Saturday, June 19, 2010

Vietnam as a signifier in American Film

Vietnam as a Signifier in American Culture
American Films versus Vietnamese Films

Kilgore: Smell that? You smell that?
Lance: What?
Kilgore: Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that.
Kilgore: I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like
[sniffing, pondering]
Kilgore: victory. Someday this war's gonna end...
[suddenly walks off
How does Vietnam factor?  Vietnam has sort of a dual face in America.  It is the same type of perception like that of Japan during the 1980s and 90s before the economic stagnation forced Japan to pull back all of its real estate and business dealings world wide.  Today, there is somewhat of an attempt at a sort of reevaluation of the perceptions.  For a more extensive list of films about Vietnam and the Vietnam War, go here.  

The key thing is that America views Vietnam through the prism of the war first.  When you ask any American about Vietnam, the first things that will come up is the Vietnam War.  The war also dominates the subject matter of films about Vietnam.  Most American films focus on the war.  Apocalypse Now perhaps succinctly defines the nature of Vietnam for America.  Vietnam is the Heart of Darkness for America.  Chinua Achebe famously critiqued Joseph Conrad's novel in his essay, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'The Heart of Darkness'"in the Massachussets Review in 1977.  In watching Coppola's film, one can clearly see the complex views of Asia at the time.  The slaughter scene of the cow was filmed in the Philippines by the way, not Vietnam.

One of the things that seems to be particularly of note is that these films tend to be very critical of America and critical of our own sensibilities.  In 1985, a film called Alamo Bay was released, and it was very controversial at the time.  It focused on recent immigration of Vietnamese fishermen into Texas.  FYI, there is also a huge population of Vietnamese in Louisiana as well.  For a more detailed history of the background for the film, go here.

Increasingly, the more popular films tend to focus on the lack of respect that the Vietnam Vet received.  This extends from Rambo, The 4th of July, and other films.  In some cases, there have been more objective depictions of the war.  We Were Soldiers appears to be more balanced in terms of discussing the tactical aspects of the war.

Vietnamese films focus on other things.  The Scent of Green Papaya is particularly different.  

Shoot, they even have gangster films.  Basically, you don't really see an obsession with the war in the Vietnamese film industry.

With Amazon, you even have a category that says, "Must See Vietnam War Movies."  Ultimately, for most Americans, they see Vietnam with this mirror.  The only other way that they perceive Vietnam might be through the cuisine.  Lately, the fusion of Asian cuisine with Western cuisine seems very popular.  Let's not get into other forms of confusion between the differences between Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Burmese, Malay, Hmong among others.  Most Americans perceive things in simplified terms.  Some can't tell if the person is Korean, Japanese or Chinese.

This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of this trip.  We must move beyond the image of the Vietnam War, bar girls, and soup stalls.