What interests me is not the love story – which I differentiate from the story of love – but the state of being in love: a state in which our perception of the world around us radically changes. Love can awaken our senses in an intense and unpredicted manner. It can open the door to an other world never experienced before, while literally blinding us to the familiar world of reason, of common logic and of everyday practicalities. (Trinh 1999, 253)
Unlike hierarchal and linear histories of nationalism, there is no plan of linearity within Trinh Minh-Ha’s film A Tale of Love. The shifts in narrative on multiple levels apparent in Trinh’s work create a cyclical plot with no beginnings or endpoints but instead with multiple parts that symbiotically create a tale of love. This paper will analyze Trinh’s rewriting of the narrative of nationalism in her film A Tale of Love (1995) but will also use supporting material from her books Woman, Native, Other (1989) and Cinema Interval (1999). I will show how Trinh’s challenges to patriarchal and Western homogeneous accounts of nationalism construct a woman-centered production of nationalism through a narrative based on love and storytelling instead of androcentric history. Trinh produces new non-linear narrative spaces within nationalism and cinema by rewriting nations and subjects as permeable, multiple, interdependent, and heterogeneous through the concepts of love, memory, translation, and shamanic filmmaking. I will argue that the non-linear story of love created within Trinh’s film facilitates the rewriting of nationalism and cinematic conventions through the use of multiple languages, translations, women-centered storytelling, narrative borrowings, and non-traditional cinematic style. This type of approach, I argue, creates multiple spaces for change within narratives and the world they narrate.
Trinh’s 1996 film A Tale of Love is an experimental film composed of interwoven storylines loosely based on the Vietnamese national poem A Tale of Kieu. The main character in A Tale of Love is a young Vietnamese woman named Kieu who lives with her aunt in the U.S. trying to work as a writer but making most of her money as a (clothed) model for a pornography photographer. She helps her aunt with her house and children and sends money home to her parents in Vietnam. Kieu works for a women’s magazine doing research on the past and present embracing of the Tale of Kieu within the Vietnamese diaspora in the U.S. The multiple storylines within the film fit together in a dreamlike way, connected only by similar words or images such as a set of scenes strung together by the shared image of rain. Conventional narrative descriptions of A Tale of Love cannot do it justice, as the point of the film is expressly not to have a linear beginning, climax, and ending. Trinh has said that she did not know the order of the scenes in A Tale of Love while shooting them (1999, 229). The film creates multiple interpretations of The Tale of Kieu, of the ideas and enactments of Kieu, of possibilities of love, and of ideals of Vietnam and Vietnamese nationalism. The film encompasses five main storylines (if one can call them that) involving Kieu, her aunt, her women’s magazine editor Juliet, her ex-boyfriend Minh, and her photographer Alikan. The important connecting idea between all of these plotlines is Kieu (the film character, who is working on a story about the interpretation of the tale within the Vietnamese diaspora, but also the protagonist in the poem). Like the character in the poem, Kieu in the film is defined as a sex worker, and is the object of identification for many other people. Furthermore, ideals of resistance are drawn from the poem’s Kieu and injected into the film. If this seems a bit confusing it is because Trinh’s main effort within the film is to refuse to allow for compartmentalization; these overlapping concepts and identities are not supposed to be separated. This is evident in the very structure of A Tale of Love, which interconnects scenes of multiple Kieus. Kieu tells her editor Juliet that many Vietnamese relate to and use the Kieu from the tale in their lives, from old men who are in love with her, to an old woman who believes she is Kieu, to the filmic Kieu’s recounting of the story. It is entirely acceptable that all these interpretations can conflict and all be right at the same time. There is no one Kieu and no need for one. The beauty of Kieu is exactly this idea that she is multiple and multiply embraced in such a way that all of these different interpretations are tied together through a heterogeneous love of Kieu. A postcolonial feminist scholar and filmmaker, Trinh constantly strives in her work to break down and disrupt the finite borders constructed by colonizers and patriarchy and create an alternative idea of human relations, such as with her production of the multiple interrelations between the many Kieus present in the story. This can be juxtaposed with a Western nationalism that calls for assimilation of many into one. Trinh articulates a nationalism that embraces differences as well as relationality among and between the people of a nation.
