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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: April ::
A Dream of Hanoi
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.0746  Friday, 18 April 2003

From:           Richard Burt <
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Date:           Thursday, 17 Apr 2003 21:44:30 -0400
Subject:        A Dream of Hanoi

Did anyone see A Dream of Hanoi at SAA?  I just saw it screened here at
UMass last night and I HATED it! I have drafted some comments below.

Best,
Richard

A Dream of Hanoi (dir. Tom Weidlinger, 2002) documents a bi-national and
bi-lingual American and Vietnamese co-production of A Midsummer Night's
Dream in Hanoi, the idea for which came from a dramaturg, Lorelle
Browning who works at an Oregon college not named in the film. Focusing
less on the performance of the play than the efforts and tensions
arising behind-the-scenes in the three months before the production
premiered, this feel good film takes as its ostensible subject the kinds
of intercultural problems that arise from trying to integrate the two
theaters. Though the subtitles at the film's beginning announce that the
production "built a bridge" between the Americans and Vietnamese, and
sounds liberal minded and well-intentioned, the film is basically a
disturbing, sad, and unacknowledged exercise in latter day U.S.
(cultural) imperialism.

What makes this film particularly appalling is the way it does not
acknowledge a disparity between the production and the film. Unlike the
bi-national theater production, the film is mononational. It has only
one director, an American, and the film, and uses, utterly
conventionally, a male voice-over narrative in English, supplied by F.
Murray Abraham. While Vietnamese used in the film is translated into
English via subtitles, the English is not translated into Vietnamese via
subtitles. The film is clearly directed, then, to an American audience.
And it quickly becomes clear that the production of A Midsummer Night's
Dream is tilted toward the American audience who will watch the film.
Using the evasive passive tense, we hear that "it is agreed" that the
American director, Allen Nause, who has a Vietnamese woman translator
present, will lay out the basic ideas, with the Vietnamese director,
Doan Hoang Giang, taking a secondary role as the person who implement
the American's views. Somehow, this division of labor will produce a
"uniquely Vietnamese interpretation." In addition to the American and
Vietnamese director having unequal billing, Lorelle Browning's presence
is explained in bizarrely custodial terms. She is there, the narrator
says, "to defend Shakespeare's text against misinterpretation and
mistranslation." No criteria are supplied to tell us how Browning or
anyone else in the film is deciding on what is interpretation and what
is misinterpretation. Even more mystifying the Vietnamese part of the
play are translated into contemporary American English subtitles, not
back into Shakespeare's text. In stunningly reactionary fashion,
Shakespeare is held up as a magic wand which the Americans can turn into
a baton to brow beat the poor Vietnamese director, staff, and actors
into doing the play the American way. When insisting on her view of the
play, Lorelle Browning tells the Vietnamese director. And Doug Miller,
the actor who plays Lysander and claims to bring a revolution to
Vietnamese theatre by openly kissing a Vietnamese actress on stage, says
"We're going from zero to Shakespeare in three months." Destination
Shakespeare is a given, here, and one would never know from Miller's
comment or from the film that the Vietnamese director had already done
King Lear or that Shakespeare had been performed in Vietnam before
Browning arrived.

Despite the pretence of a co-production, then, the traffic should move
in one direction, as far as the Americans are concerned. They are not
there to Vietnamese their American Shakespeare; they are there to
Americanize the Vietnamese. And the interpretation looks entirely
conventional. No cast member likes inexpensive and unimaginative
costumes because the costumes are "ugly" (the cast are right). In
contrast to many innovative Chinese, Indian, and Japanese productions of
Shakespeare, there is no use of electronic media. Except for indigenous
elements the Vietnamese director threw in, such as six servants for
Puck, this production A Midsummer Night's Dream is absurdly retro, as if
Max Reinhardt were directing it.  When we see the ending of Act Four,
the narrator reassures us that "everything is forgiven. Everything is
settled." We are obviously supposed to read this comment on the play as
applicable to the cast and directors as well. While the filmmakers and
acting companies assume that the production was wonderful, we can tell
that it was well worth missing.

One of the many questions the documentary never asks is why American
actors, directors, and a dramaturg would want to bring reconcile with
Vietnamese counterparts by using Shakespeare. Why not use an American
playwright such as Tennesee Williams or Eugene O'Neill? To be sure,
Shakespeare is part of world literature and an international playwright
since the nineteenth century. But the film implies that Shakespeare is
American, or at least something that Americans possess and can bring to
Vietnam as if for the first time. Why no attention is paid to how the
Vietnamese have already produced Shakespeare, given that the director
and dramaturg are aware of this performance history, remains a mystery.
Along similar lines, one wonders why the Americans chose A Midsummer
Night's Dream to perform in Hanoi. Given Kurosawa Akira's use of
Macbeth, Hamlet, and Lear, in his films, Ran, The Bad Sleep Well and
Throne of Blood and given the performances of tragedies in Vietnam, it
seems quite amazing that no one in the film bothers to explain the
choice of the play.

