Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 13, March 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Florence Martin

 

Passage to 'Franco-Asia':

_East-West Encounters_ by Sylvie Blum-Reid

 

 

Sylvie Blum-Reid

_East-West Encounters: Franco-Asian Cinema and Literature_

London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2003

ISBN 1-903364-67-1

179 pp.

 

Sylvie Blum-Reid's _East-West Encounters: Franco-Asian Cinema and Literature_ presents an original framework and goal: to instigate, in the space of seven chapters, a dialogue between the cinema and recent fiction of 'Franco-Asian' directors and novelists. It also aims at positioning France, as the former colonizer turned audience, not in binary terms (e.g. colonizer/colonized; us/them; masculine/feminine other) but, rather, in terms of constant questioning. Blum-Reid states that she uses postcolonial studies, feminism, cinema studies, and literary criticism to decode this dialogue, and posits herself as a quintessential outsider. Her journey starts with a 'return' to Indochina -- examining the French gaze on Asia via some of its cinematic production (with a quick review of the Albert Kahn project of the 1930s, a discussion of 1970s' _Emmanuelle_ preceding a focus on 1990s blockbusters _Indochine_ and _L'Amant_). Then the book moves on to the study of older generation 'Franco-Asian' filmmaker Lam Lê's _Meeting of Clouds and Dragons_ (1979) and _Dust of Empire_ (1983), followed by the study of younger generation 'Franco-Asian' filmmaker Tran Anh Hung's shorts _The Married Woman of Nam Xuong_ (1987) and _The Stone of Waiting_ (1991), as well as his full-length features _Scent of Green Papaya_ (1993) _Cyclo_ (1995), and _The Vertical Ray of the Sun_ (aka _At the Height of Summer_, 2000). The two subsequent chapters are devoted to: a, the description of documentary approaches to Vietnam (Louis Malle, Paul Carpita, and a _Double Je_ program on French TV), linked to contemporary Vietnamese dissident texts such as those by Duong Thu Huong; and b, Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Pan who lives in exile in Paris. The last and concluding chapter revisits some of the arguments previously made in this study on the role of the 'Franco-Asian' filmmaker as translator (from one language/culture/religion to another), through a parallel established with contemporary authors Linda Lê, Kim Lefèbvre, as well as a brief evocation of Michel Ragon's novel _My sister with Asian Eyes_. This last phase of the study seems to establish the impossibility of translation, reaffirm the unstable position of the cultural hybrid, and equate the French term *passeur* with 'foreigner'.

 

 

The Impossible Return (Part I)

 

This book paints a picture of Franco-Vietnamese cinema in broad brush strokes, calling into question the very notion of 'site'. Where or what is 'Indonesia'? What does one call this artificial territorial construct made of the three ky (or provinces) of Vietnam (Bac Ky, or Tonkin; Trung Ky, or Annam; Nam Ky, or Cochinchine), Cambodia, and Laos? In this book, the short-hand term 'Asia' conjures up the exotic nature of the Far East in the French gaze. It is first seen through the lens of Albert Kahn's camera operators who travel to better 'return' to the motherland with their fantasized renditions of Indochina and its petite (female) disrobing inhabitants; later it appears through the icon of Emmanuelle's sexual initiation, the Thai rattan armchair; then, in the nostalgic Durasian shots of the Mekong river to be crossed with the Chinese lover in _L’Amant_; or in the rice-paddies under the colonial rule of Deneuve in _Indochine_. Locating the French cinematic gaze in 'Asia' is risky: it means always/already drifting into a land of various colonial and sexual fantasies, the borders of which keep shifting like quicksand. Blum-Reid's short-hand term ends up being problematic: 'Asia' is vast. It has always been diverse, whether in colonial time or in the time of independence.

 

In postcolonial times, then, (how) does a French audience look back on it? Blum-Reid shows how the French authorities have hushed the history of the Indochinese forced labor camps of 1939 to 1950; how the French audience conforms to Rousso's pattern of oblivion and late recall. Suddenly, the previous site of French longing no longer existed. Mired in a war against the USA, it had become estranged, irrelevant. Yet, I want to differ here: Vietnam was urgently present to some people. In 1967, for instance, the New Wave gang, led by Chris Marker, produced a polyphonic documentary, _Far from Vietnam_, in which they denounced the war waged by the 'wealthy' United States against the 'poor' Vietnamese, whose moral courage they extol. Blum-Reid, whose aim is not to be exhaustive on the topic, does not mention these images of Lelouch, Godard, Klein, Varda -- although she looks at the work of Schoendorffer, Paul Carpita, and Robert Kramer. In all these instances, the picture of the land formerly known as Indochina is fragmentary, like a broken jigsaw puzzle no longer fitting. The disparate reconstructions attempted by various filmmakers of the 60s and 70s only serve to illustrate a salient point: that of the impossible return.

