I’m grateful for movies like “The White Silk Dress” because they offer insight into a country and culture that I don’t otherwise have much contact with. This film, Vietnam’s submission for the foreign-language category at the Oscars, wades through some 20 years of the country’s turbulent political and social history, as seen through the eyes of a peasant family. The story is epic-length, if not quite epic in scope; it’s also sometimes beautiful in its depiction of its sad, noble characters.
We begin in 1954, where two servants with cruel masters fall in love. The woman is Dan (Truong Ngoc Anh); her beloved is Gu (Khanh Quoc Nguyen), a kind, slightly hunchbacked man. With no money to give her a real wedding gift, Gu presents Dan with the white dress he was wrapped in when he was abandoned on someone’s doorstep as a baby. They escape to the southern part of the country and start their life together.
We skip ahead into the mid-1960s, with Gu and Dan now the parents of four girls. The family is incredibly poor, and Dan has had to sacrifice the dress to make ends meet. Here Western viewers like myself start to learn the significance of the white silk dress (or áo dai) in Vietnamese culture. Dan’s daughters must wear such a dress to attend school, and Dan goes to extraordinary, humiliating lengths to earn the money necessary to obtain one — just one, which the two school-age daughters must take turns wearing.
The film is a little listless during this middle passage, but things pick up when, to earn enough money to pay for the dress, Dan takes a job as a wet nurse at a mansion. But it isn’t a baby that needs her milk; it’s a frail old man, who suckles through an ornately designed hole in the wall. The audience is traumatized (trust me, you will not soon forget these images), and Dan is violated, abased, and ashamed.
Though all around them there is political upheaval, Dan and Gu and their fellow peasants stay out of it. “When your stomach is empty you pay very little attention to politics,” someone says. But eventually the environment becomes impossible to ignore, and writer/director Luu Huynh begins to shape his theme. We see bombings of villages and other violent acts perpetrated by outsiders, and the metaphorical violation of Vietnam starts to parallel the literal degradations suffered by Dan.
I want to mention the outstanding performance by Truong Ngoc Anh as Dan. Her stoicism puts a face on an entire generation of Vietnamese women whose love for their families led them through an extraordinarily difficult time of war and deprivation. Dan is accused of being a Viet Cong simply for having one of their fliers — which the illiterate woman cannot read anyway — in her possession. Gu is enraged to learn about his wife’s part-time job of breast-feeding a decrepit hermit, and he unleashes his anger against her. Yet through it all Dan is devoted to her daughters, and Truong Ngoc Anh practically radiates parental love.
The cinematography by Hoan Trinh also contributes to the film’s impact. Vietnam, a country rich with natural beauty, is depicted here in desaturated, rain-soaked images — beautiful, still, but in a different way. Now there is a certain melancholy to it.
Despite the fine performances and excellent craftsmanship, I don’t think the film is completely effective. It feels longer than it is (and at 142 minutes, it actually is pretty long), and there are segments that don’t seem to go anywhere (though this could be due to a cultural gap). There is also an odd gradual shift in focus from Dan to her two oldest daughters that strikes me more as sloppy than intentional.
Still, it’s an evocative story that addresses the tumult of a country known to most Americans only tangentially. We can look at it as a glimpse into the real lives behind the famous images that came out of the Vietnam War, a reminder of the love and humanity that exist even in dire circumstances.
B (2 hrs., 22 min.; Vietnamese with subtitles; )