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On sreenwriting outside the Westâ•… 185

The combined effect of the strategies discussed above, by constructing hiatuses


in time and space, playing with shifts in the point of view to create meaning
produces a cinema with definite echoes of early modernism. Duchamp’s collages,
and not only the Kuleshov experiment, but Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
– which incidentally also creates a character out of the photographer – also have
narratives which are to do with rhythm and repetition, the unspoken cause and
effect of complex communities. For all the critics’ comparisons of City of God to
Tarantino, to a randomized �pop-�promo style (Meirelles is also a commercials
director), and to a style supposedly ‘designed to convey the paranoia of the
Â�cocaine-Â�fuelled tension that marks the lives of those hoodlums’ (Pasolini 2010),
there is something more deeply structural here. The content may be generically
familiar; however its organization and attention to temporality and point of view
as inscribed at script stage, is something new, or renewed.

Tran An h Hung: ‘Cinema is My Cou n t r y ’


It is worth considering how many world cinema writers and �writer-�directors live
far from their country of their birth, whether by (personal) choice or (economic
or political) necessity. Of those discussed here, Khyentse Norbu spends much of
his time in religious practice worldwide; the Makhmalbafs now live in political
exile in France (Black 2009); and Vietnamese �writer-�director Tran Anh Hung is
also an exile, having left Vietnam in 1974 with his family when he was aged 12;
he was subsequently brought up and educated in Paris where he still lives. The
reception of Tran’s work as a Vietnamese in exile, and his own perception of his
cultural identity, complicates any simplistic notion of intrinsic national cinema,
and confirms the need to consider the complex network of influences at work in
the way we read the screenplay text. Tran attended film school in Paris, training
first to be a cinematographer, then after making a number of short films went on
to write and direct the highly acclaimed and �Oscar-�nominated The Scent of Green
Papaya (1993). The film tells the story of Mui, who as a child is sold as a servant
to a rich Saigon family in the 1950s and 1960s (the end of French rule and the
beginning of US hostilities). When the family falls into crisis she is sold again, to
a family friend, a pianist. Her selfless actions make the pianist fall in love with her
and they marry.
What is remarkable about The Scent of Green Papaya is that Tran had spent very
little of his adult life in Vietnam when he wrote and made the film, which was
shot entirely on studio lots in Paris. In it he seeks to recreate the Vietnam of his
childhood, and as such he, rather like other writers discussed here, works with a
stylized visual poetry or grammar. In this case the story is structured not around
the human household but in Mui’s absorption in the rhythms and patterns of
nature in those tropical gardens of Saigon long ago. The exotic plants and strange
fruits, frogs, insects, and birds, seasonally washed by sun and rain, all provide a
kind of alternate world for Mui and are not simply ‘set dressing’ or something
added at shoot stage to embellish the script. They are written in like characters in
186â•… Sue Clayton

Mui’s daily life, making tolerable for her the restraining verticals of railings and
frames of diving doors. Tran has said that his childhood memories are sensual
and tactile: ‘the smell of fruit coming in through the window; a woman’s voice
singing on the radio. . . . If I’ve ever experienced harmony in my life it was then’
(Johnston 2001).
Equally allusive, and more sinister, are the scripted references to �war-�planes
heard overhead, along with unexplained dialogue allusions to a ‘curfew’, both
are ready acknowledgement of a Vietnam divided and about to face war with
America, but they remain almost subliminal and contained in this careful lexicon
of images, underwritten so as to interweave with the subtle rituals of Mui’s daily
life. According to Tran, this creation of gentle natural rhythms and customs, with
the war referred to only indirectly, is part of his strategy to explore and promote
the idea of Â�‘Vietnamese-Â�ness’, for like Mantovani, Tran sought to counterbalance
a global media loaded with sensationalist images, in his case the gritty news
footage and melodramatic �military-�movie scenarios that saturated Western film
and television for decades after the Vietnam war was over:

When you go to Vietnam today the people who have lived through the war
with the Americans don’t talk about it. It just doesn’t come into their minds
to do so. And in some ways, possibly subconsciously, I wanted Vietnam to
regain her normality.
(Johnston 2001)

Tran’s statement may to us sound simply like Â�wish-Â�fulfilment (how can a country
in one generation simply stop thinking about its invaders?) but I would argue that,
rather, it speaks to the underlying values of Confucianism that I have experienced
in my own empirical research in Vietnam (Clayton 2003) and which is echoed in
many aspects of Vietnamese culture. Tran himself speaks of Buddhism and its
origins in Confucian thought, which I take in the context of conversations with
him to have two relevant characteristics: first (he means by it) a kind of fatalism,
a view which dictates that worldly events will occur beyond our control, their full
significance beyond our understanding; and secondly, (he refers to) a kind of moral
code by which we are to negotiate our lives in the face of such unpredictable and
unfathomable forces, which requires that the individual respond to, for instance,
suffering or adversity with patience and fortitude. Mindful of fate’s capriciousness,
Confucius preached that ‘virtue carried within it its own reward, namely, the wise
are free from doubts; the virtuous from anxiety; the brave from fear’ (Confucius,
The Analects IX, 28).
Thus in Vietnamese society many people like Tran himself speak stoically, or
not at all, of the war; and thus Mui does not baulk at her servant role, but learns
from the cyclical rhythm of her garden kingdom to show patience and tolerance.
Her employer’s family’s fortunes fall as hers rise, so that as she starts her own
household she completes, as film critic Gary Tooze describes, a kind of circular
rather than linear journey:
On sreenwriting outside the Westâ•… 187

