After the Fall of Saigon in 1975, Communist Vietnamese film critics in the newly unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) widely cited the 1972 South Vietnamese film, The Faceless Lover, as an example of neo-colonialist psychological warfare. In response to their critiques, this paper raises several questions: What role did the state play in constructing Southern Vietnamese war cinema? If the Communist film critics’ suggestions are inaccurate, how can we account for the emotion-laden pathos of the film? Using Vietnamese-language archival resources, the essay argues that the critical and commercial success of The Faceless Lover results from the rise of privatized cinema supported by cinema policy renewals in the early 1970s and mainstream reception of melodrama during the Second Republic of Vietnam, instead of serving any neo-imperialist agenda. Informed by melodrama theory, this essay argues that the film’s melodrama mode and ambiguous anti-war semiotics constitute an undercurrent of nationalism. It systematically rejects postwar Communist critics’ arguments while expanding the South Vietnamese film industry’s historical agents and contemporary scholars’ more objective and nuanced perspectives. This study is significant because it nuances the relationship between state apparatuses and the production of a national cinema unique to nations whose “land, government and cultural imaginary” have been divided by Cold War politics of Vietnam. The special issue addressed in this paper regarding Vietnamese cinema concerns its lack of film studies scholarship on the cinema of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) after 1975, which stems from a systematic erasure of RVN films under the Communist SRV.
Keywords: Republic of Vietnam cinema, antiwar film, melodrama, neocolonialism, erasure
On June 15, 1971, The Faceless Lover (directed by Hoàng Vĩnh Lộc, 1971) premiered at four grand theaters in Saigon—Rex, Đại Nam, Văn Hoa Sài Gòn, and Văn Hoa Dakao. It tells the story of Mỹ Lan, a radio broadcaster for military station The Voice of The Rear [Tiếng Nói Hậu Phương] searching for an anonymous lover who once sent a heartfelt letter to her station. The film’s core message centers around humanism and patriotism during the Vietnam War. Historically, The Faceless Lover achieved great critical and commercial success at a period of film history when South Vietnamese films typically underperformed in competition with an influx of box office hits imported from the United States, Hong Kong, and China. The film set a precedent for Vietnamese film by being shown for two weeks at the Rex Theater. It entered the international film market, was translated into different languages, and offered a purchase deal by 20th Century Fox. At the Asian Film Festival 1972, the film gained recognition at international film circuits with the Best Film Award. Kiều Chinh, who played the film’s protagonist, won Best Actress at the festival. The Faceless Lover’s release coincided with a flourishing period in the cinema of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) that began in the early 1970s. Saigon hosted the Asian Film Festival in 1973, while domestic cinema gained increasing popularity among urban audiences. However, visions of the future for this industry were never fully realized: the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, left producers, actors, and filmmakers scattered all around the world or sent into Communist re-education camps.
At the present time, under the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, The Faceless Lover is rarely mentioned or ignored altogether. This essay, however, contends that the film deserves a reevaluation in film studies scholarship. It aims to understand the qualities of difference and division in the cultural imaginary between the North and the South using the historiography of Communist film criticism after 1975 about Republic of Vietnam (RVN) cinema. To thoroughly discuss the erroneous narrative and interpretation of The Faceless Lover by postwar Communist critics, the essay chooses to tackle the commentaries on the film by two critics—Nguyễn Lê Hùng and Lê Hữu Thời. 
In contrast to Communist film critics Nguyễn Lê Hùng and Lê Hữu Thời, my essay contends that the commercial and critical success of The Faceless Lover results from a shift in early 1970s RVN cinema history in which the rise of privatized studios, in collaboration with the state-run National Cinema Center [Trung Tâm Điện Ảnh Quốc Gia] in Saigon, thrived in a surge of creativity and escaped the paralyzed state of the late 1960s. In response to the Communists’ ideologically biased analysis, this article proposes that The Faceless Lover’s commitment to melodrama conventions communicates symptoms of emotional ruptures during wartime. Of acute importance to this rupture are embedded nationalistic themes within seemingly antiwar signifiers such as corporal deformity, cemeteries, and death.
This article is informed by melodrama theories of Rick Altman and Linda Williams. The significance of this study lies in its attempt to nuance the relationship between state apparatuses and developments of South Vietnamese cinema, which has been significantly understudied after 1975 under media and cultural policies of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. More broadly, it aims to address the discourse on national cinema that has only recently been paid attention to by international film circuits in countries such as Vietnam, where “land, government and cultural imaginary” have been divided by Cold War politics, and thus can be particularly challenging for film studies.
Communist Critics’ Accusations of Neocolonialist Filmmaking
In order to discuss Communist critics’ arguments, it is essential to understand the ideological background from which they are critiquing. Although it is difficult to find precise information on who Communist critics Nguyễn Lê Hùng and Lê Hữu Thời were, their condemnation of RVN cinema being neocolonial overlaps with a longer tradition of critics educated under the Communist Party’s ideology of Marxist art and culture. At the 1948 conference “Marxism and Vietnamese Culture,” Trường Chinh, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, proposed a vision for a cultural policy of Vietnam that would leave a tremendous impact on Vietnamese artists and intellectuals under the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, or North Vietnam) until Đổi Mới (Renovation, 1986):
The new democratic culture of Vietnam must be popular. It serves the people of our nation, the overwhelming majority . . . To achieve that goal, we, the pioneering cultural workers must, on the one hand, with resolution, liberate the masses from illiteracy and awaken them politically and, on the other hand, eradicate, with determination, erroneous tendencies in art and literature, and eradicate ailments inherent in our national culture or were inflicted by the decadent culture of French colonialism
As such, these critics were educated in an environment in which art, whether produced in the North or the South, was considered inherently political and necessarily tethered to the war. This precondition in their theoretical thinking explains why Communist critics would consider The Faceless Lover fundamentally anticommunist and purportive of American neo-imperialism from the beginning.
