Feature by: Tiffany Limsico
From Mariam Lam
To my Vietnamese film community,
During my last visit to London in the spring of 2009, the late beloved film lover and critic, Alexis Tioseco, bestowed upon me the nickname ‘MariMar.’ I had not seen the 2007 GMA Filipino television series of the same name, the bomba actress Marian Rivera who played the title role, the famed 1994 Mexican telenovela starring Thalía upon which our Philippine soap opera was based, nor La Venganza, the 1977 Mexican telenovela from which the latter was remade. I was simply flattered that this sweet kid brother-like Southeast Asian cinema muse Alexis had thought kindly to give me an alternative screen moniker, as he had done for others in the Association of Southeast Asian Cinema conference circle, such as ‘BenBen’ for Benjamin McKay.
The flattery was fleeting, for a second later I registered an odd look on BenBen’s face as he gathered his thoughts about the choice. In every subsequent exchange with Pinay, Pinoy and Pin@y friends to whom I mentioned this Tiosecian hailing, I would encounter a sly grimace, dour faced crinkling, or knowing eye-rolls. Soon after Alexis’ death, I web-searched ‘Marimar’ to find the commercially popular soap series about an impressionable and scantily clad orphan-siren who lives on a Manila beach with her loyal frolicking dog while looking for love in the all wrong places (in the form of an upper crust Sergio with evil parents)… almost a Pilipina Pacific coastal version of the cheesy Waylon Jennings country song. Here’s an excerpt from the Jennings lyrics, if you can find it in your heart to forgive me:
“I've spent a lifetime lookin’ for you.
Single bars and good time lovers were never true,
Playin’ a fool’s game, hopin’ to win,
Tellin’ those sweet lies and losin’ again.
I was lookin’ for love in all the wrong places,
Lookin’ for love in too many faces,
Searchin’ their eyes, lookin’ for traces
Of what I'm dreamin’ of.
Hopin' to find a friend and a lover,
I’ll bless the day I discover
Another heart, lookin' for love…”
Good grief, Alexis. This is certainly not my life. I can’t even call him on it now that he is gone.
The more I thought about our past conversations - conversations in which Alexis insistently wanted me to answer why my colleagues appear to choose “bad Vietnamese cinema” to analyze and critique instead of encouraging, or better yet in his eyes adamantly demanding, Vietnamese filmmakers and producers to do better - the more I realized that my love and loss relationship with Vietnamese cinema is not so far removed from MariMar’s love for Sergio and begrudgingly similar to the Jennings cheese platter… a tortured serial romance. What Alexis has essentially bequeathed to me in the form of this nomenclature is a kundiman, a prayer, a love letter, for a better future romance plot with my beloved Vietnamese film community.
My humble telenovela upbringing began as an immigrant child learning English by watching not Sesame Street, but General Hospital, which I preferred over my mother’s favorite Guiding Light, because of what I argued were relatively stronger female characters. “Right, like rape victim Laura who falls in love with her rapist Luke is so much better than my blind and homebound lovelorn Eve?” my mother would retort. Quality comparative gender and cultural critique at age seven? Not so much. And not so dissimilar from the humble global stirrings of Vietnamese film criticism at its current juncture, with its limited and limiting perspectives on Vietnamese history, culture, politics and economics.
Fast forward thirty years to more ‘academic’ inquiries about representations of women in Vietnamese cinema crafted by Vietnamese directors - who at this point are still mostly male - and we find the same disturbingly familiar comparisons.
When Alexis first commissioned this Criticine entry, he suggested I write to a favorite director, film, scene or character with whom I had fallen madly in love. I scoured the archives trying to nostalgically recollect loving portrayals of Vietnamese women. I found myself “lookin’ for love in too many faces, searchin’ their eyes, lookin’ for traces of what I'm dreamin’ of” in the true cinematic love and longing for strong, complex women - a love that would make these directors’ mothers and sisters proud, some Vietnamese Fanny Ardant or Katherine Hepburn, perhaps.
