Đặng Nhật Minh: The ‘Voice Of 20th Century Vietnamese Cinema And Soul’ | Vietcetera
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Oct 23, 2023

Đặng Nhật Minh: The ‘Voice Of 20th Century Vietnamese Cinema And Soul’

To film critic Lê Hồng Lâm, if he had to pick a Vietnamese director who truly represents both the world of cinema and the spirit of Vietnam in the 20th century, it would be director Đặng Nhật Minh.
Đặng Nhật Minh: The ‘Voice Of 20th Century Vietnamese Cinema And Soul’

Director Đặng Nhật Minh | Source: Mạnh Khang for Vietcetera

If I were to pick a director to epitomize 20th-century Vietnamese cinema and the essence of the Vietnamese spirit, it would undoubtedly be Đặng Nhật Minh. And if asked to select a single film to showcase Vietnamese cinema on the global stage, my choice would be his “Bao Giờ Cho Đến Tháng Mười” (When the tenth month comes).

In honor of Đặng Nhật Minh’s retrospective titled “Bây Giờ Đã Đến Tháng Mười” (Now the tenth month comes), which features 9 films from his remarkable five-decade-long journey in cinema at DCine Bến Thành in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietcetera highlights four of his standout creations. To put it simply, these films are the director’s defining masterpieces.

Thị Xã Trong Tầm Tay (The Town Within Reach), 1983

This film marks Đặng Nhật Minh’s debut in feature filmmaking. As he described, it emerged from years of discontentment with translating Russian films and co-directing documentaries. He yearned for change—a change that was inspired by his introspection and the transformative societal landscape of post-war Vietnam.

A visit to Lạng Sơn, a town ravaged by the 1979 border conflict, served as the catalyst and muse for his first venture into screenwriting and direction.

This film not only indicated the beginning of his illustrious career but also cemented his position as one of Vietnam’s true cinematic auteurs. Đặng Nhật Minh has consistently showcased films that he penned himself, reflecting profound insights into human existence, societal contemplations, and a unique perspective that often leans toward introspection rather than mere propaganda.

A scene from “The Town Within Reach”

“The Town Within Reach” unfolds in Lạng Sơn, set against the backdrop of the post-1979 border conflict. It poignantly captures the innocent and romantic first love between Vũ (portrayed by Tất Bình) and Thanh (played by Quế Hằng) during their student days. Yet, because of Thanh’s politically sensitive past (her father escaped to the South), which threatened Vu’s emerging career, he felt compelled to leave her, hoping to shield his own future.

The film opens with Vũ, now a journalist, traveling by train to Lạng Sơn two years after the border skirmish. His mission is to document the devastation China wrought on this quaint town. As the train’s cacophony envelops him, memories of his pure, first love come flooding back.

The narrative masterfully weaves between past and present, echoing Vũ’s introspective journey and the moral dilemmas haunting him. More than being a direct reflection of the era, the film delves deep into the psyche of a young intellectual, even though the backdrop consistently portrays the scars of war on the small town. In essence, through Vũ’s lens, the director seeks to relay a resonant message from that post-conflict period: “Being a coward can be a transgression in itself.”

This storytelling approach was perhaps groundbreaking for its time. Đặng Nhật Minh, reflecting in his recent cinematic memoir, acknowledges this film as one of his most artistically rich creations.

Bao Giờ Cho Đến Tháng Mười (When The Tenth Month Comes), 1984

Just one year after his debut, “Thị Xã Trong Tầm Tay” clinched the Golden Lotus Award at the 6th Vietnam Film Festival in 1983, Đặng Nhật Minh received the same honor for his second film, “When The Tenth Month Comes,” at the subsequent festival in 1985.

This film not only garnered local acclaim but also became a timeless gem in Vietnamese cinema’s post-war period, capturing numerous international accolades. In 2008, it earned a spot on CNN’s list of the eighteen most outstanding Asian films, alongside seminal works from legendary filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa (Japan), Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige (China), Wong Kar-wai (Hong Kong), Bong Joon-ho (South Korea), and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand).

In “When the Tenth Month Comes,” Đặng Nhật Minh masterfully casts a spotlight on the easily overlooked and ordinary lives. The script is weaving a poignant tale rooted in real-life traumas, reflecting both his family’s pain (his father, Professor-Doctor Đặng Văn Ngữ, perished in the war) and the sorrow of millions of families who lost their loved ones, and hundreds of thousands of women left yearning for their husbands after the war.

Set against the backdrop of a rustic village with its tranquil river, expansive rice paddies, communal house, chèo stage (chiếu chèo), Thành Hoàng temple (miếu Thành Hoàng), and Northern Vietnam’s rich cultural ambiance, the film embarks on a journey of profound emotion.

