Movies about Vietnam have been relatively plentiful here ever since America's war there ended in 1975, but the ones we're likely to encounter have almost all been made by people who are not Vietnamese. Outside the ethnic home video market, it's very rare for Americans to see a film produced in Vietnam, which is one reason why the Monday, January 27 screening of Tran Van Thuy's 1987 documentary Chuyen Tu Te is so extraordinary.
The other reason is that the film itself is so unclassifiable. Variously translated as "How to Behave," "Living as One Should," or "A Story of Dignity," Chuyen Tu Te is a filmed moral lesson, told almost entirely in voice-over, about "how to live kindly as human beings," which the filmmaker assures us is more important for kids to learn than "to be men of power, talent, and genius." The Hanoi-based Tran was inspired to make the doc when his cameraman, Dong Xuan Thuyet, began reflecting on the subject of human mercy while dying of cancer. To American eyes, the film is an odd combination of public service announcement and ethnographic essay about everyday life in Vietnam, but Peter Zinoman, associate professor of history and chair of Southeast Asia Studies at UC Berkeley, views it as much more.
"The film is the quintessential statement of Vietnamese perestroika," claims Zinoman, who lived in that country for several years. Political and cultural freedom was in the air at the time it was made, and writer-director Tran caught the wave. Chuyen Tu Te went from being a clandestine departure from Communist Party propaganda to a nationwide popular hit. The Vietnamese people were ready for a personal, humanistic vision. "In an open society we can't imagine the effect of seeing this dissonant voice," Zinoman says. "People were impressed by it, and it remains unrivaled as a statement of that openness. ... The Communist Party allowed openness to flower, then clamped down, just as people discovered consumerism."
Today, filmmaker Tran is not the celebrity he used to be in his country, but his relationships with the BBC and American university think tanks has given him an international forum -- as well as an excuse to appear in person at Monday night's showing of his best-known film (6:30 p.m. at UCB's Valley Life Sciences Building, Room 2040). The university has presented Vietnamese writers and filmmakers before -- sometimes facing protests from anticommunist immigrants -- but Zinoman believes the mood this time will be in keeping with the film's peaceful tone. If there is sufficient interest, he would like to bring more Vietnamese films for public screenings.
Naz will rise again: In Fremont, Naz 8 Cinemas owner Shiraz Jivani is keeping the theater's Gateway Plaza movie house open after shutting down his Fremont Hub location earlier this month. "Piracy is the big enemy, " says Jivani, citing figures that the home video piracy rate for Hollywood is 16 percent, compared to 94 percent for the Naz 8's staple Bollywood (Bombay) movies. "The FBI cannot do anything about it. We can't seem to unlock the door on this problem." Meanwhile Jivani is branching out by opening Filipino films in addition to the usual Bollywood hits.
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