All Quiet on Quang Tri Front

Yesterday afternoon I saw Nguyen Huu Muoi‘s Scent of Burning Grass, a highly emotional antiwar film that is Vietnam’s official 2012 submission for the Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar. It’s basically a Vietnamese All Quiet on the Western Front about four North Vietnamese lads suffering the horrors of the Quang Tri battle of 1972, which was almost entirely a North Vietnamese vs. South Vietnamese face-off. It may be based on the personal experience of screenwriter Nhuan Cam Hoang, although this is just a guess.

I was affected by the depictions of suffering because I’ve never seen a Vietnamese-perspective drama about the Vietnam War, and because it reminded me once again (as if I needed reminding) that all combatants in conflicts such as these experience acute hell in more ways than I’d care to imagine. So despite the film’s problems, I was moved. There I was in a small theatre filled with Vietnamese, the only Anglo, watching a story about their pains and losses as it were, or rather the pains and losses of their fathers and grandfathers. I was inescapably affected.

But Scent of Burning Grass does, due respect, have problems. Or one problem, I should say. I’m speaking of an insufficient level of exceptional talent and refined professionalism, or at least the kind of exceptional talent and refined professionalism that would warrant even-handed comparison to the work of All Quiet‘s Lewis Milestone or, say, Paths of Glory‘s Stanley Kubrick or any number of respected wartime dramas.

The fim’s low budget creates technical believability issues that are irksome but not fatal. What is fatal, in my humble view, is that each and every actor has been told to over-act — to make feelings so explicit and upfront that one can’t help but feel annoyed.

And the digital projection at the theatre was appalling at times. Hardware commands would appear and light from the booth flooded the screen and compromised the image. Small-point-size English subtitles had been pasted into the margins of previous existing French subtitles that were slightly larger and yellow-tinted. This was tolerable except every so often the English subtitles would disappear for two or three or four minutes at a time.

A production guy whom I’ve been speaking to at Hanoi Film Festival parties told me that Scent of Burning Grass is, in his view, a “commemorative film” commissioned by and/or pushed along by the government rather than one that came out of Vietnam’s artistic community as it were. He was saying that there isn’t a sufficiently concentrated community of film artists in Vietnam, from which a process of honing and refinement and self-criticism naturally results.

And yet despite all this, I felt Scent of Burning Grass. And I’m glad I saw it.