In the Western traditional narrative of nationalism the nation is construed as made up of a mass of individual but homogenous sovereign subjects. Nationalism dictates that subjects of the nation all share a common history, language, and usually ethnicity. Unity and assimilation are heralded within this Western nationalism. In Imagined Communities (1983),Benedict Anderson argues that nationalism is imagined as a way of creating comradeship among all citizens in a nation, who are all in turn imagined as essentially the same and embodying the Enlightenment impermeable subject. In a chapter of Cinematic Political Thought: Narrating Race, Nation and Gender entitled “Narrating the Nation,” Michael J. Shapiro defines nation as “a coherent culture, united on the basis of shared descent or at least …[incorporating] a ‘people’ with a historically stable coherence” (1999, 40). The nation is imagined as limited because no matter how large it is, it always has finite borders and those outside these borders are excluded. All of these notions of the nation are directly dependent on the Western Enlightenment concept of the sovereign subject who has free will and is equal to all other subjects (Anderson 1983, 6-7). Third World nationalism has become a topic within subaltern intellectual circles which debate the possibilities and problematics of an internal nationalism based on “outsider” Western Enlightenment theories, with some suggesting a new Third World nationalism is possible. For example, although Partha Chatterjee argues against a purely Western Enlightenment notion of subject and nation, he still says that such a notion is necessary to some extent to modernize Eastern nations (1993). In other words, he does not allow for a wholly new narrative of nationhood organically produced from within a non-Western nation. Although Chatterjee problematizes the Enlightenment notion of nationalism by showing how Third World countries produce different and/or blended forms of nationalism, he, like Anderson, still argues that nationalism is dependent on finite borders and a homogeneous population.
Both these Western and Third World assertions of nationalism are based on exclusive “Us/Them” narratives and linear patriarchal histories that claim themselves to be indisputable truths. Essentially, these approaches block any “Eastern” concept, such as Trinh Minh-Ha’s, that might challenge or rewrite this conceptualization of the nation. Trinh uses the notion of relational love to challenge the finite borders of insider/outsider (or citizen/foreigner), a major component of the Western patriarchal narrative of nationalism. She also upsets the Enlightenment narrative of a sovereign impermeable subject and community with an interwoven story of love comprised of different and separate strands that must also work together to form a collective community of the nation that does not require homogeneity or hierarchy. Trinh utilizes the idea of “the state of being in love” and, while this is not necessarily antithetical to romantic love, she argues “The conclusion of being in love with Love is one that I introduce in my own tale, one that is informed by the feminist struggle and its questioning of power relationships exerted in the name of love” (1999, 8). This is related to Chela Sandoval’s hermeneutics of love (partially drawn from Roland Barthes’s prophetic love) which is understood as an affinity or “alliance and affection across lines of difference” (2000, 170). Sandoval undoes the closed singularity of the couple (or binary) within romance in favor of love that works beyond binaries as a mode of social activism creating what Trinh terms “a love site that is radically a multiplicity” (1999, 241). Relational love as used in this essay invokes these ideals of productive non-binaristic love while also calling attention to love as always between and among people, differences, and identities.
In a scene between the main character, Kieu, and her aunt in A Tale of Love, Trinh complicates the assumed finite borders of the Vietnamese nation by showing the complex identities, not only of Vietnamese nationals in America, but also of their children who have been born and raised outside Vietnam. Trinh draws attention to the question of who “counts” as part of the Vietnamese nation and culture and where the borderlines are drawn, as well as how arbitrary they are. In the following scene, Kieu and her aunt are sitting across from each other at the dinner table and their conversation is caught in one continuous shot that remains stationary throughout. This emphasizes their non-hierarchical participation in the conversation and creates a “real time” narrative episode observed unobtrusively from a short distance. Part of their conversation is as follows (spoken in Vietnamese with English subtitles, with the aunt’s children occasionally being heard in the background in English):
Aunt: It’s so sad, I wonder what’s going to become of our children in 10 or 20 years? A
whole generation of youngsters is losing their Vietnamese. Will they still remember their mother tongue in the future?
Kieu: Don’t worry, to survive in America we have to speak English fluently. No matter
what you should continue to speak to them in Vietnamese. You can’t make them speak it just by forcing them. I think you have to love language if you want to keep your mother tongue.
Aunt: Keeping the language is difficult, but keeping our culture is even harder. Look,
the children watch TV and pick up American children’s manners. They no longer know how to address their elders, they speak to their parents and relatives as to strangers. The whole idea of the family falls to pieces.
