Short Film Review: The Eternal Springtime (2021)

Vietnam has a rich history stretching back centuries. It was the home of a trading kingdom with its own priceless goods, artefacts, and culture. Yet, the first thing to mind when one thinks of Vietnam history is ‘the Vietnam War’; the plains destroyed by napalm, or even the prostitutes of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The second, ‘French colonialism’.

Vietnam has since defined its own cultural and political identity. Its economic integration into the world market puts the nation on the track to modernisation. But what of the indelible spectres of its history? How has that impacted Vietnam’s cultural identity? How does its modernisation complicate this question?

Enter Việt Vũ. In half-an-hour of carefully composed images, his docufiction The Eternal Springtime (2021, recently screened at the Internal Film Festival Rotterdam) wrestles with both the urban anxieties of modernisation and a postcolonial identity of a nation. He takes us to fields densely overgrown with moss and fallen trees, to subterranean limestone caves where Vũ and his mother seek refuge in. In interviews, Vũ has described the anxiety of his hometown’s modernisation and a resulting existential anxiety about the future – an uncertain in-between space. How, after all, do you preserve a sense of national identity when it is so grounded in geography? 

The constant contrast between these two landscapes – the oversaturated greenery of the above, and the seemingly bleak cave harshly lit by flashlights – immediately conveys a sense of liminality. There’s a palpable anxiety about the uncertainty of the future – ‘When is now?’ ‘Where are we marching to next?’ And a final crucial bit – ‘How can I return and shelter inside your most peaceful womb?’

Immediately the implications of the dark subterranean cave with teethed stalactites become clear. It is refuge—that return to the mother’s womb. Indeed, Vũ’s mother is the enigmatic heart of the entire piece. She is a representation of national identity. The metaphor lends itself to nature, where it, too, becomes a maternal representative of a Vietnam untouched by the forces of modernity. 

In this sense Vũ reclaims a homeland as both a modernised and postcolonialist subject. If he doesn’t portray the Vietnam of his memory, he portrays it in his own unique, authentic lens. In the figure of the mother, he shuns the odalisque of an exoticised, feminised Asia. Botticelli is traded for something more blunt—wrinkles, sagging skin, you name it. Images of the mother, and of her and Vũ embracing in the cave, are simultaneously ones of vulnerability and intimacy. Such an embrace may bring to mind the eponymous Rodin sculpture of two lovers. The epitome of colonialist art is displaced and reframed to Vũ’s own context, from eros to something more maternal. He makes the colonialist discourse his own to mark out his own national identity. 

Where Vũ drives his point the strongest is the second half of the film, where the use of static images capture the naked mother in the natural landscape. In the background, Vũ, in haunting whispers, creates a phantasmagoric narrative where he is forcibly taken from his ‘aromatic honeyland’. He escapes his captors, only to return to a ‘new strange home country’ without his mother – continuing to be an exile. The mother is continually posited as a figure of the comforting past homeland, amidst a wave of modernisation. At this juncture, the use of edited images instead of video becomes especially significant. The pace becomes staccatoed, as if time has slowed. The mother’s body becomes integrated into the landscape – she becomes the landscape. The colours then invert, draining all of her humanity, her flesh, to acrid shades of blue. The dehumanisation of modernity and technology becomes clear.

It is therefore fitting that Vũ returns to that embrace in the cave. It is a return to humanity, intimacy, and love. It grounds him, away from complex questions of identity, to connect with his roots. 

By the film’s end what stands out is not the roar of raging whitewaters, or the majesty of the landscape, but the very simple image of a mother, embracing her son, as if feeding him like a baby. A love letter, perhaps, to the woman who raised him – and the nation of his past.                    

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