After 1975, books such as Điện Ảnh Sài Gòn trước 75 [Saigon Cinema before 1975] by Lê Hữu Thời, and Góp phần phê bình điện ảnh thực dân mới [A Contribution to the Critique of Neocolonial Cinema], which contains Nguyễn Lê Hùng’s piece, are filtered through a Marxist viewpoint that dictates the political message of any artistic production and critique after the Fall of Saigon. The recurring argument against so-called RVN neocolonial cinema in all collected essays can be summed up in the following excerpt from A Contribution to the Critique of Neocolonial Cinema: “We may conclude that in reality, neocolonial cinema is ‘reactionary, decadent, impure’ and a psychological warfare tool in compliance with the U.S. empire’s invasion policies in the South.”
The three categories of RVN films that are criticized include (1) “political films that promote the strength of the U.S. empire and provoke hostility toward communism and dishonor the socialist Northern Vietnam, the Soviets, and socialist countries,” (2) “cowboy and martial arts films that promote individualistic heroism and a penchant for violence that supports the ARVN’s [Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s] enlistment numbers,” (3) “decadent films that lead the youth astray from reality and to pursue petty desires, to passionately and recklessly live the fast life or to indulge themselves in vain dreams.” According to the Communist viewpoint, these films also promote individualism, hedonism, and “distorted, impure aesthetic values that are unsuitable with the fine traditional values of the nation and the working class.”
From this excerpt, one can detect parallels between the political rhetoric of the Communist film critics and that of Trường Chinh’s guide for Vietnamese artists: a thorough dismissal of any cultural values seen as “impure” and non-native to Vietnam, a harsh critique of political viewpoints that depart from that of the Communist bloc, a rejection of any on-screen performance that does not celebrate a positive outlook on society and culture, a distaste for the lack of political polarization in the narrative that acknowledges the goodness of the Communists and the vile nature of American imperialists. From these accusations, one may detect, with clarity, the Marxist influence embedded in film criticism written by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s critics after the war.
Following this general outline, the essay will summarize critical key points of Nguyễn and Thời about how they interpret the political climate, ideological messages around, and of, The Faceless Lover as an archetypal case study for RVN war cinema. As the film’s release year in 1971 overlaps with the “Vietnamization” of the American war, how the Communist film critics interpreted what Vietnamization meant for South Vietnamese military history provides a crucial basis for their war film criticism. Under pressure of growing dissent from anti-war movements in the United States, in 1971 President Richard Nixon enacted the Vietnamization policy to withdraw U.S. troops “out of the Vietnamese quagmire,” leaving the RVN to fight the war against the North. From the Communist critics’ viewpoint, this faltering period in the military history of the United States and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam created the need for psychological warfare tactics through war films. Critic Lê Hữu Thời historicized this period as one in which war films were weaponized as a form of psychological warfare to lure young, poor, urban men into military recruitment due to the rising need for enlistment into the ARVN, which accounts for the proliferation of the war film genre. At the height of American imperialism’s weakness in Vietnam, critic Nguyễn Lê Hùng saw South Vietnamese war films as a necessary means to sustain the fighting morale of ARVN soldiers by proposing that the film serves America’s policy to change the skin color of the corpses of the war dead and Washington’s effort to prevent the collapse of neocolonialism in South Vietnam.
This foundational assumption of war filmmaking as a neocolonialist enterprise dictates Nguyễn Lê Hùng’s interpretations of The Faceless Lover’s narrative and visual language: For Nguyễn, underlying the ideological ambiguity of anti-war signifiers and its atmosphere of war fatigue is an anticommunist agenda. One example is the hospital scene, in which deformed soldier Thiều requests that Lan tell a story about anything but the war. Hùng considers the avoidance as evidence of the film’s failure to critique American imperialists: “This ambivalent anti-war symbol, through the speech of the anti-revolutionists, is an opposition to the patriotic cause of Southern revolutionist people. The reactionary psychological warfare enterprise creates the confusion between phenomena and nature, between the righteous and the wicked.” The critique of the film’s ambivalence is repeated in Nguyễn’s analysis of the significance of Phạm Duy’s song, “Việt Nam, Việt Nam,” in the film. According to Nguyễn, while its lyrics paint a vision of freedom and a postwar future, “they do not detail how and from what we reclaim this freedom, which is another form of ideological ambiguity.” Nguyễn sees the failure to distinguish “invasion war” from “righteous war” is corroborative of American neocolonialism, rendering The Faceless Lover a deceptive cultural product that intentionally confuses anticommunism and antiwar. The underlying assumption behind Nguyễn’s critique is that “righteous warfare” is reserved only for Northern and Southern communists, while U.S.-supported RVN is antagonistic by default. However, this accusation of the film’s ambivalence does not address the film in itself as much as it reveals Northern Vietnamese artistic tradition. War movies produced in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam consistently depicted the Vietnamese and the foreign invaders on a straightforward good versus evil binary. Under the Marxist guide that tethers Vietnamese art to the battle, Hoàng Vĩnh Lộc’s film could not be a purely humanist antiwar film but necessarily communicated an ambiguous political agenda that served the American imperialists’ interests. Therefore, The Faceless Lover, a movie produced in pre-1975 Saigon that does not contain any explicit condemnation of either the Communists or Americans, puzzled the Communist critics. Their failure to comprehend a war film that does not explicitly critique the enemy raises the question: to what extent is their criticism is valid.
