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Close up: The female gaze and ethnic difference in two Vietnamese women's films

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 September 2015


This article looks at two contemporary films by Vietnamese women. In Việt Linh's Travelling Circus (1988) and Phạm Nhuệ Giang's The Deserted Valley (2002), a female gaze is sutured to that of an ethnic minority character's, a form of looking that stresses a shared oppression between women and the ethnic Other. While clearing a space for a desiring female gaze in Vietnamese film, they nonetheless extend an Orientalist view of racialised difference. A feminist film optic, one that does not consider industry history and constructions of race, fails to mark out the layered relations of looking underlying Vietnamese filmmaking. This study attends to the ways women filmmakers investigate gendered forms of looking, sexual desire and otherness within the constraints of a highly male-dominated film industry.

Research Article
Copyright © The National University of Singapore 2015 

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1 On the history of Vietnamese films, see Philippe Dumont, ‘The multiple births of Vietnamese cinema’, in Vietnamese cinema: Le cinéma Vietnamien, ed. Philippe Dumont and Kirstie Gormley (Lyon: Asiexpo Edition, 2007), pp. 44–60. I am wary of his use of the metaphorical language of birth and telos to characterise Vietnamese cinema, however.

2 Charlot, John, ‘Vietnamese cinema: First views’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 22, 1 (1991): 3740CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 The other major Vietnamese woman director was Bách Điệp (d. 2013). Her most famous film was Lễ Thánh (The Ceremony, 1977). For a brief summary of Điệp's work, see John Charlot, ‘Vietnamese cinema: First views'. Karen Turner has also discussed an important female filmmaker, Đức Hoàn, in her essay, ‘Shadowboxing with the censors', Cinema, law, and the state in Asia, ed. Corey Creekmur and Mark Sidel (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 101–20. Currently, director Nguyễn Hoàng Điệp's debut film, Flapping in the middle of nowhere (2014), has received critical acclaim worldwide. The film is notable not only because of its subject matter — a young woman agonises over having an abortion in contemporary Hanoi — but also because Nguyễn is a female director whose film testifies to the importance of foregrounding women's experiences on screen. For more on the images of women in Vietnamese cinema, see Hamilton, Annette, ‘Renovated: Gender and cinema in contemporary Vietnam’, Visual Anthropology 22, 2 (2009): 141–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Published in 1975, Laura Mulvey's essay on ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’ was seminal in its inquiry into modes of looking in film. Mulvey set the terms for how the gaze was marked by sexual difference. See Mulvey, , ‘Visual pleasure’, Screen 16, 3 (1975): 618CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Since then, many theorists have critiqued (white) feminist film theory's universalisation of Woman and its elision of the ways that race, class and sexuality shape the construction not only of film's screen subjects but also its spectators. Scholars have also criticised the tendency within this body of research to use psychoanalysis as a framework. See Jackie Stacey, Star gazing: Hollywood cinema and female spectatorship (London and New York: Routledge, 1994); bell hooks, Black looks: Race and representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992); Chris Straayer, Deviant eyes, deviant bodies: Sexual re-orientations in film and video (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996); and most recently, Oishi, Eve, ‘Visual perversions: Race, sex, and cinematic pleasure’, Signs 31, 3 (2006): 641–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 I borrow this term from Jane Gaines's essay, ‘White privilege and looking relations', Issues in feminist film criticism, ed. Patricia Erens (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), pp. 197–214.

6 As Ella Shohat notes, ‘Third-Worldist films are often produced within the legal codes of the nation-state, often in (hegemonic) national languages, recycling national intertexts (literatures, oral narratives, music) and projecting national imaginaries.’ Shohat, ‘Post-Third-Worldist culture: Gender, nation and the cinema’, in Feminist genealogies, colonial legacies, democratic futures, ed. Chandra T. Mohanty and Jacqui M. Alexander (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 186. In her films and scholarship, Trinh T. Minh-ha underscores the problem of a national imaginary as it relates to Vietnamese women. Critical of how Vietnamese nationalism has appropriated women's subjectivities in its narratives, Trinh's film Surname Viet, given name Nam (1987) counters the ways women have been imagined in film by reframing their bodies and renarrating their acts of storytelling. See my analysis of Trinh's films in ‘Traitors and translators', in Treacherous subjects: Gender, culture, and trans-Vietnamese feminism, ed. Lan Duong (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012), pp. 122–47.

7 Throughout the essay, I use the term ‘race’ to describe theories related to the social construction of race and racism. I use ‘ethnicity’ when discussing minority populations in Vietnam.

8 As a concept coined by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, intersectionality has been formative for women of colour theorists. It posits that women of colour experience oppression across the matrices of identity such as race, gender, class and sexuality. See Crenshaw, , ‘Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color’, Stanford Law Review 43, 6 (1991): 1241–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Patricia Pelley, Postcolonial Vietnam: New histories of the national past (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 103.