Source: When the Tenth Month Comes (1984)

The film introduces us to Duyên (played by Lê Vân), traversing the village fields, lost in introspection. A close-up reveals her countenance, etched with sorrow and distant thoughts. After a somber visit to the Southwest border where her husband served, she returns home with the devastating news of his death in combat.

During a poignant moment on a boat, as she reflects upon her husband’s death notice, grief overpowers her, causing her to collapse into the river. In a desperate act, teacher Khang (Hữu Mười) leaps to her rescue. Back home, she conceals the grim truth from her family, especially her gravely ill father-in-law and her son, who anticipates his father’s return. Burying her pain, and perhaps clinging to a faint hope of a mistake, Duyên persuades Khang to impersonate her husband by penning letters to her family, especially for the ancestral commemoration day when the entire family gathers.

However, apart from Duyên, only Khang is privy to this heart-wrenching secret. Concerned for Duyên’s solitary struggle, Khang writes a letter suggesting that Duyên should reveal the truth to her in-laws. This letter accidentally lands in the hands of her sister-in-law, sparking suspicions of an illicit affair between Duyên and Khang while her husband is away at war.

Director Đặng Nhật Minh masterfully employs cinematic techniques to depict Duyên’s deep-seated anguish and her ironic predicament. When she returns home, Duyên is caught in an emotional tug-of-war: concealing her grief while feigning happiness for her frail father-in-law, naive son, and curious neighbors, as if she’s a wife elated from visiting her husband at the frontline.

Yet, in her solitude, Duyên wrestles with an overwhelming sorrow she cannot voice. The director artfully uses flashbacks, drawing the audience into a nostalgic journey that recaptures Duyên’s vibrant youth and her enchanting romance with her husband (portrayed by Đặng Lưu Việt Bảo), a young enthusiast who loved flying kites by the river.

Her radiant laughter by the river while playfully jesting with her spirited husband, juxtaposed with the heart-wrenching sorrow of a bereaved widow, powerfully resonates with the audience. These moments, conveyed through classic cinematic techniques, are emotionally stirring.

One of the most poignant scenes involves Duyên performing a traditional song on the village’s communal stage, depicting a wife bidding her husband farewell as he goes off to war, vowing to care for her elderly mother-in-law in his stead. With her heart heavy and weighed down by inexpressible pain, the wife’s emotional state in the song mirrors Duyên’s own. Unable to bear this torment any longer, Duyên abruptly leaves the stage mid-performance, rushing to the shrine of Thành Hoàng temple.

“When The Tenth Month Comes” is one of Vietnamese cinematic masterpieces.

Using a traditional “chèo” excerpt to encapsulate a character’s emotional journey is a technique of embedding a story within a story, a theatrical layer within a film. While this approach isn’t groundbreaking, it’s a testament to inventive scene-setting and profound character portrayal. At the climax, the character’s anguish in the “chèo” play seamlessly converges with the actress Duyên’s pain, evoking deep emotions in the audience.

It was only upon watching “Farewell My Concubine” (1994), directed by Chen Kaige, that I encountered a similarly intertwined narrative — in the poignant scene of a Peking opera of the same name, where Consort Yu (portrayed by Leslie Cheung) says her goodbyes to her husband, the warlord Xiang Yu (enacted by Zhang Fengyi). This masterpiece graced the screens almost a decade after “When The Tenth Month Comes.”

After the abruptly halted “chèo” sequence on the village’s communal grounds, Đặng Nhật Minh masterfully weaves in spiritual folklore through the depiction of the Yin and Yang market at the Thành Hoàng temple. This moment in the film is transformative, marking one of Vietnamese cinema’s most evocative portrayals of spiritual surrealism. It intensifies the philosophical and humanistic dimensions of “When The Tenth Month Comes.” This film navigated 13 censorship evaluations, primarily due to its perceived mystical undertones.

If there’s a Vietnamese film I’d champion to an international audience — one that is impeccable in narrative depth, artistic finesse, directorial vision, and nuanced performances; one that resonates with the very heart and soul of Vietnam — “When The Tenth Month Comes” stands out as an unparalleled choice.

Thương Nhớ Đồng Quê (Nostalgia for the Countryland), 1996

“Nostalgia for the Countryland” stands out as one of the two films by Đặng Nhật Minh that wasn’t scripted from his original concept. Instead, it’s an adaptation of a literary work. Although most of his creations stemmed from his scripts, this particular film, drawn from the eponymous short story by Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, still resonates with the hallmark style seen in his earlier successes such as “When The Tenth Month Comes” and “The Guava House.”