In addition to serving the psychological warfare agenda, The Faceless Lover is also labeled by both Communist critics as neocolonialist for indoctrinating Western “bourgeoisie philosophy,” which is ultimately a form of neocolonialism. According to Lê Hữu Thời, the characters’ artificiality and philosophical ramblings can be analyzed under different systems of Western philosophy, such as Sartrean existentialism, psychoanalysis, and nihilism. Existentialism, Lê explains, is compatible with this larger project of South Vietnamese psychological warfare because it aims at fabricating meaning to the soldiers’ fundamentally absurd and brutal fate while fighting for an illegitimate government as the Republic of Vietnam. From Nguyễn Lê Hùng’s perspective, the narrative of love and compassion that Mỹ Lan expresses towards ARVN soldiers symbolizes the state’s encouragement of the Southern people to support the ARVN. Furthermore, diagnoses Mỹ Lan according to the Freudian concept of “psycho-pathologie,” in which she develops an unconscious guilt with millions of soldiers fighting for her country and goes searching for Thiều to resolve that guilt. Nguyễn argues that Mỹ Lan’s quest is merely a tool to downplay the role of rationality, causing an illusion of winning while reality demonstrates a decline in the South’s fighting morale. Additionally, both critics overlap in arguing that the drinking and lamentations of soldiers are considered nihilistic, another sign of moral weakness and a symptom of how life under the puppet RVN government is devoid of meaning. It is evident to Nguyễn and Lê that the only righteous philosophy that should be expressed in cultural productions are those that adhere to Marxism—art that is easily communicable to the masses, optimistic about the future, and intensive on the portrayal of the working class, which makes it necessary to cast doubt on how they interpret cinematic works of the RVN.
A Brief History of RVN Cinema from 1969 to 1971
First and foremost, periodizing the film by “Vietnamization” is problematic because it fails to consider a more complex network between state policies, cinema technology, and the profoundly complicated process of creating a war film. It is worth noting how “Vietnamization” can be a problematic term. Cao Văn Viên, Chairman of the Joint General Staff of the ARVN, rejected this term since the amount of bloodshed by South Vietnamese had consistently far exceeded that of the American troops before the start of Vietnamization. Consequently, this political label fails to accurately reflect the history of RVN war cinema. Instead, through Vietnamese-language archival resources, a discourse analysis on cinema under the Second Republic of Vietnam reveals that the lack of war films before the early 1970s stemmed from unjust financial policies, the monopoly of Sino-Vietnamese theater owners and exporters, and a lack of facilities and equipment to make quality feature-length films. However, within a short period of time, the cinema industry saw an increase in the quantity and quality of cinematic works produced, thanks to a combination of factors: the self-reliance of newly-risen private studios in collaboration with National Cinema Center [Trung Tâm Điện Ảnh Quốc Gia], supportive, although not-yet comprehensive, policy updates from the government, and the active engagement of Vietnamese cinema with international film circuits. In comparison with the struggles that previous films experienced and proposals from authorities in the RVN cinema industries, Hoàng Vĩnh Lộc’s The Faceless Lover’s production process and achievement reflect the ambitions and slow, yet steady, progress of the RVN film industry in the late 1960s and the early and 1970s.
In 1971, the question surrounding the lack of war films was posed by the Saigon audience, to which writer Quỳnh Kỳ answered: “This inquiry has been responded with lack of equipment, funding, security. Therefore, nobody committed to doing a war film, except for some propaganda short films or a few nonsensical war scenes inserted into pictures to make these films livelier.” South Vietnamese films produced from 1966 to 1969 underperformed due to the “paralyzed commercial production” of Vietnamese cinema vis-à-vis the success of imported Hong Kong, Chinese and American films. The general discourse around improving RVN cinema centered around the lack of financial support, the inefficiency of cinema policies, the lack of a market for domestic films, and the caution against politically harmful content in foreign films. During the premiere of Ba cô gái suối châu [The Three Girls of River Chau] in Rex Theater in 1969, Professor Nguyễn Ngọc An, the Secretary of Chiêu hồi [Open Arms] and Information Ministry [Tổng trưởng Chiêu hồi Kiêm Thông Tin], stated that “even during the most prolific years, the number of feature films was less than 28.” The problem, according to An, was: “Our nation has not paid cinema an adequate amount of attention due to other problems affiliated with the very survival of our country.” An’s statement suggests that, first, despite the military conflict occurring in South Vietnam at the time, cinema was considered a culturally important art form that could impact the people’s awareness and sensibility of the audience. Second, because of its importance, the development of cinema could be an important agenda for the state after peace was established. The rise of domestic cinema five years later in 1974, as portrayed in Kiều Chinh’s memories of the RVN cinema industry, stands as an affirmation that An’s concern for the future of cinema was timely.
A major problem for the paralyzed state of cinema was the lack of a market for domestic films, which stemmed from the sway of lucrative foreign films over Vietnamese-domestic productions, and Chinese-Vietnamese studio owners’ monopoly of the Vietnamese film market. The monopoly generated concerns about the ethics of film content and preserving the rights of Vietnamese filmmakers. Most film importers [nhà nhập-cảng] were Sino-Vietnamese (18 out of 29), while only 1 out of 29 of the importers were pure Vietnamese in the import “quota” of 1972. Out of a total of 42 theaters, those owned by the Sino-Vietnamese was the majority. It was emphasized that the monopoly that “foreigners had on Vietnamese cinema trying to exploit Vietnamese cinema needed to be curbed, or Vietnamese [người Việt thuần tuý] with weak finances can easily be excluded from tapping into Vietnamese cinema.” Furthermore, Sino-Vietnamese importers’ monopoly on the film market, without sufficient governmental control, could easily lead to films with pro-communist ideological content infiltrating theaters. For example, in 1956, the film Châu Hãi Luỵ by “Trưởng Thành”—a Chinese Communist film company—was immediately taken down after being premiered at Samtor and Đại Quang Minh theaters in Saigon. In 1965, there continued to be warnings for censorship of two Guangdong films—Hương Lý Phu Nhân and Đồng Ốc Gong Thu, in which Communist actresses Nam Công and Hồ Phong performed. These instances demonstrate why proposals were made to increase the number of domestic Vietnamese films with socially appropriate content and to decrease entry of foreign films. Although the need to prohibit Communist film content was crucial to South Vietnam’s cultural fabric, the infiltration of films affiliated with Communist studios and artists was a persistent problem that lasted for more than a decade without any comprehensive solution. Although the Finance Department stated their position in a document dated May 3, 1965 that “our Ministry thinks that the development of film technique should be based on the value of the film’s artistic value,” still no action was taken in this direction.