10 Keyes, Charles, ‘“The peoples of Asia”: Science and politics in ethnic classification in Thailand, China and Vietnam’, Journal of Asian Studies 61, 4 (2002): 1163–203CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Ibid.: 1174.

12 Katarzyna Marciniak uses the term ‘palatable foreignness' in her essay to criticise how Hollywood films have marginalised immigrant women and the ways she herself has been marginalised in academia because of her scholarship. Marciniak, ‘Palatable foreignness', in Transnational feminism in film and media, ed. Katarzyna Marciniak, Anikó Imre and Áine O'Healy (New York: Palgrave, 2007), pp. 187–205.

13 Michaud, Jean, ‘Handling mountain minorities in China, Vietnam and Laos: From history to current issues’, Asian Ethnicity 10, 1 (2009): 29CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 McElwee, Pamela, ‘“Blood relatives” or uneasy neighbors? Kinh migrant and ethnic minority interactions in the Trường Sơn mountains’, Journal of Vietnamese Studies 3, 3 (2008): 94CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 See Oscar Salemink, ‘Romancing the Montagnards: American counterinsurgency and Montagnard autonomy’, in Salemink, The ethnography of Vietnam's central highlanders: A historical contextualization: 1850–1900 (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2003), pp. 179–210.

16 Ibid., p. 97.

17 Michaud, ‘Handling mountain minorities': 26.

18 Ibid.: 32.

19 Salemink, Oscar, ‘Embodying the nation: Mediumship, ritual, and the national imagination’, Journal of Vietnamese Studies 3, 3 (2008): 276CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Hjorleifur Jonsson and Nora Taylor, ‘National colors: Ethnic minorities in Vietnamese public imagery’, Re-orienting fashion: The globalization of Asian dress, ed. Sandra Niessen, Ann Marie Leshkowich and Carla Jones (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2003), p. 164.

21 Johannes Fabian defines the denial of coevalness as ‘a persistent and systematic tendency to place the referent(s) of anthropology in a Time other than the producer of anthropological discourse’. Fabian, Time and the Other: How anthropology makes its object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), p. 31.

22 See Trinh Mai Diem, 30 years of Vietnam's cinema art (Hanoi: Vietnam Film Archives, 1983).

23 See ‘Vietnam's film industry celebrates 60th anniversary’, at, 14 Mar. 2013; (last accessed 19 Aug. 2013).

24 Phạm Ngọc Trường, ‘Vietnam: A brief history of Vietnamese films', Films in Southeast Asia: Views from the region, ed. David Hanan (Hanoi: SEAPAVVA, Vietnam Film Institute, and National Screen and Sound Archive Australia, 2001), p. 65.

25 Hamilton, ‘Renovated’: 143.

26 Horim Choi, ‘Ethnic minorities and the state in Vietnam’, Multicultural challenges and redefining identity in East Asia, ed. Nam-Kook Kim (Surrey: Ashgate, 2014), p. 143.

27 Remarking on the celebrations of the Vietnamese nation in 2000, Jonsson and Taylor argue that women's dress, marked as ethnic and non-ethnic, were bound to images of a unified nation (p. 163). As the authors state, the Other is not only feminised, but also exoticised in state discourses about identity and difference. Jonsson and Taylor, ‘National colours'.

28 Shu-mei Shih, Visuality and identity: Sinophone articulations across the Pacific (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), p. 31.

29 Tom O'Regan, ‘Cultural exchange’, A companion to film theory, ed. Toby Miller and Robert Stam (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), p. 266.

30 Bich Hanh Duong discusses Sa Pa as a tourist site for domestic and international tourists. Duong emphasises that young Sa Pa women who work at the tourist sites create an identity for themselves, even as they are objects of exotic consumption; Duong, Bich Hanh, ‘Contesting marginality: Consumption, networks, and everyday practices among Hmong girls in Sa Pa, northwestern Vietnam’, Journal of Vietnamese Studies 3, 3 (2008): 233Google Scholar.

31 Healy, Dana, ‘Laments of warriors' wives: Re-gendering the war in Vietnamese Cinema’, South East Asia Research 14, 2 (2006): 42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 See ‘Literature in transition: An overview of Vietnamese writing of the renovation period’, in The canon in Southeast Asian literature: Literatures of Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, ed. David Smyth (Richmond: Curzon, 2000).

33 For more on the publishing industry, see Dinh, Linh, ‘Introduction: Writing and publishing in Vietnam’, Literary Review 43, 2 (2000): 165–7Google Scholar; and Hồ Anh Thái, ‘Creative writers and the press in Vietnam since renovation’, in Mass media in Vietnam, ed. David Marr (Canberra: Dept. of Political and Social Change, RSPAS, Australian National University, 1998), pp. 58–63.