Đặng Nhật Minh’s signature touch is evident in his penchant for delving into the lives of ordinary individuals caught in societal or historical transitions. His films deeply immerse themselves in Vietnamese traditions, intricately weaving customary practices, beliefs, and everyday life into the narrative’s fabric.

His cinematic beauty is organic and poignant, portrayed with an objective lens, yet rich in detail, especially when capturing the rural landscapes of Northern Vietnam.

These unique attributes solidify Đặng Nhật Minh’s distinguished position in Vietnamese cinema, and “Nostalgia for the Countryland” only magnifies his distinctive directorial flair.

Poster of “Nostalgia for the Countryland”

While the narrative is primarily anchored in Nhâm’s perspective and introspection, Đặng Nhật Minh’s rendition diverges from Nguyễn Huy Thiệp’s original tale. Rather than concentrating on one protagonist, the film focuses on a trio of central figures, forming an intricate triangle of relationships and interactions. These are Nhâm, Ms. Ngữ, and Quyên. In Nhâm, we perceive the sensitivities of a young, introspective man. Through Ms. Ngữ, the depiction of a rural woman grappling with suppressed emotions unfolds. Quyên, with her sense of liberation and nostalgic memories of her childhood in the countryside, becomes a beacon for both Nhâm and Ms. Ngữ.

Beyond this core trio, even the secondary characters, occasionally portrayed through Nhâm’s narrative, vividly come to life. The depiction of the agrarian life—a continuous cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and migration—underscores the perpetual struggles they face. This reality is poignantly highlighted in a conversation between a teacher and Quyên during a boat journey.

“Nostalgia for the Countryland” is not just a portrayal of rural simplicity deeply rooted in Vietnamese ethos, but beneath its serene facade lies the harsh reality of farmers, both bound by traditions and the impending challenges of a rapidly changing economic landscape.

Mùa Ổi (The Guava House), 2000

Đặng Nhật Minh stands out as one of the few Vietnamese directors whose films consistently offer insights into contemporary issues, capturing the society he resides in through poignant cinematic tales. Rather than aiming for expansive narratives, he directs his lens towards the marginalized, those sidelined by society, and those robbed of their cherished childhood memories.

Inspired by events from his family’s history (specifically his wife’s side) and adapted from his own short story of the same name, it is a poignant allegory about the loss of memories. Upon the film’s release in France, a French newspaper likened its essence to “the flavor of a small guava, reminiscent of Proust.“

Actor Bùi Bài Bình (left) and Lan Hương (right) in a scene of “The Guava House“

The film revolves around Mr. Hòa (portrayed by Bùi Bài Bình), a middle-aged recluse devoid of family ties. Though in his forties, he’s mentally anchored to the memories of being a thirteen-year-old boy. A traumatic incident from his youth, where he fell from a guava tree in his family home, left his mind trapped at that tender age.

His sister Thủy (played by Lan Hương) remains his sole pillar of support, caring for him diligently. Mr. Hòa’s world also intertwines with a graceful woman from Hanoi, who now owns his childhood home, and a village girl in Hanoi working as a model for art students. Both women offer him a sense of empathy and understanding.

However, to many in his community, he’s merely dismissed as a simpleton. An unfortunate incident where Mr. Hòa trespassed into his childhood home resulted in him being institutionalized in a mental hospital. Upon his release, the distressing experience causes him to lose all his memories, even those of the young boy, despite his sister’s heartfelt attempts to jog his memory with the scent of ripe guavas.

Deeply rooted in the intricate complexities of memory and brought to life with its discerning portrayal of societal nuances, “The Guava House” emerges as a cinematic gem. Its evocative imagery and masterful storytelling effectively capture the soul of a person, a community, and a nation. The film’s resonance, capturing the heartstrings of marginalized figures, has undeniably contributed to its international acclaim. This masterpiece by Đặng Nhật Minh not only received widespread praise from global critics but also garnered accolades at revered film festivals like Locarno in Switzerland and secured a commercial release in France.

Source: The Guava House (2000)

In reviews from French film critics, I took particular note of the comments from two major newspapers. Studio magazine described “The Guava House” as “a poetic masterpiece. The pacing, visual beauty, and the understated performances of the actors harmonized perfectly.”

Meanwhile, Le Monde observed: “The Guava House presents a critical view of the societal shift from a subsidized era to a market-driven economy, where money reigns supreme. Throughout the film, the house undergoes several changes in ownership. Initially held by a Hanoi-based lawyer representing the city’s educated middle class, the property later fell under state control, acquired by a burgeoning market era, and finally, owned by an international joint venture. This allegory aptly portrays the turbulent shifts in a society increasingly consumed by materialistic pursuits. Mr. Hòa’s apparent madness speaks volumes, revealing more than one might initially think.”