Amid an overwhelming influx of foreign films, market regulations and unfair taxation policies impeded the film industry’s development. Taxation on domestic cinema was a major issue although the government had reduced the tax before 1969. In 1958, thanks to the efforts of early pioneers in the film industry—the syndicate of Vietnamese Film Productions [Nghiệp đoàn sản xuất Điện-ảnh Việt Nam], including Đỗ Bá Thế, Thái Thúc Nha, Bùi Diễm Lưu Trạch Hưng, Trần Văn Lịch, and others—tax reduction requirements were gradually addressed by the government. However, there were still instances in which tax policies favored foreign over Vietnamese domestic films. If importers needed to pay a tariff for 3,000 feet of positive, imported film, films produced in Vietnam were required to pay tax for up to 40,000 feet (covering negative film, positive film, audio film, audio tape). The income tax on foreign films depended on the import duty, but that of domestic films was based on the profit. Meanwhile, as the market for Vietnamese films was “too narrow,” it was extremely difficult to find a theater in the capital city. In general, despite the lobbying efforts of cinema industry’s pioneers, tax policies remained a major factor that contributed to Vietnamese filmmakers’ struggles in the domestic film market.
At the second Conference on Cinema on May 19, 1969, hosted at the National Cinema Center, writer Quốc Phong, director of Liên Ảnh Company, presented his proposals on the topic, “Finding a way out for Vietnamese cinema” [mở lối thoát cho điện ảnh Việt Nam]. Phong’s speech was particularly interesting because of the way he paid attention to policymakers’ lack of concern for cinema, and inconsiderate taxation policies that privileged foreign cinema. Phong bluntly stated that the problem was caused by people who were “prejudiced against Vietnamese cinema,” and added that domestic cinema’s lack of success purely stemmed from “film producers with only a mind for business and incompetent in film techniques.”
While Quốc Phong did, indeed, view the problem of cinema as one of filmmakers’ competency, he also offered instances in which the bureaucracy placed obstacles to the development of the cinema industry. He alluded to the specific case of the 1969 film Từ Sài Gòn đến Điện Biên Phủ [From Saigon to Điện Biên Phủ] to illustrate how Ministries’ decisionmaking could also affect the turnout at the movies. Despite the prime minister’s compliance with the request for tax relief by lowering taxes and surcharge from 330 percent to 100 percent, experts of the Finance Department who were hidebound by their occupation [các ông chuyên môn méo mó nghề nghiệp] only allowed taxes to be lowered for one week. The struggles were even worsened because “after countless complaints [and] requests, the tax was lowered for two weeks, but the film had to change its screening venue instead of being screened directly at Rex and Đại Nam.” The evidence illustrates that the cinema industry could not grow due to the lack of cooperation among interrelated ministries that oversaw countrywide cinema screenings. These policies unfairly subjected Vietnamese filmmakers to disadvantage compared to foreign films, despite the growing demand for more depictions of Vietnamese culture and society on film.
For Quốc Phong, the solution to the problem of cinema was to establish “more clear-cut methods that held departments accountable for responsibilities and tasks, and [to] draft decrees on cinema so that representatives and congressmen could discuss and solve [the problem].” Phong argued that Vietnam should adopt lessons on cinema development from the South Korean film industry, which had made incredible progress from having no success in 1953 to leading the award numbers in the Asia Film Festival in 1962 by lowering taxes for domestic films and raising them for foreign films, as well as allowing more access to equipment and film rolls, and to pay according to the official exchange rate. In addition to tax policies, he also suggested that during the early stage of cinema, capable studios should be encouraged and prioritized to export up to five films abroad, depending on the production capability of domestic cinema. Phong’s proposal for Vietnamese cinema to model what South Korean cinema had accomplished charted the ambition and potential of Vietnamese cinema despite its current shortcomings. It further suggested that the policymakers of RVN cinema were attentive to South Vietnam’s shared political conflicts and social imaginary with South Korea in order to develop policies that would be particularly appropriate for the budding domestic film industry in Saigon.
In the early 1970s, reducing the quantity of imported Chinese films became integral to the government’s support of domestic films. Allocation for film imports in 1972 was lowered to 100 Chinese films and 160 films of other languages, and the allocation would continue to increase in the following years to adapt to the production rate of domestic cinema. The new direction made ethics of future filmmaking a priority: “Vietnamese cinema, despite producing commercial films by private studios, should not be an unthoughtful [vô bổ] or harmful means of entertainment. Every film needs to address a concern for ideology and imagine righteously the people of Vietnam, and reflect acutely the problems in Vietnamese cinema.” In addition to the focus on filmmaking technique, the South Vietnamese authorities desired that domestic films must communicate ethical and cultural images that were “purely Vietnamese,” patriotic, and positive. It illustrated that the authorities were aware of the diplomatic function of cinema not only in its cultural war with Communist North Vietnam, but also of the significance of portraying the firm social cohesion of the RVN through cinematic portrayals of its people. In this way, film historians can locate the late 1960s and early 1970s as a period when domestic cinema’s cultural significance garnered a substantial amount of attention.
The lively discourse around mapping new roads for the cinema industry culminated in overwhelming success for the RVN film industry in the early 1970s, a remarkable achievement that can be attributed chiefly to the collective efforts of privatized studios’ creative prowess and their collaboration with the state-run National Cinema Center. The year 1969 also saw an upbeat note in Vietnamese cinema when I Call This Place My Homeland [Xin Nhận Nơi Này Làm Quê Hương], directed by Hoàng Vĩnh Lộc on a grand scale using innovative techniques, altered the perceptions of the harshest critics of Vietnamese cinema. The Center began to hold monthly conferences on filmmaking to encourage fruitful discussions and overcome the material obstacles that the industry was facing. The determination of the Director of Cinema Bureau in lobbying the RVN government produced the desired result: Alpha Studio’s owner, Thái Thúc Nha, received approval for his proposal from the president of the RVN in the form of a new decree. Thanks to this decree, the National Cinema Center was allowed to produce films with privatized studios, enabling film rolls, machines, and equipment to be supplied to filmmakers.