Kieu: The young generation at home isn’t doing any better. After the U.S. lifted its
embargo last February, people said Vietnam wouldn’t have to worry about feeding its children. But what people really worry about is the new generation and its social values.
This exchange highlights the difficulty of defining which nation the new generation of Vietnamese in America belongs to, as well as how the new generation in the homeland does not fit into the elders’ definitions of national values. The traditional ideal of the nation presented by Anderson and Chatterjee, and expressed here by Kieu’s aunt, creates a space where no one fits wholly into the nation. Kieu’s comments, however, suggest that the love of one’s “mother tongue” as well as language itself can connect people together as a nation while still allowing for differences such as those created by the necessity to know English and live in American culture. This produces a narrative of the nation without finite borders or a homogenous subject – an America of immigrants and children of immigrants who are in a hybrid space between parallel national loyalties to two nations, and a Vietnam where even those within its geographic border are a heterogeneous group who do not fit each others’ definitions of Vietnamese familial relations. Language is a means through which national culture is expressed, so the loss of this “native” language is interpreted by Kieu’s aunt as a loss of national identity, but Kieu is quick to point out that the Vietnamese diaspora needs English to survive and that they must love (as opposed to need) their “mother tongue” in order to continue that cultural linguistic identification. Love here and throughout the film is not a romantic love but a relational love that ties people together in a different way than the individuated subjectivity of Western nationalism. Hence, in this scene a distinction is made between surviving in a region through language and belonging to a nation through loving (and not just knowing) its national language: one is a necessity and the other is a desire but it is still possible to do both and hence blur the borders between two nations by simultaneously being a part of both. There is no place in traditional Enlightenment nationalism for any idea of belonging to more than one nation, but here Trinh shows that it can happen and be embraced. This is the beginning of Trinh’s rewriting of nationalism narrated through love and heterogeneity.
Trinh’s use here and in many other scenes of Vietnamese with English subtitles interspersed with minimal vocal English, such as the children asking to go watch TV, highlights the role of translation and multiple languages in individuals’ everyday lives as well as the problematics and benefits of translation itself. This illuminates the places and functions of language in narrative, showing translation and interpretation as an inherent part of any storytelling. Gayatri Spivak argues that a major part of translation is the fraying that occurs when direct translation is an impossibility (and it always is). Translation, when done correctly, can open up discursive fields and proliferate new meanings instead of just reinforcing traditional narratives and/or restricting meaning. Spivak’s argument about translation, like Trinh’s rewritten narratives of multiple Kieus, is dependent on a cycle of love that constantly reinscribes both languages within each other in the same way that Trinh’s multiple Kieus are reinscribed in each other though always still different from each other. The relation between languages within translation is similar to how some oral and written manifestations of storytelling are interconnected: they cannot be separated or extracted from each other because they are tied together through the love both Trinh and Spivak discuss. In “The Politics of Translation,” Spivak argues, “our stake in agency keeps the fraying down to a minimum except in the communication and reading of and in love. … The task of the translator is to facilitate this love between the original and its shadow, a love that permits fraying, holds the agency of the translator and the demands of her imagined or actual audience at bay” (1992, 178). In Trinh’s work, the narrative of love is key because, as explained by Kieu in the quote above, it is the love of Vietnamese language and culture that will save it from obsolescence and facilitate translations, recreations, and recirculations in new ways in the new generation. Trinh’s translations and use of both Vietnamese and English throughout this film in the form of conversations, poetry and written prose unravel borders between languages and between nations and cultures in a way only possible when the translation across languages and across forms is done knowingly with love as part of its construction and purpose. This approach departs from the straightforward, utilitarian notion of translation as a means to an end.
