From Hollywood to Hanoi

by aengelson | October 7th, 2009

From Hollywood to Hanoi, a 1993 documentary about a Vietnamese American's return to the land of her birth.

From Hollywood to Hanoi, a 1993 documentary about a Vietnamese American's return to the land of her birth.

A week or so ago, I had my introduction to the superb Hanoi Cinematheque. This non-profit art film cinema was founded by American Gerry Herman in 2004. The Cinematheque is a cozy gem, tucked away in the center of Hanoi, with comfy seats and a pleasant courtyard cafe. The theater screens contemporary Vietnamese films subtitled in English, plus contemporary and classic international cinema, with optional Vietnamese voice-over provided on headphones. It’s a place for expats to experience contemporary Vietnamese film and for Vietnamese filmmakers and movie-goers to discover the classics. Herman, who has lived in overseas since 1972, also produces DVDs of classic Vietnamese films for U.S. audiences.

Hanoi is lucky to have the Cinematheque , and every expat in the city should support the theater by becoming a member.

For my first visit, I picked a great movie…the documentary From Hollywood to Hanoi. Released in 1993, the film was created by Tiana (Thi Thanh Nga) Alexandra, a Vietnamese-American actress whose family fled South Vietnam during the American War (as they call it here). Raised in California, Tiana made a career performing in various awful B-movies. In the late 80s, she decided to return to the country of her birth and her family’s homeland. The film documents her trip to Vietnam in 1989, her personal history, and her family’s mixed reactions to her journey. It’s funny, moving, and a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be both Vietnamese and American.

This was apparently the first time the film had been publicly screened in Vietnam, and the filmmaker was present to answer questions after the show. If you can find a copy to rent in the U.S., I’d recommend it. It has a kind of Michael Moore-like freshness to it. The filmmaker wasn’t shy about asking tough questions. During her journey, she chats with General Võ Nguyên Giáp, commander of Vietnamese forces during the French and American Wars. She sits down with Le Duc Tho, the foreign minister who negotiated the U.S. peace agreement (and who is charmed by Tiana, and mostly wants to chat about her poetry). She meets with outcast children left behind by G.I. fathers. She talks with victims of the My Lai massacre.

Tiana Alexandra's 1993 film is a funny and moving story of returning to Vietnam.

Tiana Alexandra's 1993 film is a funny and moving story of returning to Vietnam.

And there’s a fantastic scene in which she runs into General William Westmoreland, U.S. commander during the Vietnam war, at a preview of the musical Miss Saigon. As Westmoreland stands there looking ridiculous in a Vietnamese conical hat, Alexander corners the general and asks what he meant when he said that Asians didn’t value life as much as Westerners. After a stammering denial, Tiana cuts to the scene from a 1974 CBS documentary in which the former general says to the camera, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner…We value life and human dignity. They don’t care about life and human dignity.” YouTube has the interview here.

By far, the most powerful moments of the film concern Tiana’s family. She reunites with relatives she had no idea were still alive. A distraught aunt makes a plea for money–Vietnam was a much poorer country in the 1980s than it is today. After Alexander returns home to California, she relays messages and recordings to her tearful family, including her father.

But her father, who served as the South Vietnamese government’s press secretary during the war, is steadfast in his belief that his daughter should not have visited Vietnam. On camera, he vows never to go back unless the government is to his liking. In the question-and-answer period after the movie, Alexander related that her father has since passed away–and never returned to his homeland. This is heartbreaking to hear, since the the film makes clear her father had a deep and wistful longing for the town of his birth.

One audience member, a Vietnamese-American, said that he’d wished he’d seen the film sooner. If you have an interest in in the issues facing Vietnamese Americans and their complicated relationship with contemporary Vietnam, I highly recommend tracking down this movie.

One Response to “From Hollywood to Hanoi”

  1. I’m glad you discovered this place. I was there with a Chinese-American colleague who had to leave during a film we were watching because it brought back hard memories of periods of near starvation during the Cultural Revolution. We bought a few DVD’s to bring back to show students at South Seattle Community College in courses about the war and contemporary Vietnam. Scarecrow Video in Seattle has a few. Two I enjoyed were Nostalgia for the Countryside, Dang Nhat Minh, and This Deserted Valley, set in a remote Hmong village school.

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About This Site

Andy Engelson is a writer and editor who lives in Hanoi, Vietnam. He's currently working on a historical novel set in the Northwest United States during World War II. He's also a freelance writer, essayist and member of the Hanoi Writer's Collective. In a former life, he edited Washington Trails magazine for six years and before that was freelance journalist. He likes to hike, travel, and play with his family.

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