Alas, according to the GMA DVD, the story of MariMar “bespeaks a journey of a young lass who has been deprived of everything that was rightfully hers.” This description also sounds reminiscent of all the women in 1990s Đặng Nhật Minh movies, in which pathetically abandoned or widowed women nurture baby birds with their own saliva and inadvertently tempt pre-pubescent brothers-in-law while awaiting the return of a husband, war hero, nationalism, and/or her so-called life.
Oh, woe is me; when will our eleventh month come, so Vietnamese women can get on with it, so we can build our own rural textile co-ops and women’s loom production houses devoid of fallen patriarchs, as the female protagonist in Vũ Xuân Hưng’s Giải hạn/Misfortune’s End (1996) manages to accomplish, or ditch our doting buffalo boys as by the end of Nguyễn Võ Nghiêm Minh’s Mùa len trâu/Buffalo Boy (2004)? When will the inquisitive and imaginative little girl Mùi from Tran Anh Hùng’s Mùi đu đủ xanh/The Scent of Green Papaya (1993) not regress from adulthood into a mere vessel of cherry tree blossom cultural nationalist global etiquette?
I looked toward intellectually experimental works by Trinh Thị Minh-hà, but was “playin’ a fool’s game, hopin’ to win, by tellin’ those sweet lies and losin’ again”- blinding myself to the glaring socioeconomic class differences found in order to champion a feminist avant garde Vietnamese auteur. I told myself I could sacrifice like a good Kiều and put up with portrayals of women’s stunted mental capacity in Tran Anh Hùng’s Mùa hè chiều thẳng đứng/Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000) or woman as incessant trope of nation in early diasporic films, as trade-off for cinematographic beauty and decadence.
I returned to the hip and happening homeland’s Gái nhảy/Bar Girls (2003) by Lê Hoàng and Vũ Ngọc Đãng’s Những cô gái chân dài/Long-Legged Girls (2004), but “single bars and good time lovers were never true.” I fell briefly for actress Trương Ngọc Ánh’s performance in Lưu Hùynh’s Áo lụa Hà Đông/The White Silk Dress (2006), until its final protracted seconds of requisite bloody war propaganda.
So I turned to our female filmmakers, Phạm Nhuệ Giang, Việt Linh, Vũ Thị Thu-hà, Đoàn Hoàng, and Đoàn Minh Phượng (with brother Đoàn Thành Nghĩa’s Hạt mưa rơi bao lâu/Bride of Silence, 2005), but found them too few and spread so far from sisterhood.
Meanwhile, my more immediate family of Vietnamese American filmmakers focuses much of its attention on the cross-over market potential of genre appeal with action in Dòng máu anh hùng/The Rebel (2007), horror in Buổi Sáng Đầu Năm/First Morning (2003), Oan hồn/Spirits (2004), or Thế Giới Huyền Bí/Mysterious World (2006), and comedy in Hồn Trương Ba, da hàng thịt (2006) or Nụ hôn thần chết (2008). Dear brothers, I love a good action heroine, but seeking only pop sensation triple threats can interfere with quality control even in the U.S. Gigli, anyone? How about Glitter?
Well-intentioned industry enthusiasts, festival organizers and arts journalists rush to applaud the nation’s baby steps in filmic creativity and originality, as well as the diasporic attempts at what gets deemed as cultural reconciliation or uncritical, apolitical returns to the homeland. Recall that MariMar was separated from her real parents - the wealthy Gustavo Aldama and the poor Lupita - at a young age, and raised by a very old couple with very old, traditional values. In order to avoid dealing with the class conflict between a post-socialist yearning for equal access to creative cultural arts practices and global aesthetic resonance versus a neoliberal desire for market visibility for global south chic, many Vietnamese filmmakers today must choose to politicize or not to politicize. MariMar lives a modest and carefree life by the sea. Hàm Trần (Vượt sóng/Journey from the Fall, 2006) does not.
So we beat on towards Gatsby’s green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us, like refugee boats against the current borne back ceaselessly into the past; “hopin' to find a friend and a lover, I’ll bless the day I discover another heart, lookin' for love….”
With undying hope for an exquisitely mind blowing future romance to come,
Mariam B. Lam is a professor of literature, media & cultural studies, and Southeast Asian studies at the University of California Riverside.
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