Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Introduction to Indochinema: Dust of Empire

 Another revised translation from Cinema in Transit. 

Dust of Empire (Lam-Le)

Lam-Le does more than pulling off his first feature; he is planting the seeds of his personal cosmogony. Confusion is only on the surface.

Say there’s a footbridge [passerelle]. The kind with room only for one person at a time. In the middle, reckless and clever, there’s a man – alone of course. It’s Lam-Le, who was born in Haiphong thirty-six years ago. He is really “in the middle”. He has lived eighteen years in Vietnam and eighteen years in France. Then he made Dust of Empire. A passeur between two worlds (but he’s the one who built the footbridge), magnetised by two cultures (but without losing the North), a fragile ambassador between Paris and Hanoi (but working independently), he has made a film where, logically, everything is doubled, starting with the title. Dust of Empire or Hon Vong Phu (the Vietnamese title) is one of the most ambitious and original films to be seen for a long time. 

There are many ways of approaching the story. With the poster? Try and see. An overturned colonial helmet, red graphics for the title and the names of two outstanding and well-known actors: Dominique Sanda and Jean-Francois Stevenin. She’s a (nameless) missionary and he’s a sergeant in the French army (his name’s Tamisier, but he calls himself Tam-Tam). You’re right in the middle of “Indochina War” (water, rice fields, sweat, military kit) and you watch the jeering NCO and the lofty nun carefully compose their characters, somewhere between Hergé and televised Noh theatre. They gesticulate and strike attitudes, they quote. They quote the films of John Ford (7 Women) or John Huston (Heaven Knows, Mr Allison). The white cinema of fine colonial souls, with soldiers soft-hearted beneath surly ways and nuns who are still women beneath their stiff looks.

That said, their “action” is modest: showing the Vietnamese villagers a little Pathé-Baby film on the life of Christ, cobbling together a screening, preaching. They are theatrical about their film show, they’re no great shakes and they make a mess of it into the bargain. Outside, the rain turns to a downpour, the screening is cut short (they don’t even get to the Wedding at Cana), dark water rises in the cabin where they’re staying, the enemy prowls around, the nun is on edge and when they go on their way the next morning, all covered in mud, they are unceremoniously mowed down by Vietcong machine guns. The film goes on without them and, as a disconcerted spectator, you can’t help wondering. What, the stars are dead already? Is this a different film starting now? Have you been had?

You then remember that, parallel to this story, there’s another narrative thread, tenuous but this time unbroken. In the village, a wounded guerrilla (played by Lam-Le) was entrusting a message-poem to a dumb child. He wants to let his wife know that he isn’t dead. The guerrilla’s wife is a servant with the French in Saigon. The guerrilla sticks the message on the child’s kite. The child meets the nun-Tam-Tam couple, smiles at them, takes them to the cabin, then disappears, forgetting his kite. When the water rises, someone deciphers the rain-washed message, but it’s too late.

It’s then you suspect that the real “hero” of Dust of Empire is the four lines of poetry and their transmission, and you’re right. As a result, when you think about the long Sanda-Stevenin episode you perceive one of the most hazardous things that a director can come up with: a shortcut which goes astray, a blind alley which leads back to square one. But this doesn’t mean that the episode is without meaning. For one thing it is filmed in a certain way and the rest of the film in a different way. As if the film-maker had two styles.

When he talks about it, Lam-Le is very specific. As a director, he is very much – almost too much – at ease with this dramatic scenario. But as someone who was once a Vietnamese child, he hasn’t forgotten the impression white adults made on him, their heavy-footed and alarming way of occupying space, of jostling everything, of detaching syllables (to preach) or gobbling them up (to insult). His is the memory of the colonised. Perhaps he wanted his film to “go through this”, as a kind of exorcism, halfway between affectionate homage and spiteful parody. Perhaps he wanted to show where his liking for the cinema came from: from the colonists and their pious images.

And so the film begins all over again. We encounter the guerrilla in prison. There’s an escape from the adjoining cell. He entrusts his message (the same four lines) to an escaping prisoner. Night, topless bodies, flight, accomplices, a house. And in the house a leprous old woman and a little boy, Phong (the wind). The message is passed in whispers. The child learns it by heart then writes it in a piece of paper, next to a yellowing drawing. The nuns – them again – send the old woman back to the leper colony and the child to Saigon.