The fraying created through translation both aurally and visually in the scene between Kieu and her aunt weaves together a heterogeneous narrative with loose ends and unanswered questions about the spaces in between English and Vietnamese. In the film, the viewer is constantly bombarded with multiple forms of language: English is spoken and written as subtitles and at other points it is written by Kieu and read aloud as a voice over. Vietnamese is spoken, sung, and written and only sometimes translated, always calling attention to what is not or cannot be translated. It is not necessary to close these spaces or explain away what might not be translatable because all of the spaces are acceptable. Trinh’s translations are an example of Spivak’s “ethical translation” of which she says, “I keep hoping that the student in the classroom will not be able to think that the text is just a purveyor of social realism if it is translated with an eye toward the dynamic staging of language” (1992, 188). Trinh is consciously attempting to simultaneously make available what is translated while also calling attention to what cannot be when she translates some Vietnamese exchanges but not all. The goal of translation for Lori Chamberlain is “to make available texts that raise difficult questions and open perspectives” (2000, 326), but, she paraphrases Jacques Derrida, there is “always something left over which blurs the distinction between original and translation” (325). In traditional narratives and translations there is a constant attempt to erase or assimilate any excess and limit all meaning to the finite and knowable, but Trinh uses Kieu and Kieu’s research on The Tale of Kieu to show that multiple meanings are possible. A Tale of Love embraces this heterogeneous excess. It is this fray of translation – between original and translation, between Kieus – that Trinh utilizes as a conceptual narrative of the larger fray within her rewriting of the narratives of nationalisms, communities, and identities. Linguistic translation stands in for the larger complexity of people translating their own places between nations, and the possibilities of multiple languages and translations is connected to the heterogeneous narrative of nationalism that also creates space for multiplicity and complexity. This is shown explicitly by Kieu herself, who thrives in both English and Vietnamese as both an individual and one of many Kieus by translating her own experiences into the Tale and translating the Tale into her own experiences.
One of the major challenges that Trinh brings to normative androcentric narratives of nationalism is a focus on woman-centered storytelling as fundamental to the production of national identities that weave together nonlinear heterogeneous spaces and subjects. By definition a women-centered activity according to Trinh, storytelling encourages multiple tellings and understandings, where history enforces a singular truth and insists this truth is most present in the current version, making only one version of a national history acceptable at any one point and all the other versions necessarily untruthful. Like storytelling, history changes, but the key difference is that within storytelling all versions of a story can be maintained. Trinh connects this idea of storytelling to nationalism in her focus on the woman-centered oral and written Tale of Kieu, which is always being reinterpreted within and outside Vietnam. Trinh’s film A Tale of Love, in conjunction with the chapter “Grandma’s Story” in Trinh’s Women, Native, Other (1989), articulates communal interconnection and differentiated national identities based on cyclical and interwoven storytelling (which is “historically” women’s domain). These works refute the “truth” and homogeneity of a linear singular historical narrative. Trinh’s utilization of the Vietnamese The Tale of Kieu in multiple ways in A Tale of Love is another level at which she disrupts homogeny and hierarchy through proliferation and fraying of meanings. The Tale of Kieu is simultaneously an historical poem, a living oral tale, a sociological research topic, a national connection, and a documentation of the heroine’s life. Storytelling, unlike history, is self-reflexively ever-changing and can have multiple retellings which all can be embraced. Storytelling as expressed in “Grandma’s Story” and illustrated in A Tale of Love preserves the ideal of multiplicity in its utilization of both written and oral forms without favoring (or rejecting) one or the other. The Tale of Kieu was an oral story for many generations before it was written down in verse in the 19th century, and after it was written it still existed in the oral tradition of Vietnamese people. A Tale of Love follows Kieu’s written research on the tale based on interviews of Vietnamese people’s interpretations and experiences of the tale, making it written but grounded in the oral telling. Kieu is interested not in an academic criticism of the tale but in how the tale still lives and changes in the many ways people love it and make it a part of their lives. The old woman who believes she is Kieu is just as much Kieu as the film character Kieu is: both are living the tale in their own way and even though these ways are vastly different the tale still ties them together, as well as the men who love Kieu for different reasons. Collectively, these people constitute a nation based upon knowledge and love of The Tale of Kieu.
