The Long Bien Picture Show, Another Translation

Dưới đây là bản dịch bài review “Buổi Chiếu Bóng Long Biên” tôi vừa được gửi tặng nhân ngày Quốc Tế Lao Động 1/5 bởi một người bạn, “lóng lánh” hơn và xử lý tốt hơn để bài viết được liền mạch.


By Phung Ha Thanh

Part 1

On my way to the Long Bien Picture Show, I had to resort to Google Map, don a raincoat and stumble, for the very first time, along Hong Ha (Red River) Road, which snakes along a resplendent ceramic mural considered as the world’s largest of its kind. In stark contrast to its grandiose name, Hong Ha Road is narrow, long, dark, bumpy and slimy – and ironically unfamiliar to a true-blue Hanoian like me. To add salt to injury, it also took me a while to figure out Hanoi’s labyrinth of ancient streets as I headed home after the show. For three decades, I have seen my childhood and youth elapse and my old age beckoning in Hanoi, and yet my understanding of this city remains as tenuous as ever. Hanoi has sprawled substantially over the years, its expansion directed toward to the West rather than the Long Bien area.

Upon my arrival at the venue, scarcely had I parked my motorbike when my senses entered a unique dimension bred by melodies that cater to the working-class taste. The singer, with dyed hair and black, unkempt clothes from head to toe, stood next to a black Lucky Music box right at the center of the venue. His voice was comparable to those of Vietnam Idol contestants, but the songs he belted out were incongruous with the photos on the surrounding screens. Some members of the audience had to grimace and cover their ears in an attempt to focus on the images displayed. There were five screens in total – three on the right, one on the left, and one in front (reserved for the documentaries). In the distance was the glow of MacBooks inside the building where Phuc Tan Sports Center is located. I also spotted a vendor of taffy. Unlike the candy sold years ago, his taffy came with peanut filling.

Part 2

This was the first time I had come across photography works displayed as screen images. The slide shows seemed to engender the perception that the passage of time was at once slow and swift. Slow, because each photo was on screen longer than an average movie frame and demanded scrutiny. Swift, because barely had some photos stayed etched in memory when others appeared.

I was not sufficiently well-versed to discuss the photos from a technical aspect but still stayed attentive to capture that “something” from them. On the left were the works of Boris Zuliani, featuring couples on Long Bien Bridge. Human postures, most notably legs, shone in the dark. On the right, Tran Xiu Thuy Khanh’s photos evoked such themes as isolation, desolation, inadequacy and fragility juxtaposed with serenity, calm, romance and vitality. The screen in the center, meanwhile, was livened up with Jamie Maxtone Graham’s works, to which I had been regularly exposed.

When I first came across Jamie’s photos in his Flicker account, emotional discomfort overwhelmed me. Ultra-sensitive to the notion of power relations, I perceived the Vietnamese portrayed in his photos as reminiscences of colonialism. Why, of all viewpoints, did Jamie choose that of a colonist? Poverty-stricken souls are so ubiquitous in Vietnam that I did not need photography to be aware of their existence.

My second brush with Jamie’s collection startled me as there was something about the pose of those photographed that suggested consent. They looked straight at the camera, the photographer and the audience. Such tranquility. Streets turned into a studio, and yet the photos also encompassed dynamism and spontaneity. Immensely infectious was Jamie’s artistic humor, manifested by the inclusion of, say, an arm swing or a secondary pose in his works. The photos, therefore, were both still and vibrant. While Jamie’s preparations for each photo shoot were evident, so was his willingness to embrace occasional surprises on the streets.

The consent given by the models suggested they had ample interaction with the artist. This is abundantly admirable considering the cultural gap between these individuals. In retrospect, the colonist viewpoint I once detested was actually part of Jamie’s intentions as it helped to expand the time space appropriate to Long Bien’s historical significance.

Indeed, the photographer managed to foster a web of interactions in his photos. Different photography spaces – the studio and the streets –  blended seamlessly into his works, as did seemingly separate time spaces (the colonial period and the present). Also noticeable was the interaction of humans  (the photographer and his models, hailing from two cultures and facing each other at Long Bien) or that between the artist and his works. In fact, Jamie’s exposition the philosophy underpinning his photo essay “When Evening Comes: Night Market Portraits” sheds light on another interaction – that between the non-linear visual language and the linear textual language.

The screen displaying Barnaby Churchill Steele’s photos was opposite that for Jamie’s works and was divided into two halves by a supporting bar. Fortunately, the arrangement did not affect my perception of Barnaby’s panoramas, which were meant to be discovered little by little. Barnaby’s works engendered the feeling that humans are drowned in a hectic space.

Part 3

It was finally time for documentary screening. Many members of the audience had been too busy catching up with old friends to take a look at all the photos. Children raced around the venue. The chaotic scene made one wonder what cinematic experiences of yore were like.

Such reflection arose because the very term “chiếu bóng” (picture show) was redolent of the nascent stage of Vietnam’s cinema, as recounted in a wikipedia entry: “Before 1930, each movie theater was equipped with only one projector. Upon the end of a roll of film, the lights went on and technicians inserted a new roll. The screen was sewn from pieces of white cloth and lined with dark blue or black fabric. Movie-goers sat on chairs or benches with wooden backs. The floor was level and the screen high, so the audience could easily get stiff necks. Some cinemas had no seat.”

Coincidentally, the first films about Vietnam were documentaries. “The first films made in Vietnam were produced by the French. The earliest footage, released by Pathe in 1897, revolved around life in France’s colonies.”

How do those films differ from their contemporary counterparts? To what extent has life in Vietnam changed?

The luminous Macbooks, projectors, the sports center, the street singer and the taffy vendor were all essential in the current narrative of Vietnam, gradually enabling viewers to develop a profound understanding of the surrounding socio-political and historical contexts.

Part 4

Some artistic works are indeed capable of mesmerizing the audience, striking the deepest emotional chords and making everyone inexplicably sentimental. Some, however, make a viewer surprisingly sober and conscious of where he or she stands in the broader picture, amidst the passage of time, as well as the enclosure and opening of space. So conscious, in fact, that sometimes an individual is pushed to the verge of tears.

“Some live their whole life here. Others want to leave for other places,” Jamie shared in an interview.

Throughout the Long Bien Picture Show, the audience not only perceived the works but also perceived with them. Indeed.

Translated by SGK

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