Lai survivors. One recalls seeing a mother and child bayoneted. She explains that while she doesn't want to talk about the massacre, she feels she must "work to tell," to preserve it as a specific and unforgettable past. "They wanted to make Vietnam their colony," she says angrily and, then, with some lingering wonder at the experience: "I myself was given candy." When asked why she avoids looking directly at her questioner Nga, the woman says, "Because you are from America."
Repeatedly the filmmaker runs up against the confusing multiplicities of her own identity and heritage. And she makes sure that we run up against them as well, with grimly incongruous footage from the war: American GIs with Vietnamese prostitutes and then GIs on China Beach, expressing their distaste for Vietnamese women, because "they're gooks, y'know, slant-eyed. They're no good!" (And here we must again remember Tiana's happy karate-chopping.)
The film ends with three more brief, yet devastating interviews. First, she speaks with Le Duc Tho, who recalls turning down the Nobel Peace Prize for the negotiations he and Henry Kissinger wrought in Paris: he says carefully that it was unjustly "awarded to aggressors as well as victims." She also talks with General Giap (in measured, diplomatic French), and his wife. Mrs. Giap wants to "tell about the suffering, the pain for American and Vietnamese mothers," while her daughter stands behind her wearing a shirt that reads in bold bright, kids-shirt letters, "Rhinoceros."
The pain that is at once hidden and exposed by such cultural border-crossing (and the class distinctions it reveals) is only part of what this movie is about. It also traces a way toward healing and remembering. Nga asks her audience to make difficult connections and differentiations, without making them for us. This "real movie's" greatest strength is its faith in movement and transgression, its willingness to resist boundaries and conventions: if "the center of reality" remains elusive, From Hollywood to Hanoi makes its complexity is clear enough.