In just a year, clear improvements were accomplished. On “Vietnam Cinema Day Part II” [Ngày Điện Ảnh Việt Nam Kỳ II] on November 22, 1970, Ngô Khắc Tỉnh, the Secretary of the Information Department, recognized the revival of Vietnamese cinema from September 1969 until September 1970. The production quantity of “200 short films, 4 long feature films [phim tuồng dài], and a dozen more in production” was a positive sign, considering that there were years when no film whatsoever was produced domestically. This, the Secretary noted, happened because there was an increase of up to twenty private studios that contributed to the national filmmaking endeavor, half of which were newly-formed studios created by “artists, writers, and filmmakers who were passionate enough about their craft to produce films despite difficulties with funding and equipment shortages.” Moreover, the National Cinema Center and private studios also provided mutual support in creating films such as Chiều Kỷ Niệm [An Eventful Afternoon?] and Loan Mắt Nhung [Black-eyed Loan] and attracted a wide audience. The evidence suggests that the changing landscape of Vietnamese domestic cinema did not chiefly result from the state’s financial support, despite being a key actor in earlier years, but from the will of the private studios to achieve artistic excellence with additional support from other state-controlled departments.
While it is not certain whether The Faceless Lover directly benefited from some of the proposed policy changes, the film portraying patriotic and humanist themes, was produced in a climate where cinema was recognized for its cultural and political significance. The establishment of Giao Chỉ, Kiều Chinh’s private studio, coincided with a moment of RVN film history in which private film establishments were supported by the government to create feature-length films. The production team received massive support from the military, such as helicopters, infantry, tanks, and even an ensemble cast, all of which could not have been provided by a private studio such as Giao Chỉ. The mere fact that the film could be screened for two weeks continuously at Rex was a big improvement from the struggles that From Sài Gòn to Điện Biên Phủ had to experience. The Faceless Lover’s entry to the Asian Film Festival resulted from the work of spokespersons of RVN cinema to take Vietnamese films to international circles. By examining this tumultuous time in South Vietnamese film history, I contend that rather than “instantly emerging” as a purely psychological warfare tactic against the consequences of Vietnamization, RVN war films were more likely to owe their historical moment to an enhancement in national cinema policies and financial support to improve the quality of domestic films.
In the same vein of historicization, it is important to note that there is no evidence of Saigon artists, writers, or directors being forced into complying with a consistent political ideology related to war filmmaking. Instead, it was likely that writers and artists engaged in the war had the artistic freedom, conditioned by the market and the state, to recreate their experience in the form of entertainment. For example, Chân Trời Tím [The Purple Horizon], an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Văn Quang, an entertaining film about a tragic love affair between a soldier and a lounge singer, owes its inspiration to the author’s experience in the army.
The state encouraged the industry through film awards. The films shortlisted in the National Literature and Arts Award by the South Vietnamese government in 1971 alongside The Faceless Lover were melodramas. These films tackled topics such as romance, social/political conflict, and family tragedies, which seemed to be the staple element to achieve critical acclaim and prominence at the time. Some examples of this thematic pattern in filmmaking are extra-marital love affairs and the collapse of the family structure (Ngọc Lan directed by Đỗ Tiến Đức), insanity and the consequences of war for the family (Ngậm Ngùi [Pity] directed by Thân Trọng Kỳ), and the naivete of suburban newcomers in the new cosmopolitan society (Gánh Hàng Hoa [The Flower Vendor] directed by Lê Mộng Hoàng). With sensational images of the bodies of wounded soldiers and a hopeless love affair between a broadcaster and a deformed soldier, The Faceless Lover adds to our understanding of psychic and emotional ruptures in South Vietnamese politics and society, which were common ingredients to commercial success. This reading is more historically informed and opens up richer avenues of analysis than Communist critics’ psychological warfare argument.
Since the 2000s, artists, critics, and scholars have shared a more diverse perspective about RVN cinema as well as the film under study in this article. Phillipe Dumont calls to attention the systematic misjudgment and ignorance of Southern Vietnamese cinema in contemporary catalogs and archives, alongside a brief mention of The Faceless Lover’s ideological content. Lan Duong, in her 2014 essay, argues that the construction of Mỹ Lan’s physical appearance and actions signify a congruence between grief and femininity. She emphasizes the humanity of the soldiers in conjunction with the inhumanity of the war embedded in the text. Vũ Xuân Thông, who played Thịnh (“Lion”) in the film, remarked on the complicated nature of Mỹ Lan’s character: “Many people would think that Mỹ Lan was paranoid, but they need to read between the lines. It is no simple matter to spend time and effort on reading and responding to male soldiers. One has to be deeply affectionate about the military to do what Mỹ Lan has.” In “Ảnh Trường Kịch Giới” (2011), diasporic author Hồ Trường An gives the following assessment of the film:
The Faceless Lover is one of the magnum opuses in the history of Vietnamese war films. It deliberately avoids cliches in creating a plotline and character development. Human psychology is never a straightforward topic or rarely flows in logical turns so that the audience can deduce what will occur next. The film surprises us with unexpected turns and complicated swirls because we have only been acquainted with Cartesian rationality, which does not suit the sensibility of modern art. This rationality and predictability merely turn characters into fossils.
These comments and arguments by contemporary scholars, critics, and artists generate questions about gender identity in relation to aspects of the narrative that are inexplicit: what does the silence of Mỹ Lan mean in the meaning-making of the film? If bereavement or grief are the main constituents of the film, then what do they communicate? How can we understand moments in the film that do not seem rooted in strictly causal narrative or logic?
In this essay, I use a combination of melodrama theory and war cinema semiotics theory to analyze the text. I will focus the analysis on the “anti-war” moments in the film which demonstrate the emotional ruptures between the characters of the film (such as between Thông and his mother, between Thiều and Mỹ Lan, and among the soldiers), and investigate the underlying nationalistic message communicated in the text.