 

Vietnam was framed. The frame, as seen by Deleuze, is a constraint: its limits affect both the gaze at the filmed object and the gaze of the filmmaker. Hence, when Vietnamese filmmakers start making films in or about their previous homeland, the issue of 'framing' Vietnam in France (or even Vietnam in Vietnam) becomes crucial. For the first 'Franco-Asian' filmmaker, Lam Lê, the significant element is a framed layered narrative, as we see in _Meeting of Cloud and Dragons_ (1979) and _Dust of Empire_ (1983). Both seem to have a complex structure and rely on a heavy Vietnamese referential system that might obscure their meanings to the non-initiated (i.e. the French filmgoer who is not versed in old Vietnamese legends and folklore, and who therefore cannot see outside the frame). And, even if his second film was shot in Vietnam, it was still 'framed' in France. Tran Anh Hung is acutely aware of how the frame inflects his images. His films are intimate, and he tries to compensate for the lack of Vietnamese surroundings and culture by using evocative music and colors. His journey back to Vietnam is one of a cultural interpreter accumulating materials to bring back to the other land.

 

What is there to bring back, then, from the land where dissident voices are not published, where opponents to the regime are framed in their houses? Blum-Reid quotes Thu Huong Duong (from _Terre des Éphémères_, 1994):

 

'Vietnam is a francophone country, not only in the number of people who speak French, but because of the values inherited by the French revolution and the taste for French literature, assimilated perhaps by mental structures that infiltrate themselves in its culture, through the rationalizing process of its language by writers and intellectuals seeped in French culture.' (103)

 

Blum-Reid does not comment substantially on this assertion. Could the identity of the imprisoned dissident find itself fantasized in her own imagining of a return of the repressed (formerly oppressive) culture? Would we then be facing a similar move from both sides of the coin: the French suddenly returning to their buried memory of Vietnam, and the Vietnamese, thousands of miles away, performing a symmetrical return toward their memory of the French? Or is it, as Blum-Reid claims, another one of these 'untold resistance stories' (93) using French to reach an audience that is forbidden to her in her own language?

 

 

The Impossible Return (Part II)

 

Blum-Reid devotes a chapter to Rithy Pan, a Cambodian filmmaker exiled in France who made _Rice People_ (1993) and _Land of the Wandering Souls_ (1999), among other films. Throughout the chapter the initial site of 'Asia' becomes more complex for two reasons: 1, _Rice People_ is the screen adaptation of a Malaysian novel steeped in Muslim faith, then translated in terms of Vietnamese Buddhism; and 2, Blum-Reid invokes Pan's current project, a documentary looking at Cambodian and Vietnamese communities in France, their conflicts and their possible modes of conflict resolution. Hence there is a look at the East in the West, through the lens of a displaced agent from the East. In this story of exilic filmmaking on two 'Asian' diasporic communities, what meaning(s) does the term 'return' gather?

 

Perhaps the whole study is about the impossible return of meaning for both the West and the displaced East about 'Asia'. In that case, the last chapter about the role of the 'Franco-Asian' filmmaker (another floating signifier) as *passeur* is moot. Blum-Reid denounces an inherent failure to the cultural translation project by illustrating a basic incommunicability due to language and lack of dialogues. And even if she briefly mentions jazz with 'Asian' roots (140), she does not linger on its possibilities of improvisations, and cross-cultural fertilizations. In the film analyses there is no word on the visual aesthetics or narrative structures at play in each film (apart from allusions to poetry recitation and Lam Lê's complex narrative architectonics). In the end, it is not just the meaning of return that vanishes, but the meaning of the very concepts used to ground this study. This book starts off beautifully: its first chapter is a jewel; but then the succeeding chapters read a little more like doctoral thesis chapters that have lost some of the initial élan and quest for meaning.

 

Goucher College

Baltimore, Maryland, USA

 

 

Filmography

 

Jean-Jacques Annaud, _L'Amant_ (1992)

 

Paul Carpita, _Le Rendez-vous des quais_ (The meeting on the quay, 1955)

 

Raoul Coutard, _Hoa-Binh_ (1970)

 

Dzu le lieu, _Les Hommes des trois ky_ (The men of the three ky, 1996)

 

Just Jaekin, _Emmanuelle: The Joys of a Woman_ (1974)

 

Robert Kramer, _Starting Place_ (1993)

 

Lam Lê, _Meeting of Cloud and Dragons_ (1979)

--- _Dust of Empire_ (1983)

 

Louis Malle, _Calcutta_ (1969)

--- _Phantom India_ (1969)

--- _And the Pursuit of Happiness_ (1986)

--- _Alamo Bay_ (1985)

 

Chris Marker and Co. _Far from Vietnam_ (1967)

 

Rithy Pan, _Rice People_ (1993)

--- _Land of the Wandering Souls_ (1999).

 

Pierre Schoendorffer, _The 317th Platoon_ (1965)

--- _Diên Biên Phû_ (1992)

 

Tran Anh Hung, _The Married Woman of Nam Xuong_ (1987)

--- _The Stone of Waiting_ (1991)

--- _Scent of Green Papaya_ (1993)

--- _Cyclo_ (1995)

--- _The Vertical Ray of the Sun_/_At the Height of Summer_ (2000)

 

Régis Warnier, _Indochine_ (1992)

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2005

 

Florence Martin, 'Passage to 'Franco-Asia': _East-West Encounters_ by Sylvie Blum-Reid', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 13, March 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n13martin>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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