"It was nerve racking. You could never know if harm would come your way or not. The worst part was you just didn't know. So you couldn't do anything. You couldn't plan anything. All was fear. Fear of them knocking on your door and then take you away. And they were always courteous. Asking you what you did during the war. You couldn't even speak to your neighbor without fearing of being a scapegoat, finger pointed, singled out, and sent off to re-education camp." My uncle talks about what it was like after the fall of the South. He recalled walking for miles to get home when the war was declared over with his mangled blistered feet.
Announcement on the radio, "…dropped all your weapons, come and show yourself to the revolution. We have won." These were the chilling words he'd never forget. What followed were uncertainty and hopelessness. People were afraid. What would happen? Would they kill me? Imprison me? Brand me a traitor? Would I ever see my family again? So they left everything behind and escaped by boat, risk their lives to live. They carried shame of betrayal to the land that they were born in. Worst, some stayed to face the disgrace of defeat and the risk of accusation.
Sundance is currently showing “Last Days in Vietnam” which is about the last wave of Americans who helped evacuate Saigon and transported thousands of Southern Vietnamese out of the country. I can't imaging what's it's like to be left behind at a time like that. Fear of the unknown is the worst for me. I'd rather have my verdict upfront. I recently saw a vintage Vietnamese film called Đất Khổ (Land of Sorrows) by director Thúc Can Hà. It was made in 1971 near the end of the war. When the film was completed it got mixed up in the archive of an American production company, and only in 1996 was discovered by George Washnis and shown at the American Film Institute.
The film is about a family caught in the fighting between the North and the South. It's a unique perspective of what it's like to be under siege inside the city of Huế when the North's army is approaching to take over. It stars Trịnh Công Sơn, a legendary Vietnamese anti-war music composer. He plays Quan, a musician and idealist. Even though Son is not a professional actor, through his physical appearance, he’s able to embody the common Southern Vietnamese person's psychology of that time. He's skinny, short, frail, weary, and plays his guitar for peace. Furthermore, underneath his eyeglass is a confused nationalist. Like most Southern Vietnamese during that time, he's very concern about the future of the country but feels helpless. His older brother fights for the south, and scoffs him for not joining the army. He has a friend, Nghĩa, who is neutral. At a time like this, being neutral is most dangerous because no one can protect you. You don't have any allies. Both sides despise you. The South Vietnamese troops and the Americans think you're a spy for the North. The North treats you as a coward for not fighting for the independence of the country. There's a scene showing a bunch of disillusioned ARVN soldiers sitting around drinking. One of them brings up the question of whether Vietnam can be truly independent. It doesn't matter who wins the war, the fate of the Vietnamese people is dire - either be oppressed by the Communists or live under American colonial ruler. They may as well call the French back.
The movie doesn't take sides. There is a poignant scene of a Viet Cong who has shot an ARVN soldiers sitting on a tank. After he's caught and realizes who he's just killed, he looks down in shame. There is no victory in killing your own countryman. The Americans are also portrayed with sympathy. A sequence showing Trịnh Công Sơn's character (Quan) befriends an American army deserter and brings him home is particularly moving. Later the American man turns himself in because he's worried that Son's family might get reprisal for hiding a deserter.
The director Thúc Can Hà received a lot of support from the government of the South to make the film. There are scenes that incorporate real documentary footages: hundreds of people fleeing from the city trying to escape from the coming battle. They hide in a church. On the street, children and old people lying in blood underneath flipped vehicles. Yes, these scenes are real documentary footage that Thuc shot. He’s actually a cameraman for CBS during the war. This is his first and only film and he portrays the experience of the Southern Vietnamese people very convincingly.
In the last scene, the words spoken by Quan's sister bemoan the themes of the movie which are compassion and its lack of. During a time like this, you can give compassion but you don't ask for it.
Trịnh Công Sơn: