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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Borne Back Ceaselessly into the Past
by Donald Levit

Israel’s 2005 The Journey of Vaan Nguyen and the United States’ 2006 Churning the Sea of Time: A Journey Up the Mekong to Angkor are among sixty features and shorts premièring at Documentary Fortnight Expanded: MoMA’s Sixth Annual Festival of Nonfiction Film. A good number of these entries concern art, culture and current affairs, but these two “journeys” stand fairly apart and yet may be taken as representative of a theme once thought uniquely American, that is, the search for roots -- individual, family, national and universal -- in an age of unprecedented deracination. Quietly, in different ways, they approach the present through its relationship to what has gone before.

In English-subtitled Vietnamese and Hebrew, the first early introduces a party of Vietnamese living in today’s Israel and watching television in their language as a man sings what will be a thematic “my heart returns to the village as the river shines at dawn.” Although director Duki Dror’s time- and location-hopping (with a few historical inserts) is a bit confusing, Hoiami Nguyen emerges to the fore with his wife and five Israeli-born daughters. Like others, by chance the parents came to the Land of Milk and Honey, specifically as Boat People accepted in 1979 under Prime Minister Begin’s “gesture” of solidarity between the people of biblical Diaspora and today’s.

Slight and youthful at fifty-one, the father enjoys a certainly more secure and relatively more materialistically comfortable life in the new home yet is filled with dreams of his Bong Song “village of fighters” and the half-dozen brothers left behind. His view is counterbalanced by that of daughter Vaan, a modern woman whose twenty-one-year-old cynicism comes out in her voiceover blog and a column, “Jaffa to Saigon.” Through her eyes, racism is prevalent, in schools and shops, in the workplace and the army in which as citizens the girls serve, even in death since only a Muslim cemetery would bury the twins who died in 1983.

Raised on stories of the paternal family’s landed importance in the Old Country, and of his literally being forced out at the Communist mayor’s gunpoint, Vaan winds up back in the ancestral village with Hoiami, pathetically visiting redistributed houses and holdings to which he has no ownership papers. In the above-mentioned confusion, one cannot be sure when she joined him, but the point is that, emotionally embracing aunts and uncles for the first time, she needs prompting in language and Buddhist customs and, most drastic of all, begins to understand that either the decades have wrought insurmountable change or that the stories on which she was brought up have been colored. Western -- yet not entirely so -- she begins to reflect about becoming a foreigner in the dreamland of her ancestors.

The journey recorded by prolific TV director/writer/narrator Les Guthman, on the other hand, is not dramatic in format, nor does it detail a return to personal origins, for there can be no homecoming for the forced evacuees and up to two million killed by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge during the forty-four months following the “Year Zero” of 1975. Rather, for the fabled Cambodia of which Winston Churchill nevertheless wrote that he had lived “seventy-eight years without hearing of the bloody place,” travelogue technique is adopted, with headshot interviewees providing some social and archaeological data and voiceover readings from apropos literary texts.

Much of the travel is fittingly by river, up the 2,600-mile, eight-mile-wide at floodtide Mekong, from its Vietnamese Delta to the Kingdom of Cambodia’s down-at-heels dowager capital of Phnom Penh, upriver and then back to ascend Tônlé Bassac into Tônlé Sap (“Great Lake”) and to the town of Siem Reap (“Siamese Defeated”) and a short overland to, not only twelfth-century Angkor Wat, but also several others of the less famous but no less imposing three hundred Khmer monumental sites.

Aside from a couple of frames which should have been edited out or else developed, of a prosthetic leg beside one of many landmine victims’ music groups, several seconds’ commentary from a young monk and from the Golden Fortune riverboat captain, and a little more from the guide-naturalist Kin-Po Thai, there is no Cambodian input beyond welcoming smiles. Swiss businesswoman Simone Kaufmann notes the national lack of justifiable anger, “hard to understand for us,” surmising that Buddhism may inculcate a masking of real feelings. And, following narrational fill-in on some local customs and historical background, and early drawings and stills from different periods following rediscovery in 1858, specialist archaeologists John Stubbs and John Sanday speak on-site to explain the difficulties of recovery, preservation and interpretation involving the enormous assemblage constructed over four hundred years.

This two-pronged journey into “Vietnam’s Wild West” that is Cambodia, and to the ruins of its past glory when it controlled most of Southeast Asia, cannot do more than scratch surfaces of two such ambitious destinations. Readings of past writer-visitors’ insistence on the mysterious aura of the whole would also indicate the limits of full Western comprehension here, for, in the end, these mysteries can only be lived.

(Released by Zygote Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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