Living in Fear: unusual and eccentric black comedy about finding redemption in digging up landmines

Chuyen Bui Thac, “Living in Fear” / “Song trong so hai” (2005)

It’s mid-1975, the war has ended and the Americans have gone, and the North and South halves of Vietnam are reunited under Communist rule. Nguyen Tai (Tran Huu Phuc), a soldier who fought for the “old” regime (that is, the corrupt South Vietnamese government supported by the West), has been released from jail and education camp and is now adrift in a new society with no skills and little confidence in himself. He happens to be a bigamist in a society that now frowns on “promiscuity” and both his wives Thuan (Ngo Pham Hanh Thuy) and Ut (Mai Ngoc Phuong), living separately, have young children to feed and bring up. Thuan’s brother, a minor revolutionary official who despises Tai, harasses him by forcing him to report to his office regularly when there is no need. What is Tai to do?

A chance at a new life comes unexpectedly when Tai discovers an unexploded landmine in front of Ut’s home. This discovery leads Tai to learn all he can about finding and defusing landmines from a friend, Nam (Mai Van Thinh), in spite of the dangers and prohibitions involved. He gains new skills and knowledge which also help him relearn farming skills and his self-esteem improves. Though the government forbids trading in found landmines, Tai sells them anyway to earn money to feed his growing brood. His immediate community, initially suspicious of him, ends up rallying around him and grants him land for personal and family use if he can clear it of landmines.

This is a very straightforward and simply told story, based on fact, about a man, cast into an unfamiliar world that is wary of him and his past, who finds new purpose, gains personal redemption and eventually wins social approval and acceptance by doing work that forces him to confront his fears and to accept responsibility for past actions, both his own and those of others he once served. The conventional narrative style and matter-of-fact acting in a context where people practise emotional self-restraint don’t allow a layered story of flashbacks to past histories and conflicts and of complex character development to develop so Western viewers must accept the film’s implicit assumptions about post-1975 Vietnamese politics and society. The new society is idealised as beneficent and allows Tai to find his niche as long as he works hard and fulfills his family and personal responsibilities. The dangerous work he does atones for his having fought for an enemy that planted the landmines. A very minor subplot that involves Tai’s brother-in-law and the female leader of the cadre in the area where Ut and Tai live is worked into the film.

Slow and patient, the film allows viewers to take in the beautiful rural landscapes, the farming lifestyle common in Vietnam in 1975 and absorb the little nuances of the actors’ minimalist style. Tai isn’t very emotional most of the time but camera close-ups show him perspiring heavily when he is defusing a landmine so the audience certainly knows he is anxious and fearful. There are comic touches: whenever the brother-in-law visits Thuan and Tai happens to be at her house, hubby has to hide in a huge pot or in the bath to avoid being seen; and both Thuan and Ut fall pregnant and end up in the same hospital giving birth at the same time so Tai has to dash back and forth between the two women in pain! Then of course there is the ultimate black comic punchline: Tai finds his landmine work less stressful than dealing with two wives, his children and an angry brother-in-law! The only problem with the plot that viewers may have is that near the end, the story-line suddenly jumps several years into the future and resumes its near-glacial pace; the only major change is that the brother-in-law and the cadre leader have found love and marriage and the brother-in-law is now at peace – probably thanks to Tai who saw they were made for each other!

Viewers hoping for Hollywood-style marital discord might be disappointed that Tai’s two wives already know of one another’s existence and accept each other without complaint. The only really significant character study is of Tai himself who relentlessly pursues his landmine work as if there’s no tomorrow and even includes a landmine on his makeshift Buddhist shrine; whenever a cow or someone important to him is killed by a landmine, he goes to his shrine to pray. At one point in the film, Tai finds a landmine and faints as if in ecstasy. Such strange details limn Tai as an oddball though likeable character, but some viewers might find his actions hard to stomach and understand. It would probably take a psychological paper to explain Tai’s behaviour fully but for the purpose of this review, the landmines represent many forms of freedom for Tai: they free him from his old work as a soldier, they give him a new personal and social identity, they help provide for his family and free him from family strife, and they give him new knowledge, new skills, new opportunities – in short, they give him a new chance of life. Their power to give life to Tai and take it away from others borders on whimsy and absurdity. Why wouldn’t he pray and thank them at his shrine?

Lovely and easy on the eye with lots of greenery and farming scenes, this film combines an important social and political issue – the presence of landmines in many impoverished countries and the dangers they pose to farmers and children – with an unusual and eccentric tale of redemption. It’s very much a film for the arthouse circuit with its leisurely pace and distinctive though underplayed comedy.

 

 

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