Công Binh as Microhistory

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of seeing the film Công Binh: La longue nuit Indochinoise. Created by French director Lam Lê (Lê Lâm), this is a documentary film about the 20,000 Vietnamese laborers who were sent to France to work in weapons factories during World War II.

The film is based on interviews with 20 of these former laborers; ten in France and 10 in Vietnam. Through their stories viewers are exposed to the complexities of a turbulent period of history.

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Lý Công Uẩn in Film and TV

There were several films and TV series made recently about Lý Công Uẩn. They were meant to coincide with the 1,000-year anniversary of Thăng Long/Hà Nội, but some were not completed in time and others were criticized.

One production that was heavily criticized was “Lý Công Uẩn—Đường tới thành Thăng Long” [Lý Công Uẩn—The Road to Thăng Long]. This 12-part TV series was a joint production of the Trường Thành Company in Hanoi and EASTV in Hong Kong. Trường Thành provided the money, and EASTV produced the series.

Shot mainly in Zhejiang Province and costing about 100 billion dong or 5.3 million dollars, the final product was criticized in Vietnam as essentially a “Chinese film in Vietamese.”

Let’s think about this. The director and one executive director were Chinese, while one executive director was Vietnamese. Together they created a TV-series that looks very “Chinese.”

Now, there is historical evidence that Lý Công Uẩn was from Mân [i.e., what is now the area of Fujian Province] and that he had Mân people working for him. And as I wrote here, the Trần were also reportedly from Mân.

Then look at the early “Vietnamese” materials we have. The Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư is modeled after Sima Qian’s Shiji [Historical Records]. The Thiền uyển tập anh emulates Daoyuan’s Jingde chuandeng lu [Record of the Transmission of the Lamp (compiled) in the Jingde Era]. The Truyền kỳ mạn lục follows the style of Qu You’s Jiandeng xinhua [New Tales Told by Lamplight]. The Lĩnh Nam chích quái explicitly states in its preface that it is written in the style of Gan Bao’s Soushen ji [In Search of the Supernatural].

So what is the problem with creating a TV series about Lý Công Uẩn that looks “Chinese” in content and style when Lý Công Uẩn himself and some of his officials probably were from an area in what is today “China” and when the educated elite at that time created history and stories about themselves which employed forms of expression that had already been created by “Chinese”?

I don’t think there is a problem with any of this. However, I still don’t like “Lý Công Uẩn—Đường tới thành Thăng Long,” not because it looks “Chinese” but because it looks too much like a “low quality modern Chinese historical drama.”

Simply put, everything about it looks fake. I feel like I’m on an artificial movie set. I don’t feel like I’m being taken back a thousand years in time.

A film which does succeed better in taking me back in time is “Khát Vọng Thăng Long” [This title has been translated as “Aspirations of Thăng Long” and “The Prince and the Pagoda Boy”].

Although the presentation of this movie in its trailer (and that is all I’ve seen) is very much influenced by Hollywood, and while the martial arts scenes will make people think of modern “Chinese” films, the colors, costumes and scenery in this movie do not look as fake as those in “Lý Công Uẩn—Đường tới thành Thăng Long.”

That said, the costumes in this movie are still not as realistic as they could be. When I heard years ago that films about Lý Công Uẩn were being made, I wondered if anyone would consult historical texts to find information about what people looked like at that time.

One extremely valuable work is a record which, Chen Fu (also known as Chen Gangzong), an envoy from the Yuan Dynasty court, compiled after visiting Đại Việt in 1293.

This work records that men at that time all shaved their heads. Indeed, it said that “the people are all monks.” The only individuals who covered their heads were officials, who wrapped a blue/green (thanh 青) turban around their heads.

In this respect, Khát Vọng Thăng Long is somewhat accurate in the turbans that it has officials wearing. But if when Chen Fu said about the late thirteenth century applied to the period around the founding of the Lý Dynasty then under that turban we should not see any hair.

On this question of hair, Lê Quý Đôn recorded in his Kiến văn tiểu lục that the Ming Dynasty official, Huang Fu, banned the cutting of hair, and that it was therefore only from the early fifteenth century that men let their hair grow long.

In 1293, Chen Fu also recorded that people went barefoot, and that the skin on their feet was very thick. He also said that men and women bathed together in the same river (that scene would have to appear in a Hollywood movie!).

Chen Fu also recorded that slaves had tattoos on their foreheads which indicated who they belonged too, such as “quan trung khách” (官中客) to indicate that they belonged to an official.

Finally, Chen Fu said that men and women both wore clothes that were black.

So while Khát Vọng Thăng Long does seem to do a better job at capturing the past than the TV series Lý Công Uẩn—Đường tới thành Thăng Long, there is more that could be done. Nonetheless, it looks like this movie does succeed in taking its viewers to someplace other than an artificial movie set.

And on the issue of these films being too “Chinese,” again, the elite in the Red River Delta at the time of Lý Công Uẩn shared a great deal with the elite in areas to their north, particularly culture and religion, but even blood. Making a movie that depicts a land that was completely unique would be just as problematic as making it “too Chinese.”

The best solution is just to aim for historical accuracy. But of course it’s also a good idea to add a sexy river bathing scene (Hollywood style) so that people will buy tickets to watch. Or even better, do it Bollywood style with lots of young men and maidens singing and dancing as they frolic in the water. . .