And at this point the film takes off into the ether. Phong – the wind-child, grave-faced, with his baggy shorts and his satchel tucked jauntily under his arm, crossing Saigon in search of the “Villa des Roses” where the guerrilla’s wife works. He finds her. The wife looks after the children of a French couple who are going back home. She goes with them, heavy-hearted. On the quayside, Phong gets the message to a smilingly beautiful singer (Myriam Mezières, in yet another fine performance) who is signing autographs before embarkation. From then on, the piece of paper travels incognito, enters into the French children’s games (the little girl makes a fan out of it), following them to Marseille, then to Paris where, for more than twenty years it’s used to wedge the buttons on a radio set. Is it lost?

At this point in the film you fear for the piece of paper. It’s to be expected: you’ve entered into the logic of the melodrama and you will be very moved. One day the old wireless set has broken down altogether. Time has gone by, even in Vietnam where the “American war” has just ended, and the little girl has grown up. She falls upon the folded paper and everything comes back to her. The guerrilla’s wife is now an elderly, stooped woman. At the Mutualité for the Tết celebrations, she cries as she receives this message which has reached her so late. It’s her daughter who will bring things full circle and take a plane to Vietnam, landing there today. A dilapidated airport reeking of the Third World and littered with plane corpses. The guerrilla’s daughter rides through the Vietnamese countryside on a bike. Time stopped, accelerated, plainly dreamed. Sublime.

Everything is doubled in this film. The four lines of poetry and the piece of paper aren’t the only “heroes” of this “second” part. The fourth line refers to a “waiting stone*”. the film’s title is Hon Vong Phu. This means precisely “waiting stone” and it’s the ultimate symbol of the film, derived from a legend of a woman who, having to wait for the man she loves, takes on the form of a great grey stone sunk into the ground, such as the ones found in Vietnam. In the crevices people leave messages: signs of life or proofs of love. Vietnam = patience. The guerrilla’s daughter finds the stone mentioned in the poem and embraces it in tears. A bright-eyed young girl born with the new Vietnam comes and speaks to her. “Are you the one who has come from France?”, “Do you know the story of the stone?”

It’s then that you remember. The real beginning of Dust of Empire was neither the story of the cinephile nun and the sergeant Tam-Tam, nor was it even the bleeding guerrilla writing on a kite; it was – quite simply – the credits! The ideogram “sky” exploding in the darkness of the world’s creation with a meteorite plunging fast towards the earth and towards this part of the earth called Vietnam. Lam-Le doesn’t begin his film “somewhere”, but nowhere, with his own cosmogony. And to end it, above the woman standing near the stone, a star speeds through the sky and closes the film. The stone from the beginning, but seen from below.

Nor is it over yet. This stone is really precious and here is why. Simultaneously a narrative thread, a container for the message, and a proof of Lam-Le’s existence as a director and as a Vietnamese. It bears proud and modest witness to he who wishes to “leave something” behind him. It’s a good symbol, this fat pebble. For this stone isn’t a real stone found and filmed by Lam-Le in Vietnam, it’s a polystyrene sculpture, designed and constructed in France and taken to Vietnam. A part of the set, that’s all.

Afterwards (Lam-Le narrates with delight) the stone stayed on – half as an oddity, half as a souvenir of the filming –, like the wreckage from the first “French” film shot (partly) in Vietnam, the sign of an alliance, a crumb of bread on the fragile footbridge of the “friendship between peoples”. A fake that has become real. Hollow, it has assumed weight. Not the least touching thing is the thought of Lam depicted as some kind of Little Poucet leaving a real film here and a fake stone there, restoring something sacred to Vietnam. Not a film (he settled accounts with sacred cinephilia with his Pathè-Baby movie-patronage episode), but a “waiting stone” fallen off a film cargo.

If I had time I would now begin to tell you what kind of artist I think Lam-Le is. I say “artist” advisedly because he has already done painting, acting and drawing (he has even designed story boards for other people’s film); an exceptionally talented artist of our time. That is to say aware of the powers of the false and the truth of the sham. That’s another reason to make Dust of Empire a landmark. A political reason, no less.

For what have we seen of the North-South dialogue in the cinema department? The South reduced to walk-on parts or silence, while the North took the principal roles (nun and soldier for example) and had plenty to say. The South reduced to its folklore difference which was then recreated in the studios of the North (Hollywood). The guilt-ridden North going to the South to extract “real images” which will be thrust upon the noble souls of the North (Malle filming Calcutta, for example). The South filming like the North, with State sponsoring.

Lam-Le is different. He doesn’t “extract” images-as-evidence, he “adds on” objects-as-signs. Extracting something original still comes down to removing. Adding on a copy is still enrichment.

* "Pierre d’attente" in French is a technical term in theatre and construction [toothing stone] broadly meaning a harbinger.

 First published in Libération on 7 October 1983 as "Introduction to Indochinema". Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.

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