Film Review: The Tree House | Nhà Cây (2019)

It is apt to posit that The Tree House is a culmination of Trương Minh Quý’s artistic endeavour thus far, a maturation from previous explorations of subject matters and the medium of film. Someone familiar with this Vietnamese filmmaker’s nascent oeuvre would easily recognise the elements of his earlier cinematic works in the latest feature film: personal stories retold in a surrealist voice, the persistence of the dead in the mind of the living, a hypothetical departure from Earth to Mars, and historical reconstruction through individual and collective memories of the Vietnam War.

At the heart of The Tree House is an ethnography project investigating the notion of the home as conceived by various indigenous minorities in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. But the project is by no means positivist; the hermeneutic nature of the film is evident in the subjection of the filmmaker himself to investigation. This is seen in the reference to the self in the third personal pronoun and the unpacking of his thoughts and sentiments, just like other studied objects of the film. The result is a dialectic attempting at reconnecting with human’s primitive and perhaps universal relationship with the home.

Departure from home sets the underlying premise for the film. It is the move from Earth to Mars for the filmmaker, from a cave or a tree house to a village for the Ruc lady and Kor man, and from Vietnam to America for singer Thái Thanh. A longing for home ensues, where a slight stimulus suffices to trigger the recollection. Evidently, the playback of a sound recorded by the filmmaker on Mars induces him to enter a stream of narrator’s consciousness as it reminisces gusts of winds caressing a roof on Earth.

Under said circumstances, the idea of the home is necessitated by mental constructions rather than an empirical exercise. When asked about his tree house, the Kor man describes it in terms of its height and components, but the viewer is still clueless about what the home is like despite the filmmaker’s attempt at drawing it out. Meanwhile, the Ruc lady, arguably owing to her greater proficiency in spoken expression, relies on recounting how her family used the cave to describe her home – for instance, the story of their celebrating the food that her father had brought back from a hunt. This echoes humanist geographer Yi-Fu Tuan’s writing on the apprehension of space as mediated by bodily interaction with the environment. Indeed, re-enactment of moments playing with her sister at a stone slab or washing leave the Ruc lady in nostalgia so immense that she fails to sleep when returning to the village. Her vivid recollection emerges purely from her mental capacity, which the filmmaker speculates to be an interplay of memories and imagination.

Meanwhile, possibly due to the nature of his craft, the filmmaker relies on photographed images to recall the past. Using the apparatus of experimental ethnography, he juxtaposes the found archival footage of the resettlement of the locals in Quảng Ngãi by the Americans during the Vietnam War with his own footage of his interviewees. The choice of 16 mm film as the shooting format for The Tree House is thus fitting, rendering the two temporally distinct pieces of footage formally coherent. At the same time it begs the question of the role of the filmmaker. To the indigenous people, Americans are seen as intruders displacing them from their home. Then, is the filmmaker-narrator Quý any different? While he doesn’t displace the indigenous people, Quý admits his unease in this ethnographic approach of exposing anonymous identities through images.

Hence, the recognition of his standpoint as a potentially Eurocentric ethnographer reveals the filmmaker’s internal struggle reconciling the influence of Western thoughts with his own roots and consciousness. “Without photographed images, what would become my memories?” hints at the Cartesian tradition of ocularcentrism that privileges vision over other senses. This philosophy is perhaps so ingrained in filmmaker’s thinking that it seems impossible to be like the Ruc lady who imagines and acts out her memories, or the Kor man who spatialises and territorialises his. In the same vein, knowledge of the French New Wave primes his identification of Agnès Varda’s chance footage upon forgetting to turn off her camera with his own. Yet he never sees it as Varda’s The Dance of the Lens Cap, but remorse for the burnt film that has died.

Such a position critical of his own ideologies isn’t consistent throughout the whole film. The filmmaker expresses his wish for a tomb house to shelter his body upon his death just like the tradition of the Jarai people. One can characterize this as risking cultural appropriation and romanticising the indigenous customs. Of course, if one were to overlook the power relations configuring the knowledge acquisition, this line of reading can be criticised as imposing a double standard – if the filmmaker can assimilate Western thought, why can’t he do the same for Jarai worldviews?

Nevertheless, the responsibility of being cognisant of one’s ideologies is not reserved for solely the filmmaker; the viewer, in the process of decoding cultural descriptions and social behaviours as portrayed in the film, are made aware of their own worldviews. For instance, descriptions of the Jarai’s notions of soan – the invisible spirit – and rup – the visible material manifestation – mirror Plato’s Theory of Forms. One can also draw a parallel between the Ruc lady’s moving out from the cave to the village and the allegory of the cave. But these Western allusions are never made explicit by the filmmaker; rather, they can only be the exercise of the viewer’s capacity at comprehending the visual cues.

There are certain gaps in the film that are left unaddressed. For one, the Ruc lady doesn’t identify a single cave as her home, but any space housed in a cave, for her family had to move from one cave to another to hide from the American soldiers. Home thus appears to exist as an architectural type – an abstract idea and formal conceptualisation of space – rather than a specific material place anchored in geography. This opens up possibilities for transplanting home of the past into the present and the future, transcending the physical distancing that is commonly thought to be the culprit of the longing for home. Sceptics therefore may question if the film’s over-reliance on the poetics of nostalgia is defensible.

But they could be totally missing the point when insisting on the spatial comprehension of home. Snapshots of a Hmong boy at a family meal or sauntering around the premise of his home, juxtaposed with the Ruc lady and Kor man who reminisce about what used to be their home, seem to suggest that the conception of home is linked to childhood memory. It then matters not the physical distance nor the reproducibility of the material house. Once the period formative of what home is passes, home is forever locked in the temporal past, only accessible through nostalgia – a longing for home.

- Dan Tran
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