By Young Film Critic Phuong Le
At the centre of Vietnamese director Truong Minh Quý’s films lies an intriguing temporal paradox. Many of his works take place in the future; for instance, his short Mars in the Well (2014) imagines the year 2053 where Vietnam is submerged under water and the government must move its citizen to a different planet.
However, Minh Quý's films are less interested in what lies ahead and instead are more concerned with the past and the vulnerability of human memories. His new film The Tree House (2019), screened as a selection for IFFR's Bright Future Main Programme, portrays a similar thematic occupation about time. Interviews with indigenous people living in the Central Highlands in Vietnam where they tell stories about their homes are interspersed with archival footage of the US army burning down houses during the Vietnam War, creating a captivating link between the present and the past. Draped over these images is the voice-over from a film director – Minh Quý’s own voice – who lives on Mars in 2045, recalling his past life on earth. The final result is a beautiful spatial and temporal contemplation on the idea of the home.
The Tree HouseTruong Minh Quý IFFR 2020 84′
The reflections of a filmmaker on Mars, prompted by the stories told by an isolated people in Vietnam.
What does a filmmaker’s journey to Mars have to do with the Rục – an isolated ethnic group living in the mountains and caves of Vietnam? This original mix of science fiction and anthropology investigates the meaning of the concept of ‘home’.
Your first feature, The City of Mirrors: A Fictional Biography (2016), as well as some of your short films are set in the future. Why did you choose the future as a starting point for your films?
I think the idea of the future is something that is simultaneously abstract and not abstract. It is abstract in the sense that our concept of time, especially in movies, is influenced by Hollywood. When someone says a film is a sci-fi, we immediately think of very specific images. What I find interesting about the future is the unknown. It’s an empty canvas. In a way, the future is an evocation; we find out what the future might look like by reflecting and projecting the present onto that canvas. I tell stories about the future so that a viewer’s perspective can leap through different realms of time and space.
The Tree House emphasises, not only memories, but also how people retain them. In the film, you talk about how you couldn’t remember what happened before you turned 4, yet one of the interviewees recalled exactly the moment she was born. Why are memories so central to your work?
My short films revolve around my memories about my childhood. The Tree House is a continuation of this fascination, but from a different angle, since the memories here are other people’s memories about their own houses. To us, memories are very tangible, such as photos or home videos, but to some of the indigenous people, like Ms. Hau, who does not have our tools to capture memories, the way they remember is through storytelling. This is interesting since it means that the stories can change often. When I asked Ms. Hau to tell me a story about her life, I knew that she would not tell it the same way she told somebody else. The changing details are what interest me. Images store memories in an information-orientated way, revealing the date, the color, the faces. Stories also provide information but they are more about the imagination.
You opened the film with the cave as a home for Ms Hau and ended the film with images of tourists visiting Paradise Cave in the Quang Binh province. Why did you decide to portray the cave as both a private and public space?
It’s interesting to me because, to somebody like Ms Hau, the cave is a house. But to most people, caves are a place to visit. This is like an evolution where we forgot the meaning of the cave in the beginning. Perhaps it is also fascinating that most people have a special feeling about caves. Maybe because we have a longing that we do not fully recognise, like a yearning for the womb, or for where mankind began.
The Tree House constantly calls attention to its own artificiality. In your voice-over, you even question the problematic nature of filming stories told by indigenous people as a kind of ownership of their images. Why did you decide to make this point explicit in the film?
I think documentary filmmakers constantly feel like that, especially when you make a film about indigenous people. Their position of privilege is not the same as the filmmaker. It depends on whether the director chooses to comment on this or not. I was not going to call attention to these power dynamics at first since I felt I would need a valid reason to weave this point of view into the film. Since I decided that The Tree House would be told through a director’s inner monologue, it made for a good excuse to pour out my feelings since the film is also about cinema itself, and the meaning of images.