A hint is supplied by a comment made by Doug Miller, who points out that
the dream of his experience in Vietnam is like that of the that the
dreamers in the play when they awake and can't be sure whether what they
remember actually happened or not, deciding that, in his view, it
didn't.  But the full meaning of the film's title becomes clear only as
one analyzes various raging symptoms in the film and film website and
learns, via comments made by the film editor, of the filmmaker's prior
visit to Vietnam and relation to Lorelle Browning. One of the more
startling aspects of the film, given the opening subtitles, is the way
that the promotional materials distance the film from the Vietnam war.
The film, we read, is "the first American documentary about
American/Vietnamese relations that does not focus on the Vietnam war or
its legacy of human suffering." I would argue that this statement is one
of numerous pathological blindness the filmmaker has toward his own
project. The film, to my mind, is in fact really about Vietnam, not
about Shakespeare. But even if the press material were correct, one
would have to wonder why it would be worth pointing out that the film is
the first documentary not to focus on the war and its legacy. Why should
we assume that shifting focus is automatically worthwhile? The
filmmaker's dream here is clear: he had the other Americans might awake
from the nightmare of Vietnam as if it never happened. The film is not
Hanoi's Vietnamese dream of Shakespeare; it is about Wiedinger's
Shakespearean dream of Hanoi, a dream that it is no longer Communist but
instead subject to the liberating forces of Western market penetration.
This reading is only fully apparent when one learns that Weidlinger
actually saw combat in Vietnam and that he, not Browning, who is his
wife, came up with the idea to take Shakespeare to Vietnam. Since was a
dramaturg for Shakespeare at the time, he suggested to her that they
take Shakespeare to Vietnam. According to the film editor, Maureen
Gosling, who presented the film when I saw it, Weidlinger became a
"total peace activist" after his tour of duty in Nam. " Yet the absence
of this behind the scenes story only prompts one to ask, What did you do
in the war, Daddy Wiedlinger?"

Disturbing consequences of Weidlinger's own repressions of his past is
the way he so profoundly misrecognizes his own motives. Far from
repairing damage or making restitution for what he / we did to the North
Vietnamese, Weidlinger is clearly there to fight the war all over again,
this time using Shakespeare and capitalism in an attempt to win. Worse
than the conservative and unimaginative interpretation of the play,
however, is the way Shakespeare is used a stalking horse used to promote
Western capitalist interests, including "training" the Vietnamese in
marketing techniques and disciplining their work schedules. Moreover, we
begin to grasp the importance of how the narrative is structured and
coded inflected as American. The plot of the film is basically that of
Busby Berkeley's 42 Street-"hey kids, we're in a show--but wait, the
show might not go on---but don't worry, the show must go on, and the
show does go on!" Apart from being contrived and cliched, the problem
with this generic framing and coding is made clear early on as we move
form the rehearsals into a travelogue section of Hanoi and hear about
various Western "emissaries" who are bringing the market to Vietnam and
training the Vietnamese to work like Westerners. In what seems initially
like an irrelevant section written by the Ford Foundation, we hear all
about the way the Vietnamese don't know how to sell (ticket selling
becomes a major issue) and how they need to be trained to work longer
hours. An American woman scoffs at the Vietnamese for working only two
hours and then taking a two and half hour break. A major crisis occurs
when he Vietnamese ministry cancels he planned performance seven days
before it is scheduled and moves the production to another theater,
built by the Soviet Union," we hear "as a gift to the Vietnamese
people." (The Americans believe that no one will come because they can't
sell tickets. What they don't understand is that this is a political
function, and the elite send out their invitations. So the theater is
more than half full the night of the first performance.)

What seems external to theater, however, is soon carried into the
theater production itself, where the Vietnamese actors bodies are being
disciplined and subject to work speed up, as if hey were really
rehearsing for jobs and capitalist, Western friendly Vietnamese economy.
Thus, Browning insists that the Vietnamese director ahs to make his
actors move more quickly and pick up the pace (all this in the name of
Shakespeare), and, in one of the film's saddest moments, the woman in
charge of lighting lays down the lay the law to her Vietnamese crew that
they most work according to her schedule. A Vietnamese man then
translates her orders to the crew, telling them they must do as their
"American friend" wishes. In a later interview, a Vietnamese actress
says, with a poignant mixture of resignation and quiet and calm
defiance, "If you Americans keep getting angry at us, we will be very
sad."

