2 January 2006 | sstocker1
Pleasantly surprising movie about sexual politics and love in rural north Vietnam
At a screening of this film in the U.S., director Pham Nhue Giang was asked which film directors she liked and has been influenced by. She answered David Lynch, Edward Yang, Wong Kar Wai, and Sarah Silverman (!?). Of the four, the influence most in evidence here is Taiwanese director Yang, best known in the West for Yi Yi. Deserted Vally struck me as being like one of Yang's bittersweet comedies about the sexes doing a fairly dismal job of getting along with each othersort of like A Confucian Confusion, except set an elementary school in the cloud forests of north Vietnam, rather than the executive board rooms of Taipei.
The story is primarily about two women teachers (Minh and Giao) and the man (Tanh) who is the principal at an elementary school established for the Hmong people in north Vietnam. Minh is a knockout, the sort of woman who looks great without making the slightest bit of effort at it. She looks good in just peasant clothes and her hair in a bun. Tanh is attracted to her but makes no attempt to follow up on his attraction. At one point, Giao teases him about being attracted to Minh. He laughs and says, "Minh is like jasmine. I'm like buffalo s--t." Although this may be a bit extreme, Tanh is rather drab. Nevertheless, he is a good man and obviously cares about his school. When school starts in the morning, he rings the bell to call the students and then, if some of them don't show up, he goes scampering around the countryside looking for them. At night, he gets drunk on wine and walks alone in the dark, singing a lonely song. Although he is principal, he apparently never spent much time teaching. When left as the only teacher at the school, he is at a loss for what to teach his students and tries teaching them the song he sings every night when he gets drunk. They respond by telling him that singing is boring.
Minh, meanwhile, has fallen in love with a visiting geologist on assignment, while Mi, one of Minh's older students, has her eye on the same fellow. The geologist is, as they say, a hunk. When Mi sees Minh having sex with her man in the local stream, she falls into an adolescent funk and sets about trying to turn all of the students against Minh. About this time, Minh finds out that her man has one very disappointing quality, and she's stuck with the consequences. All of this, plus a problem between Giao and Tanh, threatens to destroy the school.
Although funded by the Vietnamese Film Board, this is not your typical Marxist movie about noble teachers sacrificing for the good of their students and the Revolution. This is a movie about actual humans and their problemsproblems that are not solved by a change in the economic system. Even so, there is some subtle PR going on here. The Vietnamese government is trying to establish one elementary school for each Hmong community in the north. This is an interesting switch, given that the Vietnamese government committed genocide against the Hmong after the end of the Vietnam/American War because the Hmong fought with the Americans against the communists.
Now, three decades after the end of the war, the government seems to trying to strike the right balance between allowing the Hmong to maintain their culture while at the same time educating them so that they can participate in the larger society. This is the same problem faced by the U.S. government in its relations with Native Americans after attempting its own form of genocide in the late 1800s.