In the same scene discussed above, Kieu says to her aunt, “if Kieu is the Vietnamese people’s soul as the people say, what seems important is not so much her oppression and her endurance, but her resistance. Only through this can there be change.” Unlike traditional nationalism where unity and universal, unchanging values are upheld, here change is supported as ideal. The Tale of Kieu, which Kieu references here, refutes a singular author or monolithic tale and instead produces multiple authors across time and multiple knowledges of the tale. This is similar to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept in A Thousand Plateus of the “rhizome,” which allows for multiple non-binaristic and non-hierarchical interventions and interpretations within theory and practice (1987). The Tale of Kieu is uniquely both written and oral in its narrative (both past and present) in a way that facilitates the interweaving of people, nations, and identities rhizomatically: oral storytelling and constant retellings encourage horizontal productions and proliferations of new, recycled, and modified narrative meanings rather than one unifying unchanging history that dictates who belongs and who doesn’t (Us versus Them). In “Of Nomads, Rhizomes, and Speed,” Colin Gardner argues that this rhizomatic aspect “ceaselessly establishes connections” that create a decentered movement of multiplicity “towards an infinite exterior, a multiplicity freed from the unity of the One, yet always returning to Unity as a constantly changing becoming-Other” (1993-1994, 43). Where traditional nationalism closes off connections and writes a singular history of the nation, Trinh’s and Gardner’s push to create endless connections opens up the possibility of unending meanings. The only thing that remains unchanged is the constant of change. At once unified and not, these ceaseless connections (and reconnections) within A Tale of Love and The Tale of Kieu contribute to the cyclical, infinite nature of this story. Trinh and Gardner are both suggesting a new kind of Unity to ground national identity: one of otherness instead of sameness.
Oral storytelling and the multiple understandings of Kieu and her tale produce a cyclical, weaving narrative of heterogeneous relations among people, their identities and perspectives, which traverses time and space. Kieu is not only embodied within multiple people in the film; the heroine Kieu herself has multiple identities. She is, simultaneously, writer, model, daughter, niece/helper, and friend. These multiple identities cross national borders, weaving together heterogeneous national identifications that at once differentiate and tie together. In Cinema Interval, Trinh says:
For me it is exceptional that the national poem of Vietnam is a love poem rather than an epic poem, and that the figure her people persistently choose to represent their collective self is that of a woman. … each government, each political community, each social group remembers and reappropriates Kieu accordingly. But the tendency, in both popular memory and official narratives, it to lay emphasis primarily on her endurance and sacrifice – hence, to preserve the image of Kieu as a woman constantly in tears, torn between circumstantial betrayal and eternal loyalty. Vietnam would not, however, be where it is today with its international reputation if it were not for its persistent spirit of resistance (1999, 79).
The Tale of Kieu as national symbol and the narrative of the Vietnamese nation challenges the historical basis of other narratives of nationalism, such as the many that place women in a secondary role of reproducing good citizens, by creating a space in which a woman takes the central place in the production of community and the nation. But though the tale is always open to new interpretations, in Vietnam it has often been reduced to symbols of female loyalty and silent endurance, even though it is also a tale of resistance that has fueled Vietnamese nationalism. It is this aspect of resistance within the tale that Trinh draws attention to in A Tale of Love through Kieu and her struggles to write and live and love.
The renarrating, reinterpretation, and reappropriation (i.e. constant retranslations) of The Tale of Kieu, the character of Kieu, and language in general throughout A Tale of Love are its most important and unique aspects. These retranslations break the linearity and static “truths” produced by historical constructions of nationalism and instead replace them with a women-centered, cyclical, changing, and heterogeneous narrative of the nation. The nation becomes defined through a translation of the tale and its meanings within and between languages, as well as between the people who tell it and live with it as part of their national consciousness. Kieu discusses the tale and its effects on the Vietnamese community, both inside and outside of Vietnam, with her women’s magazine editor, Juliet:
Juliet: Just imagine, women of all ages still feel this passionate about a fictive character,
enough to get their identity from her.
Kieu: Yes, and, not just women, also a lot of the older generation of men. Today illiterate people might not remember the poem anymore, but they’ve certainly not forgotten the poetry. They feel a kind of affection, respect, and even fall in love with Kieu as if she really existed.
Juliet: No wonder you said she’s dwelt in millions of Vietnamese hearts.