As may have become clear in this account, the authorities using
Shakespeare to do the disciplining in this film are nearly all women. In
addition to Browning and the lighting director, another major player in
the film, a marketing director, is French woman. By fronting his wife
and not acknowledging his relation to her (in the film or anywhere on
the website), Weidlinger not only has her do his dirty work but also
reproduces and even apes (slyly mimics?) strategies the British used in
colonial India. As Indira Ghosh has shown, Englishwomen who traveled in
India, apparently emancipated from Victorian patriarchy, were free only
insofar as they subjected (civilized and disciplined) the colonized
people. Unsurprisingly, the Americans think of themselves as liberated
when it comes to Vietnamese women. The actress playing Helena, Kristin
Martha Brown, castigates Vietnamese notions of what counts as feminine.
The worst offender of all is Browning. According to the film editor,
while the Vietnamese director wanted to do King Lear, which had already
been done in Vietnam, Browning insisted that they do a comedy instead,
because that had never been done before. The Vietnamese co-producer and
set designer, Do Doan Chau, finally has enough after Browning interrupts
him, and asks repeatedly why she does not respect him and why she does
not let him speak. Ever the wronged party, we see her wipe away a tear
in response. (The Americans nevertheless also present themselves as the
victims here. The American director says he feels he is "being used" and
Browning says she "feels betrayed" when she learns of the last minute
cancellation) When they think they may not getting their way, the Brown
and Browning insult the production. "They are embarrassing they are so
bad," Browning says. About the dancers, Brown says "they have no
rhythm." And in some of the film's most tasteless moments, we hear the
American women use militaristic metaphors as they stake out their
positions. Browning says, for example, says when refusing to cut more
than the 400 lines she has already cut says is sticking to [her] guns."
Similarly, the woman in charge of lighting says of the light board she
has to learn that she felt like Captain Kirk taking over a Klingon war
ship.

The last disturbing consequence I will comment on is the way the film
pretends to be bi-lingual while actually promoting English. As the film
progresses, we do the Americans learning to pronounce Vietnamese lines
and the Vietnamese actors learning how to perform their English lines.
But the film clearly sees English as the dominant language and shifts
from doing interviews with Vietnamese who don't speak English to focus
on a young Vietnamese man in charge of tickets sales, who speaks English
(quite well).  He is presented as closer to us precisely because he has
learned out language. The Frenchwoman in charge of marketing never
speaks a word of French, and when she goes shopping in Ho Chi Minh city
speaks to a Vietnamese hotel clerk in English (who has been Westernized
and can work the job precisely because he knows English). In one of the
films most tasteless moments, the film closes at a cast party and we
hear Karoke sung to an American song "What's going on?" as the credits
for the Vietnamese music in the film go by with an Vietnamese actor
singing in English.  Shakespeare and the film in the first place and to
Vietnamese viewpoints.

If the film is so clearly lets us see ugly Americans doing Shakespeare
to the Vietnamese, one might ask whether the director intends to have us
see the theater production that way. I don't think so. The Vietnamese
are interviewed, to be sure, but only so that the film can appear not to
be imposing its values on them. The documentary camera is presented as
transparent throughout. Instead of a critical perspective that invites
us to analyze the co-production, we are presented with emotional
responses cast members and directors have, they laughed, they cried,
indeed. Actors respond to interview questions, but we never see the
interviewer nor do we hear him ask questions. A critique of the film
becomes available only because the film is a walking set of Browning's
and Weidlinger's unconscious symptoms. And the film's greatest humor
lies in the moments where we see the Vietnamese thwart Browning's
ambitions. The transfer of the performance scheduled for the main
theater in Hanoi to the Soviet theater in Ho Chi Minh city is
hysterical. Similarly, at the end of the film, when the cast member are
exchange teary hugs and compliment each other, it's clear that the
Vietnamese are largely just being polite, and some of them clearly
loathe the Americans, who mistake their courtesy for affection. The
expressions on the faces of Browning and her fellow Americans are
priceless when a Vietnamese actor who has talked with the Vietnamese
Ministry of Culture & Information tells them that the Vietnamese feel
they "don't know who they are dealing with or why they are and that they
don't belong there." Somehow Browning and Weidlinger just can't hear
what they're being told: "Yankee go home."

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