The melodramatic film theory of Rick Altman provides a productive avenue for discussing the narrative logic of the melodramatic mode. According to Altman, the main elements of melodrama such as rhythmic montages, inexplicable events, and overlong spectacles, can be understood under a separate logic system that exists dialectically with classical narrative logic. The classical narrative model is defined by its focus on the hermeneutic method of storytelling that starts with conflict and ends with a resolution. Altman, on the other hand, distinguishes melodramatic reasoning from classical narrativity by its operation upon a more “mythic causality,” which refers to the tendency for the motion picture to culminate in more exaggerated or idealized situations (i.e., the binaries of good vs. evil) instead of adhering to an explicit causal relationship. Using Casablanca (1943, directed by Michael Curtiz) as an example, Altman illustrates some moments in the film that seem unmotivated and unexplained to shed light on the concept of “mythic causality.” For example, Altman points out that the film does not clearly explain why Rick Blaine had possession of the visa that could liberate Ilsa and Victor, or what made Rick send Ilsa to freedom. For Altman, the essence of the melodrama carries mythic qualities, such as what makes Bogie and Bergman an archetypal couple, and the moments that make Strasser an embodiment of not merely Nazism but also evil. Meanwhile, Altman recognizes that aside from forming mythical archetypes, each character’s contingency with their locality and history implies that they embody the hope and freedom of the United States in their fight against the Nazis. Altman acknowledges that the dialectical relationship between causal, psychologically motivated events, and more mythical, eternal qualities create the appeal of the melodrama mode of spectatorship: “Whenever the film moves toward psychology and time, it is wrenched back toward myth and eternity. Neither is dominant. It is the very conflict between the two that leads to the bittersweet conclusion.”
Influenced by Altman’s hypothesis on melodrama’s capacity to operate under a second system of logic, feminist scholar Linda Williams discusses the melodrama as a category of the body-genre. She conceptualizes “body-genres” by qualities of bodily excess, symptoms of ecstasy, the Freudian notion of original fantasy, and temporality of such fantasy. According to Williams, the essential quality of the melodrama lies in the overflowing of emotions, ecstatic woes, sobbing, and tear-jerking spectacles. In the melodrama, the problem of finding the original is typically solved by Freudian fantasy of family romance. The “weepie” characteristic of the melodrama signifies a “melancholic sense of the loss of origins”—impossibly hoping to return to a previous stage represented by the mother’s body. As the quest for reunion or encounters in melodramas generally takes place on death beds or coffins, origins have already been lost; hence, the temporal logic of this genre is “too late.”
Informed by mythic causality and pathos of overdue encounters in the melodrama, my dissection of the film focuses on the excessive emotions, and seemingly inexplicable moments of the film. In this article, a theoretically informed reading is interwoven by my critique of the negligence in the commentaries of Nguyễn Lê Hùng and Lê Hữu Thời of certain key moments of the text. Their negligence challenges the dominant narrative of the film and vilifies the cinematic products of the RVN.
My essay, first, inquires into moments of overdue encounters in The Faceless Lover. According to Linda Williams, in melodramatic mode, encounters are overdue because they “always take place too late, on deathbed or over coffins.” These incidents appear three times in The Faceless Lover: The first occurs when Thông’s mother mourns for her dead son at his funeral. The second takes place when Mỹ Lan speaks to the deformed soldier on his deathbed for the first time. The third is incorporated within the setting of U Hồn Cốc (Bar of Spirits) in which Mỹ Lan acts as a proxy for women who have lost their husbands in the war by setting foot in a commemorative place for the war dead. From one perspective, this strategy signals the loss of the family model and the desire to achieve post-war reunion. From another perspective, overdue encounters communicate a pro-war message, which sustains the power of nationalistic ideals. As such, a close reading of overdue encounters reveals that the film’s visual language conveys a nationalistic agenda rather than a neocolonial enterprise.
The depiction of the sobbing mother at soldier Thịnh’s funeral is an instance of how the Vietnam War destroyed families’ reunion fantasy. The scene should be understood as a juxtaposed relationship with the bathing scene from earlier in the film between these two characters. In this scene, the camera lingers on the mother pouring water and soap over her child with tender and caring gestures. The combination of static camera and soft melody in the background insinuates the scene’s tranquility. The emotion-laden pathos of the scene centers around the mother’s desire to reunite with her son, a fantasy delayed by the necessity of his commitment to the war. However, in the funeral scene (Figure 1), director Hoàng Vĩnh Lộc utilizes the overlong spectacle of the mother’s sobbing face to emphasize the pain of a mother who has lost her child. The funeral setting signals that the encounter between the two characters—the soldier and the mother—has occurred too late. The fantasy of a peaceful mother-child reunion demonstrated in the former scene has failed to materialize due to the destructive consequences of the war.
Similarly, Mỹ Lan’s and Thiều’s overdue encounter on the deathbed signifies the loss of reunion fantasy that sets up the film’s premise (Figure 2). The close-up technique used in this scene highlights the juxtaposition between their physiques: while the face of Kiều Chinh, complemented by bright lighting, convulses with intensely sorrowful emotions, the disabled soldier in a white cast lies immobile. Of acute importance are the shot-reverse shot editing and the rhythmic quality of the dialogue that demonstrate the central conflict of the scene. The soldier insists that he is forever removed from humanity, reaffirming his hideous appearance once the cast is removed, effectively negating any possibility of reconnecting to his original self. As this fantasy of romantic reunion is not successfully realized, the hospital scene signals that the quest for connection that Mỹ Lan initiated at the film’s beginning is lost.
Figure 1. Thông’s mother cries at her son’s funeral in Người Tình Không Chân Dung [The Faceless Lover], (Giao Chỉ Studio, 1970). Author’s screenshot.
Figure 2. Mỹ Lan cries as she reminds the soldier of the letter that he addressed to her in Người Tình Không Chân Dung [The Faceless Lover], (Giao Chỉ Studio, 1970).
The final example of the overdue encounter in the melodrama occurs between Mỹ Lan, who acts as a proxy for women in the rear who have lost their husbands, and the spiritual presence of dead soldiers in U Hồn Cốc (Bar of Spirits). After Thông’s brief visit, he takes Mỹ Lan to visit the Bar of Spirits, a recreational place for soldiers to decompress after the horrors of battle. Behind the gloomy colors of the bar, and heaps of broken images of the war dead around the wall, lies an unspeakable yet looming fear of death and deformity that the soldiers who remain must confront. As suggested in Thịnh’s dialogue, Lan is not the first woman to enter the Bar of Spirits, but rather the wives of deceased veterans once briefly resided in the bar with their children. As a result, by treating Mỹ Lan as a symbolic figure of femininity, her presence in the bar represents the overdue encounter between the surviving partners of the war-dead and deceased soldiers’ spirits. This commemorative motif of the scene signifies the nationalistic theme of the film.
