Homes, Memories, Perceptions: Ethnic Minorities and the Scars of War in Vietnam— ’The Tree House,’ dir. Trương Minh Quý, 2019

By |September 14th, 2020|Country: , , , |

A poetic yet informative journey across the unconventional homes of Vietnamese ethnic minorities becomes a rumination on belonging, displacement, and weaponized alienation

The Tree House, Trương Minh Quý, Nhà Cây
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WHAT IT’S ABOUT: A Vietnamese filmmaker comes to settle Mars in 2045, and as he eases into his new, strange life and makes a film about his experiences, he keeps in constant communication with his father. The notions of home, belonging, memory, and displacement populate their conversations, as the project of documenting reality on Mars is abandoned, and the film takes shape in the form of these conversations overlaid over archival footage from the Vietnamese jungle, from the Vietnam War and after. The man’s own story of growing up in a majority Kinh-Vietnamese household intertwines with those from Vietnam’s smaller ethnic groups. A Cor man who grew up in a tree house in the wilderness in the aftermath of the war, a woman from the Rục ethnic group, known for their cave dwellings, and the Jarai people who commemorate their deceased with building small huts full of mementos that they can visit. Alongside the American propaganda footage of the South Vietnamese resettlement in the war’s aftermath, the film becomes a sweeping, multifaceted tapestry of what home and belonging in the Vietnamese context are.

WHO MADE IT: Trương Minh Quý is a young Vietnamese filmmaker who was born in the city of Buôn Ma Thuột in the Central Highlands, the place of the decisive battle of the Vietnam War. His upbringing, amidst the different ethnicities, and in the landscape bearing the scars of the war, became a focal point of his career, alongside the fixation on futurism. His previous two shorts were also set in the future and dealt with forest dwellings and the colonization of Mars. “The Tree House” is Trương’s debut feature, which he 

The people featured in the film are all real representatives of ethnic minorities. Hồ Văn Lang, the Cor man who lived in the tree house, became a sensation across Vietnam upon him and his father being discovered and remains the subject of much speculation. Cao Thi Hậu, the Rục woman, is less famous, although her tribe is often sensationalized in the press, too, alongside other uncontacted tribes like the Sentinelese. However, that is factually incorrect, as the Rục have been contacted, and the Vietnamese government has been relocating them for a while now, as one can see by the behavior of the Rục featured in the film. There are also various Jarai people in the film: also known as Montagnards (mountain people), they primarily aligned with the American side in the war, which has led to much animosity in the post-War time. The film features footage from when they were admitted to resettlement camps: the agreement between the American Army and the Jarai was that those who fought on the South Vietnam side would then be resettled in the US. This only came true for 1500 out of 750000, and those left were set to deal with the aftermath of their decisions on the home soil. 

Similarly, Thái Thanh, the South Vietnamese singer featured in the film, is known for having refused to perform communist party songs in the 70s and the influence it had on her career until she finally immigrated to the US.

WHY DO WE CARE: Of course, as the name suggests, the central theme to the film are houses that people live in, and there are short segments throughout then film’s body where the narrator draws different kinds of abodes. The tree house in which Hồ was living with his father gets the privilege of a mention in the title, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the defining model. We don’t get to explore the logistics of the tree-dwelling as much as we do with the caves and existence alongside the mourning huts. However, it’s not merely how habitation occurs that interest Trương or the viewer. It’s the capacity to which dwellings can shelter.

Hồ and his father came to the tree house to hide away from the bombs, which leveled their original house. Cao and her family hoped to be away from the war in their caves; however, the children were taken away by the American soldiers. Cao poignantly recalls the event because she and her sisters had helped their father prepare a roasted monkey but did not get to enjoy the meat, partaking of the Western candies instead. Meanwhile, the Jarai dwellings offer an even more effective kind of abstraction from reality, through the positive/negative notion of existence, where being present in the world and navigating the afterlife are adjacent conditions, the border between them much more transparent than what we’re used to in the traditional understanding of mortality.

And this is where it gets more complicated: the investigation of a home as something possessed is not possible within the framework of the film because none of the people featured still have possession of it. Hồ is struggling to assimilate, Cao and her kin have assimilated but still dwell on the margins between the different modes, Jarai visit the spirits in materially empty houses. Therefore, the only place where home still exists is in memory. But the split between actual memories and documentation presents a complication in establishing the possession of a past and a home. For instance, Cao can trace her memories to the point when she was born, but the narrator can not position himself in time and place for the majority of early childhood. Meanwhile, for Hồ, who is on a completely different plane of self-expression and reasoning, the justification of possession is retained within. 

Perception and reality form a fascinating knot within “The Tree House,” which is especially evident in Cao’s Rục narrative. The Rục are known to differ by the Kinh to have wavy hair, which, upon Cao’s admission, only half of the people in the family have—a nuance that complicates the view of otherness in the ethnic minority. Yet when the Rục return to the caves and talk about eating food that comes from the forest and doesn’t—something that often comes up in narratives about indigenous people—their trust in the nourishment gathered is higher than the food acquired through contemporary economic means. It would be the opposite for anyone better acquainted and more reliant on the capitalist forms of production. And this split is further reiterated in the way the ethnic minorities in the film or history had related to the factions of the war, as choices hinged upon informed consent. Yet, the extents of such consent remain unclear and are left to the imagination, just like the twilight iterations of the departed Jarai.

WHY YOU NEED TO WATCH: The narrator’s resettlement to Mars seems to be in proximity to the issue of participatory will and the positive/negative mode of Jarai living: removed from the earthly plane with its hefty heritage and submerged into a completely new capacity—which we don’t get to explore enough, but know tangentially that, for instance, cinema, is a thing of the past there, another wrinkle on the discourse of memory. There is a very interesting parallel that Trương is getting at here between the narrator’s experience and that of Thái Thanh, whose absence from the home soil caused a peak in her homesickness, yet did not make her any less alien to the material fabric of the homeland. The displacement that Trương studies is not merely in the concept of a home or land rights. It becomes entangled with the permutations of the ideological warfare, the questions of loyalty or abandonment, agency and opportunity, involvement, or separation. 

However, this presupposes a much deeper field of study, one that is not yet available, as Trương makes a concerted effort to retain neutrality in the space that implies a macro view. Investigating the conditions of the minorities within socialist Vietnam is not a project that can be carried out without the broader picture of cohabitation within the framework of historical colonization and imperialism, of which the war was another thwarted example of forced and voluntary collaborationism. Trương gets closer to doing that, but upon his own admission in interviews, he was investigating it as he went, already aware of the issues from his own presence on the ground, but not necessarily fluent in the larger scope. Perhaps, further exploration of the themes might become available should Trương continue with his inquiry into the scars of the war, the identity of ethnic minorities and their assimilations, and what ideological effort having a home implies.

Powerful and incisive, “The Tree House” is a promising feature debut, which could be the beginning of a fascinating career. Not daunted by the amount of material or by the fleeting nature of his exploration, Trương Minh Quý has a captivating ability to tie subjects together and present a rich tapestry hidden beneath what’s universally perceived. It remains to be seen whether the purity of his intent will persevere uncontaminated in his further explorations. What crystallizes now is a shrine to what he’d been able to accumulate and preserve, the cinematic dwelling that still retains the sheltering power that all the film’s homes had forfeited.

The Tree House (Nhà Cây), 2019
Director: Trương Minh Quý

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