Trần Anh Hùng is best known for three films: The Scent of the Green Papaya (1993), Cyclo (1995), and Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000), known as his Vietnam Trilogy. In this article I propose the notion of the return of a repressed, painful, and violent wartime past, which takes form narratively through a meditation on uncanny spaces—spaces of wandering, longing, anxiety, and loss.
I argue that Hùng's Cyclo represents the return of themes that have been repressed in Vietnamese cinema and literature and in everyday life in general in Vietnam, until recently. Nostalgia and loss can now be expressed in film and literature, which was not possible until the 1990s. This stems from a reevaluation of wartime suffering occurring now, a generation after the end of war in Vietnam in 1975. This also results from a gradual easing of state controls on arts and media in Vietnam in the 1990s. Recent Vietnamese films and literature have begun to focus on the massive human costs and painful aftermath of the war. These are articulated through tropes of mourning, silences, and loss. My hypothesis is that the uncanny occupies a privileged place in contemporary Vietnamese visual and written narratives because of this “return” of themes that had been repressed for political reasons since the end of the war.
Trần Anh Hùng was born in Vietnam in 1962. He and his family left as refugees at the end of the war in 1975. Cyclo, filmed on location in the first large-scale foreign production in Vietnam, marked his return to his birthplace. Hùng reembodies his torn Vietnamese identity through montage of spaces of poverty, crime, and loss. The chain-smoking poet, played by Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu Wai, drifts silently through interiors that seemingly bear no relationship to the dangerous, grimy streets outside. I examine the spatial opposition between streets and interiors, and why Hùng focuses so strongly on abjection, silences, and failed articulation of desires. The figure of the poor, beautiful woman forced into prostitution to save her family is almost a cliché in Vietnamese fiction—and so is that of her poor young brother, who struggles for survival in a threatening urban underworld. I query whether these familiar narrative tropes of abjection provide new spaces for understanding the shift away from a war-torn society, or whether they replicate a persistent, romantic self-Orientalizing thread in modern Vietnamese fiction.