The bar features a monochromatic color design with pitch-black walls and red lighting to indicate the theme of the underworld, in keeping with the bar’s name. The swirling camera exhibits Mỹ Lan’s point of view, as she gazes at soldiers’ hand-drawn paintings that are representations of soldiers who have sacrificed their lives. One painting portrays a deceased soldier’s iron helmet. Despite being a symbol of firmness, the painting’s caption, “Khoa’s helmet, shot on July 9th” (Figure 3) suggests a lack of dependability on protective garments—their strength fails to protect the vulnerable human body in war. In another portrait (Figure 4), the face of a veteran named Hai Cho occupies a major proportion of the canvas. His skin is burning red, and wispy white strokes seem to indicate his departing soul. Director Hoàng Vĩnh Lộc was adamant on using low lighting in this scene. Otherwise, he said, bright lighting would completely destroy the significance of this shot. The red hue that overwhelms the canvas evokes an ominous spirit of the underworld, effectively exposing the hellish reality of war. The caption inscribed on the painting “Hải Chồ, broke his head on 27/7” (Figure 4), similar to the previous painting, exposes the violence of war and articulates an undercurrent of anxiety among survivors over bodily fractures and emasculation. This commemorative spatial configuration is deeply connected to the overdue encounter as an event because the spiritual imaginary of the underworld signposts the loss of family reunion fantasy from the perspective of the women who are alive.
Figure 3. The painting says “Khoa’s helmet. Shot in the head on July 9th” in Người Tình Không Chân Dung [The Faceless Lover], (Giao Chỉ Studio, 1970). Author’s screenshot.
Figure 4. The portrait of Hải Chồ, a veteran who has been shot in the head in Người Tình Không Chân Dung [The Faceless Lover], (Giao Chỉ Studio, 1970). Author’s screenshot.
The unspoken fear that emanates from this visual design serves as background to a rarely witnessed dimension of these servicemen’s lives. At this moment, they have the freedom to interact without attending to obligatory military orders. Rather than exaggerating the ARVN soldier, as some commentators would suggest, the scene depicts recreational aspects of soldiers’ lives —drinking, misogyny, cursing—as a means to escape the frigid order of military life and horrid conditions of war. Every activity is captured in chaos, seemingly unmotivated. After their quarrels, one soldier emulates a dog to ask the other for forgiveness (Figure 5). As one storms in and informs that Post 12 has been occupied by the enemy, the squad instantly abandons the bar, leaving one soldier reciting an elegy for friends who have passed away. Reflecting on the controversy of this shot, Dương Hùng Cường, an actor and war veteran, commented that those who insisted on censoring this shot must not be familiar with military life: “The Bar of Spirits is where relationships are not bound by military ranks, we are all simply humans interacting with each other.”
Whereas Communist critics claim that the drinking and cursing of soldiers is merely a decadent representation of the tragic lives of those who have been lured into the battlefields, I argue that the bar scene suggests an expression of the carnivalesque. The chaotic mode of social interaction speaks to Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque, in which certain constructions encourage polyphony—a multiple vocality of voices—and disregards the dominant hierarchies, style, or order. The subversion of military hierarchies makes the “Bar of Spirits” more than just a space for soldiers to decompress, but it is also where their sexual fantasies, sadness, and perversions are liberated through foul language. To an extent, this ritual is absolutely crucial for sustaining their fighting spirit amid horror and melancholy. Therefore, the national cause for victory is once again sustained despite their expressions of hopelessness and misogynistic comments. By understanding the scene as an articulation of the soldiers’ humanity and vulnerability, my analysis opposes that of the Communist critic Lê Hữu Thời who suggests that the soldiers adopted nihilistic worldviews and decadent alcohol consumption to abide by their meaningless existence in fighting for a puppet regime.
In brief, all of the instances of overdue encounters—whether through the perspectives of women in the rear (Mỹ Lan and Thịnh’s mother) or the men on the front (ARVN soldiers)—gesture towards a nationalistic message by depicting the catastrophe of war and the emotional ruptures caused by the loss of life. This reading undermines The Faceless Lover as neocolonialist narrative that hides the true reactionary nature of the ARVN and promotes blind sympathy that Communist critic Nguyễn Lê Hùng and Lê Hữu Thời promote.
Figure 5. Soldiers quarrelling over personal affairs in Người Tình Không Chân Dung [The Faceless Lover], (Giao Chỉ Studio, 1970). Author’s screenshot.
Another feature of the melodrama that reveals the communication of nationalist themes in the movie is the overlong spectacle. In this section, the essay explores moments of overlong spectacles in relation to the protagonist Mỹ Lan in order to demonstrate how the melodramatic mode allows for female subjectivity to contribute to the meaning-making of nationalism in the film. According to Rick Altman, overlong spectacles are one of the “excesses in the classical narrative system that alert us to the existence of a competing logic, a second voice.” This protraction of the spectacles typically gestures toward the melodramatic mode that subtends the classical narrative. This section on the overlong spectacles rebuts several ideas of the Commmunists that propose that the ambivalence of antiwar signifiers in the film are actually a façade for the enterprise of anti-Communist psychological warfare. In a more recent vein of film scholarship, Lan Duong’s essay on landscape, gender construction, and nationalism argues that Mỹ Lan fulfills the role of an “engaging character” who serves as a point of alliance for the male spectator. In this section, I expand on Lan Duong’s argument by claiming that a crucial visual strategy of framing Mỹ Lan as an engaging character is the film’s purposefully prolonged shots that depict the relationality between Mỹ Lan and other characters/landscapes in antiwar moments of the film.