34 Chương-Đài Võ, ‘Vietnamese cinema in the era of market liberalization’, in Political regimes and the media in Asia, ed. Krishna Sen and Terence Lee (New York and London: Routledge, 2008), p. 71.

35 Currently Linh travels back and forth between Vietnam and France. She has made seven feature films in Vietnam. Her last film was Mê Thảo … Thời Vang Bóng, or The glorious time in Me Thao hamlet (2002).

36 The state's ban of the film is mentioned here: (last accessed 2 Feb. 2012).

37 On the ban of superstitious practices, see Heonik Kwon, The ghosts of war in Vietnam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), chap. 1.

38 Email correspondence with Linh, 26 Jan. 2015.

39 Laura Mulvey uses the phrase ‘to-be-looked-at’ to connote the ways in which women are looked at and visually coded as a cinematic spectacle. Mulvey, ‘Visual pleasure’, p. 837.

40 Lan Anh, ‘Famous families of Vietnam's cinema’, Vietnamnet Bridge, 26 Apr. 2012, (last accessed 1 Nov. 2014).

41 Interview with Phạm Nhuệ Giang, 30 Aug. 2003. After the critical success of her first film, it took Phạm almost ten years to make A Mother's Soul because of the lack of funding and support for her film projects.

42 Chương-Đài Võ, ‘Vietnamese cinema’, p. 71.

43 Bich Hanh Duong, ‘Contesting marginality’, p. 234.

44 Ibid., p. 235.

45 On the management of femininity in contemporary Vietnam, see Ashley Pettus, Between sacrifice and desire (New York: Routledge, 2003); Thư-Hương Nguyễn-Võ, The ironies of freedom (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008); and Hue-Tam Ho Tai, ‘Faces of remembering and forgetting’, in The country of memory: Remaking the past in late socialist Vietnam, ed. Hue-Tam Ho Tai (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), pp. 167–95.

46 Choi, ‘Ethnic minorities', p. 143.

47 Philip Taylor notes that ethnic minorities, who constitute 14 per cent of the population, are marked by a ‘greater incidence of poverty, lower participation in schooling, and poorer health’. Taylor, , ‘Minorities at large: New approaches to minority ethnicity in Vietnam’, Journal of Vietnamese Studies 3, 3 (2008): 237CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48 As film scholar and Head of the Cinema Department, Ngô Phương Lan asserts that Vietnamese films work to express the benevolent ‘humanism’ of the Vietnamese people (p. 82). One of the most influential people within the film industry, she makes clear that Vietnamese films should serve this heuristic function within a global context. Ngô Phương Lan, Modernity and nationality in Vietnamese cinema, trans. Dang Viet Vinh and Nguyen Xuan Hong, ed. Aruna Vasudev and Philip Cheah (Yogyakarta: JAFF, NETPAC and Galangpress, 2007).

49 Mottahedeh, Negar, ‘“Life is color!” Toward a transnational feminist analysis of Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Gabbeh’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 30, 1 (2004): 1455CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

50 The body of work on Vietnam War films is immense. Of note are the anthologies, Inventing Vietnam: The war in films and television, ed. Michael Anderegg (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991); From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American film, ed. Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997). On gender and the Vietnam War, see Susan Jeffords, The remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989); and Jeremy Devine, Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995).

In contrast, film scholarship on Vietnamese cinema in the United States has been sparse but important in laying out the parameters of this emergent field. See Kathryn McMahon, ‘Gender, paradoxical space, and critical spectatorship in Vietnamese film: The works of Đặng Nhật Minh’, in Trans-status subjects: Gender in the globalization of South and Southeast Asia, ed. Sonita Sarjer and Esha Nigoyi De (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), pp. 108–25; Mark Philip Bradley, ‘Contests of memory: Remembering and forgetting the war in contemporary Vietnamese cinema’, in Hue-Tam Ho Tai, The country of memory, pp. 196–226; and Marchetti, Gina, ‘Excess and understatement: War, romance, and the melodrama in contemporary Vietnamese cinema’, Genders 10 (1991): 4774Google Scholar.

51 See the state-sponsored cinema books by Hoàng Thanh et al., Lịch Sử Điện Ảnh Việt Nam: Quyển Một [The history of Vietnamese cinema: Vol. 1] (Hanoi: Cục Điện Ảnh Xuất Bản, 2003); and Quang Chính Vũ et al., Lịch Sử Điện Ảnh Việt Nam: Quyển Hai [The history of Vietnamese cinema: Vol. 2] (Hanoi: Cực Điện Ảnh Xuất Bản, 2003).

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