The Sounds of Cannons, Familiar Like Sad Refrains is a two-channel film by Tuan Andrew Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American contemporary artist whose works speak to pressing issues in society and humans’ role living in it. They offer a gateway outside of our own life stories and into more collective problems, like the tonnes of unexploded ordnance (UXO) lying under Vietnamese grounds — remnants of the country’s civil war and the US' involvement in it.
Yet, although there has since been extensive coverage of the topic in both local and global media, what we know so far is perhaps just as little as the number of bombs having been discovered.
This production from Tuan Andrew Nguyen fascinates us as a balance between reality and creativity; a practical yet visionary lens of the bigger picture. His approach means taking the audience to new heights with fictional, philosophical elements, yet at the same time keeping the story close to the ground with facts. Innovative as it is, Tuan Andrew's art is fundamentally backed by science, data, history and sociology.
The Sounds of Cannons, Familiar Like Sad Refrains carries an anti-war message and masterfully uses history to reflect the present. The movie takes a juxtaposition format using two parallel timelines: 20th-century wartime period recorded by the US Navy, side by side with early 2021 days spent defusing a UXO by a Vietnamese team.
This technique of putting together disparities and hence evoking in the audience a sense of comparison isn’t something new to Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s works. In this production, beside contrasts in imagery, he takes us through three distinct, sequential narratives: the US’ belief in their technological might, the victims of the war’s mournful weeping, and a resentment from the very gadget made to win that fight: a 16-inch, 50-caliber projectile having travelled 40 km through the air before crashing down on Quang Tri province, shot by the US 7th Fleet.
Out of the 15 million tonnes of explosives that they’d dropped on Vietnam, about 800 thousand tonnes didn’t actually go off. And our main character, a bomb weighing 900 kg, is among that 800 thousand.
What would a bomb say if it had a soul?
This short film is set in war-torn, UXO hotspot Quang Tri, where the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone (in Vietnamese: vĩ tuyến 17) lies, a divide that had put Vietnamese people through unspeakable sufferings.
Vietcetera had an opportunity to sit down with Tuan Andrew Nguyen to talk about the inspiration behind his latest project and his experiences filming in Quang Tri — a place still riddled with cluster munitions.
What do you think goes on inside the mind of a bomb?
I’d imagine it to be in the position of someone locked up in prison or solitary confinement for over 50 years, in a place it was supposed to have destroyed — but didn't. And there's an irony in that.
I'm fascinated by animism, or the idea that everything has a spirit: the cars on the road, the trees on the sidewalk, the rocks and soil underneath them... and so on. This bomb is no exception. Isn’t that why we practice worshiping in Vietnamese culture anyway? That’s why I thought that after 50 years, the bomb, too, would have been influenced by all the spirits surrounding it.
I wanted to embody that transformation inside its mind with this production. From a destructive spirit to one that perhaps would contemplate concepts of karma and reincarnation. An American bomb that has become very Vietnamese.
It took the US Army only seconds to launch a 900 kg missile, and yet too many years for Vietnam to be able to dispose of it. What did that job look like for you?
I followed a team of specialists. The bomb was found peeking out up on a farming hill. Then it took them five days to pull it above the ground.
The logistics were quite complicated, as they had to evacuate people within a large radius. Because the line of communication isn’t very strong between the households there, it fell on the team to send out the word, and this needed to be done quite well in advance. There was just a lot to do. Even replanting of nearby crops destroyed with the bomb.
During this trip, I filmed various situations and people as research material. I put together a short video from that footage that shows the daily life of a couple in Quang Tri, who make a living out of the very thing made to demolish their homeland: selling bomb scrap metal.
After the blast scene in The Sounds of Cannons, Familiar Like Sad Refrains, our crew picked up the pieces we could find with the intention of melting and repurposing them into something else, like sculptures. To give them a new life. Because the idea is the bomb does have some sort of reincarnation, right? — spiritually, but also physically. This and the footage above are all part of a long-term project that will tentatively be showcased in full at an exhibition in New York, March 2022 — that’s all I can tell you for now.
Why did you release this production during a time like now, when the world feels like it’s on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
I actually thought that now is a fitting time to sit back, read and reflect on history, since we’re all stuck inside. In fact, that’s something we should do everyday if we can, because history is constantly changing.
Due to the pandemic, I haven’t been able to travel around the world for my projects like usual. So I’ve turned my attention back to Vietnam while remaining here for over a year.
The 50th anniversary of the end of the war is just a few years away. That’s half a century, and yet we’re still looking at its aftermath today. It’s painful to imagine how just 10 years ago, Quang Tri was riddled with cluster munitions, a kind of explosive with extremely high damage.
I recently got to interview a young man in his early 20s from there, whose name is Ho Van Lai. The year was 2010 and Lai was 10 years old. He used to play near his grandfather's house with four other cousins all the time. Cluster munitions were everywhere around, but Lai said they just lived with them.
One day, Lai picked up two of the cluster bombs. And then the unthinkable happened: he threw one at the other, unknowingly triggered both of the bombs. That accident killed two of his cousins on the spot, blinded Lai and took away both his legs and right arm.
2010 wasn’t very long away, you know? The past is still visible in the present. We have peace in Vietnam now, but a land once divided by war will never truly escape its shadows. There are mistakes in this world that just cannot be mended.
When I was filming The Sounds of Cannons, Familiar Like Sad Refrains, I heard a bang every half hour. It was the explosions. I turned to local bomb disposal specialists, who told me that since the late 1990s, they have probably only managed to clear around 15% of the 800 thousand tonnes of explosives left in Vietnam. And that it could take another 100 years to handle the rest.
I think my niche is matters and moments that people either don’t or no longer pay attention to. I hope this one specifically will be able to move the general Vietnamese audience. I'm glad to have shown the film to people of different generations and heard back that many had shed a tear when the theme song came on.
But this is only the beginning of a long haul. I’ve met too many children with a lost limb as a consequence of these unexploded bombs and mines, so I think I’ll be back in Quang Tri and the central provinces for future projects.
Speaking of music, why did you choose a song from the late musician Trinh Cong Son for this production?
Trinh Cong Son (1939-2001) is Vietnam’s legendary wartime musician. I love how music during that period resembled political poetry — especially songs by Trinh Cong Son himself, all of which bear a strong anti-war message that really shines through powerful lyrics.
Using his song Đại Bác Ru Đêm (Lullaby of Cannons) takes the audience back to that time very effectively. There’s just something about the melody, the texture of the sound, and the vocabulary used in the lyrics that evokes an urgency and brings the past to the present.
At the beginning of the movie, I’d worked in the US Army’s propaganda speech, which was trying to heroicize the 7th Fleet. Then we had a more neutral narrative from the bomb character, who was born in the US but buried in Vietnam, undergoing a transformation.
I wanted a third voice from the perspective of those who were experiencing the war first-hand, on the ground. Khanh Ly’s haunting singing in Trinh Cong Son’s Đại Bác Ru Đêm did exactly that: it expresses a compassionate voice through all the chaos of war.
Did you talk to survivors of the war to better understand their experience in preparation for this production?
I grew up away from Vietnam, so stories of a past in the motherland were common in the family. I notice that the Vietnamese diaspora particularly tends to live in the past for a long time.
My parents would share many memories of their life in Vietnam, most of which included war, so it wasn’t hard for me to visualize them in my head. I think that’s the beauty of imagination; it comes from a place of empathy, when you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes. That’s why I believe in its power. Only if we cultivate empathy will we be able to stand in solidarity with people different from us around the globe.
And if I leave this world with nothing, then I hope that through my work, I’ve encouraged as many people as I possibly could to consider the idea of empathy.
Your short film touched on the anti-war spirit of a body of American soldiers. What do you think about learning history through the lens of those who actually lived through it?
I believe we experience history as people, through a personal lens, not history books. And that's what makes it so interesting, because there are so many different vantage points of history. When we listen to other people and their various stories, it's our mind that decides the convergent point of theirs and ours.
My research will have me ending up with several stories, and all those stories will meet in me. You and your journey will give you access to a whole other set of stories, and they'll meet in you. They will be expressed through the articles that you write, similar to how mine are in the films I make. It feels like we're the bubbles that make up a bunch of foam. If we're lucky enough, somehow our many stories — your articles and my films — will come to a meeting point.
For instance, when I heard this story about how there could have been American soldiers who resisted the war by deliberately not activating the fuze so that the bombs wouldn’t explode, I had to gasp: “WOW! Is that real?”
But it doesn't matter if it's real, because it’s such an amazing story. At the time we were standing right next to where the bomb was, too. And I immediately thought: “Okay, what if the bomb heard that? How would it feel? How would that affect the story?”
That’s the beauty of ground research, because we can get really good and impactful stories out of people.
On that note, I’d like to give a shout out to an organization called Renew, led by Vietnam War veteran Chuck Searcy. It’s a project by specialists in Quang Tri who are spending everyday locating and defusing UXO, in the name of their family members still living in fear of bombs outside of their own homes — an aftermath of the war.
Translated by Jennifer Nguyen