One distinguished example of how the overlong spectacle as visual motif contributes to the antiwar semiotics of the film is revealed in the surgery room scene. After it is shown that she chose Thiều—the faceless soldier—by random selection, the surgeon immediately criticizes her for being delusional and advises her to become more practical. In a scene resembling a medical diagnostic session, the surgeon bluntly states she was motivated by a psychological debt toward millions of troops fighting in South Vietnam (Figure 6). At first glance, the mise-en-scene of the surgery room seems to reveal the superior positionality of the surgeon in comparison to Mỹ Lan. In the scene, the wide shot camera, panning in a circular motion, presents a vindictive and totalizing view of Lan on the bed. The camera lingers on the female body, rendering it a spectacle laid out on the table for the inspection of the audience. In this shot, in conjunction with the dialogue, the red hue on her áo dài represents the color of the blood in her veins, the body gasping for life, which contrasts with the symbolic “tombstone” she has set for herself by marrying the deformed soldier. The entire set is shrouded in darkness, except for the white light projected directly onto Mỹ Lan’s body, illuminating her face and chest. The lighting choice suggests that the surgeon is inquiring into her mentality, enacting his role as the film’s voice of rationality. At the same time, she is reduced to an object to be dissected.
Figure 6. The colonel surgeon criticizes the motives of Mỹ Lan’s actions in Người Tình Không Chân Dung [The Faceless Lover], (Giao Chỉ Studio, 1970). Author’s screenshot.
However, on closer inspection of the body as overlong spectacle, one can interpret the static position of Mỹ Lan’s body to represent a strategic resistance to the surgeon’s harsh criticism (Figure 6). Mỹ Lan’s gaze into an indeterminable space and unquivering posture before the surgeon create a prideful appearance to the character. Her silence and unchanging expression provide neither the surgeon, her arbitrator, nor the audience any access to her thoughts or feelings. Later on, as Lan returns to the hospital, motivated by a commitment to the soldier, she once again meets the wrath of the soldier: “Either you are insane, or you have lied treacherously, even to yourself,” to which she responds: “This might be true. However, all I know is that I find peace here as if I have a realm of my own” (Figure 7). The dialogue suggests that her pursuit of the soldier is rooted in her admiration and her need to belong to the land and people of her country. It gestures towards a grander scheme of the collective nationalist message the film strives to impart. As such, her resistance affirms the woman’s subjectivity in a male-coded setting such as the military operating room. Mỹ Lan, in both instances, uses her scarce economy of speech to resist a simplistic psychoanalytic perception of her motivations. Through the lens of the melodrama, my analysis disputes Nguyễn Lê Hùng’s psychoanalytic interpretation that the quest for a reunion of Mỹ Lan with Thiều—the deformed soldier—is motivated by a pang of unconscious guilt or the superego, created by nationalistic ideals. Nguyễn’s misinterpretation of the narrative stems from his failure to consider the subjectivity of the female protagonist, rendered by the politics of spectatorship in her autonomous gaze. Instead, her sacrificial engagement escapes the register of speech in pursuit of dedication to a more abstract notion of the nation that requires no explanation. Such an analysis gestures toward the political undercurrent of the film: while Mỹ Lan’s sympathy for the loss and admiration of soldiers’ solidarity might appear critical of war-induced violence, it also suggests the text’s approval of the ARVN’s fight for the nationhood of South Vietnam, and thus contributes to the nationalistic undercurrent of the film.
Figure 7. Mỹ Lan resists the surgeon’s criticism of her return in Người Tình Không Chân Dung [The Faceless Lover], (Giao Chỉ Studio, 1970). Author’s screenshot.
Another notable feature of the overlong spectacle includes scenes in which Mỹ Lan, driven by her relationality with prolonged “antiwar” spectacles, engages her feminine gaze in a meaning-making process of the film’s nationalism. The first instance is a montage of the soldiers singing the words to a song of praise about South Vietnam’s desire for peace. The wideangle camera lingers on the thousands of soldiers chanting the song, “Việt Nam, Việt Nam,” by Phạm Duy (Figure 8). The editing interrupts her close-up, smiling face, seemingly tranquil and in contentment, with the swirling camera capturing thousands of soldiers chanting the anthem in slow movement. It signifies a shifting moment in her character’s journey, as her search for one singular soldier transforms into love and admiration for the military as a collective. A second moment occurs when her soft-eyed gaze dwells on the passing children in a cemetery, where one single dark-haired girl in a black áo dài sits solemnly beside the tomb of a recent war dead (Figure 9). It marks a period of deep contemplation for the viewers, as the image of children which signifies innocence, and that of the tombstone which communicates death and solemnity, contrast each other in one single frame. The cinematography of both montages center on the notion of the collective—the collective bodies of soldiers who fight for the nation and the collective suffering that families of the war dead have to endure after their demise. It is in these overlong spectacles of the nation’s landscape that Mỹ Lan’s pursuit of an individual—the faceless soldier—transforms into an endeavor for the collective. In short, signifiers of the antiwar genre—soldiers chanting for peace, and children in the cemetery—communicate a nationalistic message as a part of overlong spectacles through the eyes of Mỹ Lan. Consequently, this reading challenges Nguyễn Lê Hùng’s two interpretations that the presence of Phạm Duy’s song provides an auditory dimension to the craft of Hoàng Vĩnh Lộc’s propagandistic film, while the cemetery montage aims to use war fatigue to avoid discussing the role of the ARVN in wreaking the patriotic fight of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam against American imperialism.
Figure 8. Mỹ Lan observes the soldiers singing “Việt Nam, Việt Nam” in Người Tình Không Chân Dung [The Faceless Lover], (Giao Chỉ Studio, 1970). Author’s screenshot.
In short, through instances of Mỹ Lan’s spectatorship and the film’s engagement with prolonged spectacles that denote allegiance to the nation, one can understand how overlong spectacles—a convention of the melodrama—can contribute to the construction of nationalism in The Faceless Lover. In this way, the Communist critics either label Mỹ Lan’s actions as neurotic or propagandistic, without considering the functions of the melodramatic mode that accommodates female subjectivity in the film.