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Song of the Stork

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In a nutshell
A Vietnamese perspective of the Vietnam-American war, as told through the eyes of five North Vietnamese soldiers.

A Singaporean-Vietnamese production, Song of the Stork is said to mark the first time an international production team has been allowed into Vietnam to shoot a film on the Vietnam-American war. The production brought the filmmakers on a journey that millions of Vietnamese soldiers took: from Hanoi in the north down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south.

Song of the StorkBased on real-life events, the story revolves around five young North Vietnamese recruits: May is the insouciant joker of the lot, Manh is the earnest, under-aged innocent, Van is the romantic intellectual, while Lam, the spy, and Vinh, the war correspondent, are more fully-realised characters who are not so easily typified.

The movie starts in 2000, the 25th anniversary of the Liberation of Saigon, with the middle-aged Vinh and Lam playing themselves. Through flashbacks, the movie moves back and forth in time, beginning at the Xuan Mai training camp where the five young men met for the first time in 1968. As the five narratives unfold over the years — interspersed with grainy, yellowed footage of the Vietnam War — they are woven together and voiced-over by Vinh.

I wanted to like this movie — I really did. After all, there is such a wealth of material here: the intensity and complexity of the memory of war, etched on the land, on a country’s collective psyche and on the individual souls caught up in the conflict. There are also entirely too few movies about the Vietnam War told from the view of the Vietnamese.

The directors have done uncommon justice to the Vietnamese landscape. In their hands, Vietnam is variously steamy tropical forest, soft rolling hills and cornflower-blue sky touching burnt-sienna field. Few — if any — of the slow, panning landscape shots strike the viewer as gratuitous or contrived.

However, the rest of the movie commits the unpardonable sin of telling too much, and showing and touching entirely too little. If I found it impossible to like the 2002 film adaptation of The Quiet American due to its heavy-handed moralism which was absent from the Graham Greene novel, Song of the Stork was even more difficult to like.

While it claims to set out to “take an alternative look at war through the eyes of a people who fought not for any intellectual principle but simply for the chance to live a peaceful life with their families“, what the film does is reduce complex, capricious human beings to mere symbols that serve seemingly no purpose other than to illustrate the narrator’s trite moral musings about war. “Acting as themselves” is right: while most of the acting came across as stilted, the three characters who were supposed to be themselves — Vinh, Lam, and Wayne (an American veteran) — tragically came across as most forced and cliched of all.

If Western portrayals of the war unfairly privilege the Americans and the Southern Vietnamese, then Song of the Stork commits the same error by veering too far in favour of the Northerners and lapsing too often into moralistic shoehorning. At the end of the day, the unrealistic and superficial treatment of the five main characters fails to make the viewer feel the human drama on the ground or the enormity of cost of war.

Directed by Jonathan Foo & Nguyen Phan Quang Binh
Produced by Peggy Lim & Ngo Thi Bich Hanh
Running time: 111 minutes
Date of release: 2003

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