Scholars analyzing national cinemas observe that representations of the nation are closely tied to images of land and landscape in film. Emma Widdis (2010) shows that Russian landscapes in cinema contain an ideological imperative in demonstrating “the struggle between individual and collective and a vision of the natural world as an index of subjectivity and its symbolization as a force of history.” Similarly, Bob Britton examines the development of Cuban cinema and the genre of documentary to argue that the “portrayal of landscape” has been a formative premise in Cuban films. Such work has “[mapped] a cultural terra nova of the Revolution” and “shap[ed] aspects of both film and filmmaking in Cuba since 1959” (Britton 2010). In the same vein, Vietnamese films, particularly those made during the era of revolutionary filmmaking, capture the country’s geography in film not only as an ideological placeholder for the country but also as an expressive tool to aestheticize sentiment about the nation. As an objective correlative for the figuration of love, fear, or sorrow, landscape in Vietnamese films is allegorical and endowed with a profound sense of poetry.
Examples of this dynamic abound in the film On the Same River. Centered on two young lovers who live on opposite sides of the Bến Hải River, the black-and-white film retells the story of revolution among the Vietnamese peasantry. Emphasizing the nobility of the nation’s quest for independence, the film is especially significant for its depiction of strong heroines, characters who are not only married to their husbands but also to the nation.[…] In this film, landscape is strongly tied to the thematic of reunification of North and South and the gendering of the nation. The film is paradigmatic of the ways that revolutionary Vietnamese filmmaking deploys both gender and landscape to symbolize the fight for national independence. However, the film also invests in the landscape an autonomous expression, especially when the landscape is used to lyrically communicate the characters’ emotions. Cued by shot/reverse shots of the characters parting and looking off into the sky, for example, a pair of birds may be understood as a metaphor for the lovers and their separation in the film, while a lone boat on the river represents a woman’s despair and loneliness. Linking the land to its people, the film traffics in a visual vocabulary that emphasizes the film’s Manichean conflict between occupying imperialists and an oppressed people. Part of its “expressive grammar,” to use Eve Sedgwick’s (2003) phrase, lies in the characters’ inherent relationship to the land and their acts of insurgence that lay claim to it.
On the Same River | Chung một dòng sông (Nguyễn Hồng Nghi, Phạm Kỳ Nam, 1959): Gender, affect, and landscape: wartime films from Northern and Southern Vietnam by Lan Duong.