Film Review: Surname Viet Given Name Nam

by on Saturday, 05 October 2013 Comments

The film Surname Viet Given Name Nam was the the second of two opening films of the five day Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival 2013. It's being held at the Wonderful Theatre, just opposite exit 6 of Ximen MRT - catch it before it's over.

As the director herself commented, in trying to be helpful, the committee of the documentary festival added another level of interpretation to this documentary by choosing to not only subtitle the predominantly english language film in Chinese, but also in English. This not only made the choice of whether to listen or read the "interviews" in the film into a more complicated choice of which part to read when and whether to ignore the subtitles altogether, but it also demonstrated Taiwan's patronizing attitude towards english speakers who don't speak what they consider to be "standard" American English. They even subtitled the director's voiceover to the film though no native English speaker could possibly have misunderstood her words - which started the Q and A off rather awkwardly. But the film-maker although admitting her initial irritation enjoyed the way it added another dimension to the film and, if one was particularly motivated to do so, one could make a case that the English subtitles were for Taiwanese who simply wanted to practice their listening skills.

The film itself, without the cultural colonial lens the organizers lend us, also presents an array of choice when it comes to interpreting the film, we watch, as what appear, at first to be Vietnamese women who stayed behind after the fall of Saigon, struggle over their own highfalutin accounts of their lives in English in front of white walls which themselves seem to undermine the "reality" or veracity of these interviews. It is only halfway through the film that we learn that these women are actually first generation Vietnamese Americans and that they are acting out interviews that were carried out in the Vietnamese language by a Vietnamese writer who carried out the interviews with subjects in Vietnam and later translated them into English. This is an interesting approach to the documentary style, as, at the same time as it undermines the documentary genre by introducing an element of fiction, the performance of these women also questions how real any interview can be. This is emphasized when the director rattles off a wish list of what a film maker might seek from an interview, and how the director selects a few interviews from a large number using certain criteria, which includes many subjective factors like charisma.

The issue of translation is also brought to the forefront, as the director clearly makes a choice to translate these interviews into high-brow English which mirrors the high-brow Vietnamese that was the language in which the interviews were originally conducted. The translated transcript of the interviews also flashes up on the screen from time to time, which although intended to further challenge the viewers confidence in the "interviews" was perhaps what motivated the festival staff to subtitle the whole film in English.

Another interesting element to the film was the fact that it challenged preconceptions of representation: the viewer is led to ask, would the interview part of the film be any more "real" if they had spoken in Vietnamese and been subtitled in English, or if the women had not been Vietnamese Americans who had actually left Vietnam? Or would we have listened to less intelligently phrased english with as much conviction? This really is a worthwhile film to open the festival and the questions it raises have been key in the evolution of the documentary genre in Taiwan, especially in the work of one of the festival directors herself, Hu Taili, who raised similar doubts about representation in the prelude to Voices of Orchid Island, and who suffered from a lot of criticism for what some have said to be her misrepresentation of the island people in pursuit of her own fame. This film also goes to vindicate her legendary documentary-making career, as we can equally question the representation of any documentary film, even those made by "authentic" vietnamese, or authentic islanders - or even, like another of the festival directors, a han chinese man who became an aboriginal by adoption. Essentially the layering of doubt is part of the process of self-disclosure that is necessarily a part of trying to tell a story. 4/5

Here's the trailer for the film and remember to check the schedule of the festival for the other films being shown.

Conor Stuart (蕭辰宇)

Born in Belfast. Just finished his Master from the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature at National Taiwan University (NTU). Currently lives and works in Taipei. 

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