The audience sees constant juxtapositions of characters that cruelly shun


nature while Mui is amused and comforted by their existence. In an extension
of placid Asian philosophy, Mui’s quiet observances lead her from her second
family home to an evolving one of her own, as she herself enters the ‘Circle
of Life’.
(Tooze 2003)

Similarly in his later film, At the Height of the Summer (in the USA called The
Vertical Ray of the Sun) (2000), a film about the lives and loves of three sisters in
Hanoi, Tran constructs a scene where a wife learns that her husband has had a
relationship with another woman. She cries and closes the door on us. He then
takes the narrative away from her, following another parallel story, and only picks
up the tale of the husband and wife after their crisis has passed. Tran says of this:

What interested me was to look at the idea of the couple in the context of
Confucius. In the film, where the photographer tells the truth to his wife,
she cries because it is painful to her. It is at this moment that I choose to
cut. What I cut out is actually very precious in Western cinema, that’s to
say the confrontation. In the West confrontation is dynamic, in Asia it is not
necessarily so, it is the moment when each character asks, which part of this
pain shall I keep within myself.
(Wood 2006)

The ‘Confucianism’ of Tran’s storytelling challenges our own received models


in two ways. First, his stories suggest a different narrative shape or structure – one
that is not necessarily catalysed by a �self-�willing hero responding to the inciting
moment or ‘Call to Adventure’ as Vogler would put it, but perhaps more about
the building and deepening of bonds, or the cyclical play of �life-�events, or the
slow journey towards accepting one’s place in a capricious world. Both his films
after The Scent of Green Papaya, Cyclo (1995) and At the Height of the Summer, concern
the family, and Cyclo in particular uses metaphors of circles and cycles as the
eponymous hero, a young bicycle rickshaw driver, embarks on a kind of pattern
of journeys around the city, and is embroiled in a number of situations where city
life and the �well-�being of his own family interweave (for instance one of his clients,
who seems honourable, is sexually exploiting Cyclo’s sister). By the end of the film,
having for a time lost his cyclo to the demands of the extortionist, Cyclo is back
on the streets, his reconciled family as passengers. However this is seen as only a
temporary harmony, not the cathartic linear resolution of the Hollywood plot;
furthermore, our focus has not been entirely on the diegetic events – as one review
puts it: ‘Cyclo’s excellence comes not in its plot but in its rhythms, and its flawless
juxtaposition of dreams and reality, of art and trash, and of pain and pleasure’
(Anderson 2004).
This raises the second aspect of Tran’s storytelling model. As I have argued
earlier, he does not necessarily focus on internal �character-�conflict to drive his
188â•… Sue Clayton

stories forward. To we who are so attuned to the high drama of the cathartic third
act, and to the histrionics of reality TV which mimic this model and privilege the
moment of the individual’s conflict or emotional excess, Tran’s approach invites us
to reassess the �world-�view, based on the notion of the �self-�willing individual able to
forge real effects on their own universe, that underpins our model. His approach
reassesses the �well-�worn traditions of establishing identification and point of view,
which can limit the viewer’s reading of the text to the conscious (and partial) view
of the hero. Maybe we should trust ourselves to see more.
I have made much here of Tran’s ‘Vietnamese’ outlook but I would like to end
by contextualizing this. Tran is a writer who sees inspiration everywhere, citing
the influence of �writer-�directors David Lynch and Cronenberg, and claiming The
New World (2005) by Terence Mallick as his most influential film. ‘It is like hearing
a Buddhist gong struck. – it is the first Buddhist movie’ (Tran and Clayton 2009).
He is hugely influenced by music, juxtaposing sounds from Velvet Underground
with traditional performed Vietnamese songs as �source-�music in At the Height of
the Summer, and working with Radiohead on I Come with the Rain (2009). He also
is a great lover of Bach: ‘This music opens doors, takes you to another place but
doesn’t quite let you in’ (Tran and Clayton 2009). His screenwriting grammar
or poetics, drawing heavily on both visual and musical tropes, is drawn from his
Vietnamese identity but combined with this eclectic and innovative approach
to other cinemas and to music, leaving us curious to see how such a writer will
combine these elements in his upcoming work for a global audience:

I do not feel French. Here is not my place. But equally I am not accepted by
the French as an ‘ethnic’ Vietnamese; apparently my films lack the sort of
‘veracity’ they want from films about Vietnam. I am permanently suspended,
uncomfortable … I wonder where my true self is. Cinema is in a way my
nationality . . . Cinema is a language that can be learnt.
(Tran and Clayton 2009)

Tran speculates whether his ‘true self ’ may after all be in Vietnam. ‘A life I haven’t
lived . . . but maybe have lost’ (Tran and Clayton 2009). The railings in The Scent of
Green Papaya, the music that ‘almost lets you in’; these speak of a constant theme of
reflecting on the immanence of experience; the moment of fully entering our own
lives; the fantasy of being truly present to our own experience and understanding.
This is maybe something else to learn from cinema from the margins – the
precarious nature of the self, without a home in a more complex philosophical
universe. Tran’s crime film I Come with the Rain (2009) filmed in Los Angeles, the
Philippines and Hong Kong, has been awaiting final edit and release for several
years owing to financial and editorial issues; his new film Norwegian Wood, based on
Haruki Murakami’s Japanese novel, will be released in late 2010. They both are
awaited with enormous interest.