The narrative of a nationalist community is here built through a story connecting individuals’
emotional affiliations, rather than a shared singular history of the nation. It does not matter if subjects of the Vietnamese nation interpret or are affected by the tale in different ways. The fact that the tale is part of their lives creates a unity of diverse experiences. Like the Korean story Haan (a kind of national memory-text, the title of which means “suppressed grief”), The Tale of Kieu is part of the collective memory of a people. As Hyongshin Kim argues, in order to understand a nation, “it is necessary to understand the complexities of its history and memories that are rooted in a long past” (2005). Though Haan is based on the shared experience of colonial injustice, The Tale of Kieu is similar in that it is part of a collective memory that is complex and heterogeneous while also being a unifying narrative of connection among people. For example, verses from The Tale of Kieu are sung throughout A Tale of Love including the verse “We all partake of woe, our common fate,” and Juliet says of the tale, “what I, like your people, see in Kieu is an all-compassionate heart – one that beats for everyone who’s ever been oppressed.” While the tale is like the Korean Haan in its articulation of connection through oppression, Juliet here calls attention to the way that this connection through oppression is achieved specifically through Kieu’s heart and compassion. The Tale of Kieu and its utilization in A Tale of Love together constitute a distinctive narrative grounded in memory rather than history, because of their basis in affection, passion, and love. These tales create a story of a people connected rhizomatically without traces of or references to hierarchy, control, or a Western world wholly outside of them. Love and the “all-compassionate heart” of Kieu are catalysts for the disruption and rewriting of the traditional narrative of nationalism, generating multiple meanings and connections in the process.
Kieu’s interview-based research on the multitude of understandings of Kieu shows that the tale is the connecting string between a diversity of Vietnamese people, but this in no way means that all Vietnamese people must be the same, interpret the story the same, or have the same values, as traditional narratives of nationalism appear to dictate. Unlike history, the story becomes a form of individual expression and its repetitive retelling disrupts linear historical narrative with a cyclical telling, retelling, and identification process: “The story tells us not only what might have happened, but also what is happening at an unspecified time and place” (Trinh 1989, 133, italics in original). This emphasis on the story circumvents historical “truths” even as the patriarchal push to discredit women-centered storytelling continues, as Trinh points out in Woman, Native, Other: “All right, let them call it lie, let us smile and call it lie too if that satisfies them, but ‘let the lyin’ go on!’ For we do not just lie, we lie and love, we ‘lie up a nation,’ and our lies are ‘above suspicion’” (129). Here Trinh argues that stories (lies) and love can create a nation that replaces the reason and truth of history that justify Western nationalism. These ideas of storytelling and the story as opening up other avenues of being and feeling outside linear history are reiterated in A Tale of Love and The Tale of Kieu, such as when Kieu reveals that “People even tell the future using The Tale. They open the poem at any page and pick a verse at random, then predict what’s going to happen to you.” Here the tale tells what happens at an unspecified time and place.Trinh opposes the traditional patriarchal elevation of “good” stories which are linear, “true,” and composed according to the “right” formula. Instead she argues that these criteria are inessential, and even antithetical, to storytelling. The tale’s use of the past of the poem to tell the future illustrates that stories are not trying to be the truth, in fact they are explicitly “lies” and against the idea of monolithic “true facts.” Trinh writes, “The thread created moves forward crisscrossed and interlaced by other threads until it breaks its own linearity; and hence, a story is told mainly to say that there is no story – only a complex, tightly knit tissue of activities and events that have no single explanation, as in life” (1999, 233). The point of stories is expressly not to produce a linear compact parable but to create many possibilities without beginnings or endings.
A narrative of nationalism based on storytelling, such as that of Vietnam and The Tale of Kieu, challenges the Western and patriarchal notions of the “many as one” homogeneous group and replaces it with a flurry of complexity that produces a heterogeneous nation based on unity in multiplicity. It is a “tightly knit tissue” consisting of multiple interpretations, rather than monolithic historical facts, which can tie a people together without rejecting their differences. The story – of Kieu and of love – defines a new nationalism that embraces many interpretations and not just the one made by those in power. Here the uniquely oral and written form of The Tale of Kieu is again important. With as many authors as followers it becomes a collective memory that is always retold, not a history that is already written and disseminated. Jean-Clet Martin argues that memory is multidimensional: “Matter presents itself like a plane, memory like a sequence of planes strung together, a rearrangement of the elements in the sequence that memory will thus complicate with a cone. The cone is an enveloped plane, wound in on itself, around an oriented tip” (2000, 68). In the case of Vietnamese nationalism as renarrated by Trinh, the tale itself is the oriented tip of a vast multiplicity of experiences that are at once similar, different, and woven together to create a heterogeneous nationalist community of people across states and nations. These people are tied together through this story-memory in a way not possible through the singular truths of historical narratives.
