Nostalgia for Countryland (Dang Nhat Minh, 1995)
Nham, Quyen, and Ngu are the three central characters in Nostalgia for Countryland. The film has two main narrative threads – one focuses on Nham and Ngu (whom is married to Nham’s older brother), rice farmers in a traditional village; the other centers on Quyen, an urban woman who fled the village when she was young but who now returns for a visit.
Nham’s role as the family head came very quickly in his late teens after his father had died in the war. He takes over the role of the “father”, deciding on household matters such as when to harvest the crops. While he may adopt a more “masculine” role, he still obeys instructions from seniors, most notably of his mother’s. This attitude of his is deeply rooted in Confucianism, a faith practiced by most Vietnamese which teaches filial piety and respect to older people as core values.
Nham also has trouble trying to identify with himself, especially coming into terms with his own manhood. He is attracted to Quyen but is embarrassed to face the consequences. Yet he knows he needs to find a partner soon. To complicate matters, Ngu has also taken a liking to Nham after rumors that Nham’s brother has left her for another woman. In a key scene describing the characters’ yearning for a sexual identity amid individual problems, Nham and Ngu hugged each other, with the sexual undertone of that action read as a fleeting (but much needed) gratification for both parties.
Nham eventually has to part ways with both Quyen (she leaves the village), and Ngu (for military service), thus his role as “father” in his family is temporarily halted. He writes a letter promising to return to the village and tosses it into the air. He knows there is a chance he may not return home like his deceased father. But because he understands his role as “father” is crucial to the social functioning of his family (even more so with the death of his younger sister), and in the bigger picture, the family’s obligatory duty to grow and provide food for the urban dwellers, he vows not to repeat his older brother’s selfishness.
Ngu‘s role is equally important to the Vietnamese society as Nham’s. She is expected to toil and struggle to survive despite the massive setback in her marriage. Her future is also the most uncertain of the trio. With Nham gone to serve his country, Ngu’s pillar of emotional (and possibly sexual) support disappears. With no one dependable to rely on, her role becomes self-sacrificial. Her culture forbids the act of complaining about the harsh reality of life but to accept it as it comes. However, in one of the film’s last scenes, Ngu gives Nham a notebook and a pen so that he could write her letters. She feels that the anticipation of these letters would drive her on in life, and that emotional support would be conveyed textually rather than physically.
Quyen is an interesting character. Her role in Vietnamese society is less obvious and pronounced. She is at the crossroads of her life and suffers similar problems faced by Ngu - loneliness, sexual frustration (she tries to address this by deliberately seducing Nham in a scene by the river), and the lack of a strong feminine identity as a counterpoint to the absence of a relatable masculine figure. Back in the village again after many years, she observes agriculture as the fundamental building block of Vietnamese society, and leaves the place skeptical of the
Vietnamese society’s treatment of its agricultural practitioners. Where is the respect for the farmers? The irony is there for all to see: While rural people like Nham and Ngu understand their agricultural roles they have to play for the economic success of their country, most urban dwellers (apart from the empathetic Quyen) do not stop to question what their roles in society are. Confucius would certainly disapprove of urban Vietnamese who are oblivious to the fact that they are ungrateful, disrespectful exploiters of the very people struggling to put food in everyone’s mouths.