Sunday, January 14, 2007

Hanoi Cinematheque

I was starting to get withdrawal symptoms - the last movie I had seen in a real movie theatre was Borat way back in Darwin. While there are cinemas in most towns of any size here (although their numbers have been knocked back dramatically by easy access to DVDs (Da Nang has gone from something like 9 cinemas to 2)), they naturally play movies without any English sub-titles, or dub English films into the local language. I did think that seeing one might be an interesting cultural experience, as apparently they're dubbed really badly (there are rumours of a single person simply reading from a prepared script for all voices), but the movies on show aren't ones I'd want to see even in English.

Of course, travelling by myself through places with limited nightlife and having little interest in extended periods in bars, I have seen quite a few movies on TV (even the cheapest of hotels has cable TV here). In among the various family and criminal dramas, I have seen two films which really impressed me, both French as it happens. I have also found that I have retained enough French to actually follow French subtitles, although they tend to speak too fast for me to keep up with speech (don't ask why a French movie has French sub-titles!). This, and listening in to conversations in cafes in Vietnam and eating French food has aroused a great desire to see France again, and soon.

Anyway, the two movies are Gigi and Capone. Gigi is a recently made movie of Colette's novel of the same name: she seems to be a French Jane Austen. Gigi's grandmother and aunt see her as the answer to the family's poor fortunes and have big plans to marry her off (thinking that if she can first have a disastrous affair with a young fop who claims to have fallen madly in love with her, that will soften her up). Her mum doesn't have much to say about any of this, but Gigi herself is totally opposed: she wants to marry for love. It just so happens that she has fallen for a childhood friend, who is much wealthier than any man the aunt might secure - so much so that the family think he is way beyond Gigi. There is a great scene towards the end, when he makes an offer to Gigi - basically to be a kept woman, without any mention of the feelings we know he has for her or, of course, of marriage. Her answer "on those terms, I must refuse you". That's not quite the end of the story.

The other, Capone is a mad road movie. I missed the very beginning, but my understanding is that Reno is a bit of a crook, and has some significant debts because he's not a very good crook. He sees this horse, Capone, and thinks it will be the answer to his problems if he races him - ripping off its owners in the process. Now his immediate problem is that he has a horse in a horsefloat in France, but has no vehicle and no money: the race (the "midnight sun" race) is in Lapland, to the north of Finland. So - he calls a cab! Alex is his driver - he takes some persuading (the promise of a large sum of money), but he does it. They're quite different people - Alex is responsible, clean and organised (Reno is not), so theirs is a relationship which takes a while to kindle. Of course, to add interest, the owners of the horse are on their trail, and they keep encountering a gypsey horse owner, who wants to buy Capone. But the fantastic thing about the movie for me was the journey itself.

Anyway, as I was travelling, I started to hear of the possibility of a cinema in Hanoi, which not only showed English films, but the more pretentious arthouse movies that I like to watch. My informant was very vague on details but, wandering around Hanoi, with an address gleaned from the net, I stumbled upon it, the Hanoi Cinematheque - it is part of an arts precinct funded by the Vietnamese Government, which includes a hotel (des artistes), several art galleries, a bar all set around a wonderful little courtyard where you can get away from the noise of Hanoi.

Sure enough, they had an interesting programe of films, which changed every day. You pay a $10 membership, and can then watch as many movies as you want (although a koha is appreciated). I was only able to watch three movies - the first two were classics of the black and white era. Big Heat was directed by Fritz Lang (of Metropolis fame) : Sergeant Bannion is suspicious as to why one of his colleagues committed suicide and starts to investigate: pressures on him to stop start immediately. Of course, the entire police department and the political structure turn out to be corrupt, so the forces against him are immense, but he struggles on. Lee Marvin performed his first role here, as crime gang tough guy Vince Stone: it is only when he throws coffee into his girlfriend's face that Bannion finally gets the critical support he needs to unravel the whole corrupt structure (as we know he must). The other, Night of the Hunter, I had seen before, but it was great to see it again. Robert Mitchum was such a creepy presence in this movie - playing the sanctimonious "preacher" Harry Powell (the reality, as we see in the opening scenes, is that he has tricked 6, maybe 12 (actually 25) widows out of their money, and is on the trail of another. He knows that his cellmate Ben Harper stole $10,000 which was not found before Harper was hanged. Of course, Wilma is encahnted by Powell, but Harper knew she had no commonsense, so never told her of the money: he did tell his kids, Pearl and John. Mitchum's performance is the outstanding feature in this movie: particularly the way he would switch from a charming man of god to threatening predator in an instant. When the kids run away and he is forced to chase after them, he seems to really think he has divine right on his side. The way he would just sit outside their hideaway and sing (Leaning, leaning on the arms of the almighty) made me so angry I wanted to shoot him! At the same time, the movie provided an intersting perspective on the book I was reading at the time: Faulkner's Light in August which is set nearby and at a simlar time, with its own cadre of scarey mad people.

The third movie was a Vietnamese movie, Living in Fear. The guy at the cinema explained it to me as being set just after the end of the war, when the main character Tai started clearing landmines, so that he could sell the metal pieces and farm the land cleared in order to support himself. Poverty was (is) of course such a motivating factor that this is what a lot of people were doing, with huge risks of being blown up or maimed in the process, so it didn't sound like a very cheerful movie, but my informant assured me it was.

It turned out the landmine clearing was just one thread of the movie. Another looked at the transience and accomodations forced by the war. Tai lived in the district pretty close to the front line of the war: instead of supporting the North Vietnamese or the revolutionaries in the south, he supported the South Vietnames/American interests. Living across the front line, despite having a wife and kids back in the north, he marries and has kids (natural, I guess, if you have no real expectation of surviving the war). This gets his brother-in-law (brother of his first wife, who has joined the southern revolutionists) really annoyed: he is a traitor to family and to country. After the war is over, Tai renews links with his first family while retaining links with his new family.

Here is where the really cool stuff about the movie comes in: both wives come to know about the other, and eventually accept each other's presence in Tai's life (he is forced for economic reasons to live in the south): they even look after each other's kids from time to time. Tai continues relations with both wives: in an obviously symbolic move, they both fall pregnant and end up giving birth virtually simultaneously, in adjoining beds. Meanwhile, he has also been working steadfastly at mine clearing (he is no longer selling the mines, just clearing) and by movie's end, has rather a large plot of land under cultivation and, because the work is so dangerous, gains the grudging respect of the brother-in-law who confesses "I could never do that" (and tries to get Tai's help to fix him up with the rather attractive female boss ofthis southern district).

I don't know how far this movie will be distributed (I know it showed at some film festivals, and in the Vietnamese film industry was won prizes for best film, best actor and the like) but hope it does come to the attention of a big audience: it is a real eye-opener about the day to day problems caused by landmines, a message which is not diluted at all by the other aspects of the movie.

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