A multiplicity of interrelated national identities is produced in A Tale of Love’s use of The Tale of Kieu in the form of many Kieus within the cyclical narrative, who are at once separate from each other but also intimately intertwined. Kieu says to Juliet, “I’ve learned a lot from the way people in the community see [the tale] and remember it, I feel like I’m living this tale too. Perhaps not all of it. I’m a woman of the ’90s after all. But there are more and more Kieu stories being told by women themselves. Perhaps I’m somewhere in the beginning or already in the ending.” Kieu multiplies herself in every Vietnamese person who appropriates the tale and applies it to his/her own life narrative. As opposed to Western history-based nationalism, the source of the stories for Trinh’s nationalism is actual individuals’ experiences mediated by this cultural memory. In A Tale of Love, Kieu is at once the main character blurred with the character from the 19th century tale, intertwined with the many metaphoric and real Kieus; she is both the same as and different from the other Kieus. Within the narrative, Kieu becomes the bridge between inside/outside, self/other, Us/Them, where women are concurrently individual and communal selves, “There are as many Kieus as there are talented women across generations whose destinies Kieu’s story has typified. Kieu is a multiplicity, just as Juliet is a multiplicity” (Trinh 1999, 241). Trinh’s purpose is not to oppose the West and its Other or even to correct “the gap between the self and the other,” but to explode the binaristic concept altogether (241). The point of Trinh’s rewritten nationalism is not to classify all people as a singular “Us” or a singular “Them” but to create a multitude of possible identities within the gaps that are ignored or explained away in traditional histories of nationalism.
The non-hierarchical and non-linear nature of Trinh’s rewriting of the narrative of nationalism is reinforced through her simultaneous rewriting of traditional cinematic conventions. Trinh’s cinematography and use of multiple bright colors, unique lighting schemes, and references to scents furthers the message of non-hierarchical heterogeneous narratives within A Tale of Love. While cinematic conventions dictate that camera movements follow the main actor, and the main purpose of lighting is to illuminate the actions important to the plot, Trinh refuses to accept these restricted functions. Instead, she replaces them with camera movements, scene colors, and lighting techniques that – like her use of the The Tale of Kieu – proliferate focal points and draw the viewer’s attention to multiple parts of a shot, rather than using everything in the shot to direct interest towards a singular goal, character, or interaction. In one scene between Kieu and Alikan (the photographer) there are multiple points of light without any seemingly natural or diegetic source: red and green lights hit the ground and the walls and only sometimes is Kieu or Alikan in the light’s path. The point of lighting here is expressly to draw attention away from the character and make the viewer focus on the setting, just as another scene of Kieu and Juliet has a stationary camera that focuses on a pile of books. Periodically, the two women appear in the shot, but only as they interact with and move the books. Trinh’s use of lighting and colors does not focus on the actors or the storyline and instead creates alternative possibilities to be interpreted by the observant viewer in an attempt to shamanically “go beyond the limited and all-too human” and generate new stories and connections (Ruiz 1995, 82). In this way, the scene between Kieu and Juliet creates a focus on literature that both informs and goes beyond their conversation about The Tale of Kieu.
Multiple heterogeneous readings are available to the spectator who avoids conventional viewing approaches that subordinate audio-visual elements to traditional linear homogeneous narratives: “As mass-media consumers, we are trained to view narrative space predominantly in terms of actors and action. But if you follow these colors in their full mobility, in their multifold relationship – in their contrast, texture, and rhythm – you may get involved in a story-track that can radically shift your reading of the film” (Trinh 1999, 11). Lighting and even camera movement does not follow characters’ actions but instead actors move into and out of light or the view of the camera, in many cases leaving a blank setting with no people present as you hear them off-screen. Trinh says in Cinema Interval, “Lighting is therefore not discreet or ‘invisible’ because its purpose is not simply to light a subject. On the contrary, the subject becomes lit as it falls or moves into the rays of light. Neither is privileged, both actors and light become visible when the two cross each other’s paths” (11). Trinh also uses colors in non-traditional ways, refusing to make them “fit” perfectly or reflect a singular ideal or theme. Red is predominant in many scenes. There are many instances of red walls, red lighting, red shirts and a red nightgown, interlaid with green – parrot, trees, plants in front of red walls – or references which intertwine different senses such as when Juliet says to Kieu, “A fruity blend of violet, pineapple, mimosa, and patchouli. Following the passion, the fashion of all things green.” These colors could represent many things such as red for love or the Vietnamese people (three red stripes in the Vietnamese flag represent the people from the northern, central, and southern provinces). Green might represent the homeland or newness, or evoke certain scents that are connected in turn to memories. Together with the roaming camera movements that are not centered on actors, these senses and techniques are “the interweavings of different fibers [that] create a heterogeneous social or cultural fabric leading to neither heterogeneous fusion promoted by assimilationist ideologies nor the tragic doubleness of Manichean positions with their anxieties or phantasmatic otherings” (Lionnet 2000, 29).
These uses of non-traditional visual techniques and references that connote other senses such as smell, and depart from traditional subject-oriented representations, create heterogeneous narratives that go simultaneously in many different directions – none of which are privileged or in binaristic oppositions. This is indicative of what Raul Ruiz describes as “shamanic filmmaking” which aims to create memories of “events we have not experienced; and put these fabricated memories in touch with genuine memories which we never thought to see again” in order to begin a process of experiencing multiple worlds and realities (1995, 80). In Cinema Interval Trinh states that “the relation between the verbal and the nonverbal, between what is said or read and what is seen, heard, and felt is never homogenized. The center of gravity and the moving force change place with each shot, both within the image and between images” (Trinh 1999, 10). This refusal to create a homogenous central image, plot, or even shot mirrors the theme of a new nationalism that refuses the homogeneity required by Western Enlightenment nationalism. Instead, it shows that there is another option available that has room for difference and does not divide all people into either “Us” or “Them.”
Trinh’s film A Tale of Love overlaps interdependent narratives that address the relation between “native” Vietnamese people and the Vietnamese diaspora in the Western world, to challenge the finite national borders that define who is part of the nation and who is not based on arbitrary geographical, linguistic, ethnic, and cultural markers. This Western ideal of a homogeneous national subject is disrupted through Trinh’s use of The Tale of Kieu to narrate, through storytelling, heterogeneous national identities that are at once independent of and interwoven with each other. These aspects of Trinh’s narrative of nationalism are further constructed through the simultaneously non-hierarchical use of shamanic filmmaking that foregrounds lighting and setting independent of the main characters and their actions, and invokes traditionally non-filmic senses such as the sense of smell. By creating the possibility of multiple and even conflicting focal points within the film and within Kieu (as both the main character of the film and the tale) Trinh challenges the idea of homogeny and replaces it with a nationalist identification process that allows for a multitude of differing attachments to the nation.
A Tale of Love, as the title explicitly shows, focuses on stories and experiences of love. In Cinema Interval Trinh argues, “What interests me is not the love story – which I differentiate from the story of love – but the state of being in love: a state in which our perception of the world around us radically changes. Love can awaken our senses in an intense and unpredicted manner. It can open the door to an other world never experienced before, while literally blinding us to the familiar world of reason, of common logic and of everyday practicalities” (1999, 253). The love Trinh writes of and uses in her film is in direct contrast to the ideal of non-emotional Enlightenment reason that dictates a Western nationalism based on objectively proving a particular nation is at the top of a hierarchy. Trinh utilizes the concepts addressed in this article to rewrite a nationalism based on subjective relational love that allows for many different ways of connecting with the nation while never creating a hierarchy that makes people choose between nations and only belong to one (such as the first scene discussed that shows it is acceptable to belong to both Vietnam and the U.S.). A major aspect of the film in many ways, the topic of love deserves even more critical attention. Relational love transcends borders, hierarchies, linear time, and binary oppositions to create new possibilities for theories and practices of narratives, identities, communities, resistances, and revolutions in a way not available within traditional Western nationalisms. Love is the narrative force behind all the representations addressed here and opens up myriad other spaces in which to challenge and disrupt patriarchy, racism, and limiting Self/Other paradigms of thought.
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Loran Marsan is a doctoral student in UCLA’s Women’s Studies Program where she is utilizing postcolonial and queer theories to interrogate embodiment in film as it is enacted through racial drag and passing. She received her Masters from the University of Arizona in 2002 and wrote her thesis on representations of difference in Jane Austen novels and their 1990s film counterparts. She is also currently making an educational video on Sandra Harding and standpoint theory. Loran can be contacted via email at LMarsan@UCLA.edu