By Yun-hua Chen.
A hidden gem in the sidebar section “Concorso Cineasti del presente” at Locarno Film Festival, Trương Minh Quý’s Nhà cây (Tree House) is a co-production from Singapore, Vietnam, Germany, France and China which sets in the futuristic 2045 but recounts a story of the past. In the imagined sci-fi framework, a filmmaker on Mars recalls people, mountain ranges, houses for the living and the dead, as well as all the previously filmed moving images from earth. In the ethnographic snippets, Ruc and Kor people in the mountainous area, in their own language, talked about their lost houses and their various dwellings; Ms. Hau of the Ruc people moved from cave to cave to hide from the American troop during the Vietnam War whereas the Kor folk Mr. Lang’s father has lived in a tree house in the forest for 40 years since the day their house was bombed and many family members killed. A meditative look back into the filmmaker’s personal memories as well as the minority communities’ collective memories, it is as much the filmmaker’s search inward as his attempt to connect the collected fragments from these remote villages. In this way, the film juxtaposes humankind’s migration to Mars in the future with migration of those who had to move their homes because of political circumstances and meanders between documentary moments which record the interviewees’ account of dislocation, archival footage filmed during the Vietnam war, abstract images of Trương Minh Quý’s video art, a hand drawing tree houses with a pencil, and mystical moments. In Trương Minh Quý’s world of dichotomies between here on Mars and there on Earth, between the house of the living and the house of the dead, images turn from positive to negative when they are associated with death, disappearing, loss and decay. The cinematic world of Trương Minh Quý is multifaceted and deeply self-reflexive, a kind of filmmaking that stays close to people, emotions and memories.
We had the chance to talk with Trương Minh Quý, the director and the editor of this film, about his thinking process, concepts of homes and his free flow of filmmaking.
Your film is a Singapore/Vietnam/Germany/France/China coproduction. Would you like to talk about how these producers came on board?
Looking from outside it might seem complicated, but from inside this is the nature of the film. You cannot make it complicated with a documentary because it is not about stars or some other things. It’s more about the moment we shoot, the people we work with and the characters. My producer Guo Xiao-dong is from China, but his company Levo Films is based in Singapore. The DOP is half-Vietnamese and half-Belgium. We came from different places, but our work is based on friendship because we all know each other and have worked together before. Making this film is somehow a natural process.
Why did it take you so long to make this film since your last film came out in 2014?
I started having the idea of making this film back in 2016, around that time. I finished my first feature film in 2016 and was thinking about what I should do next. At that time I had the idea of making a documentary about the Vietnam war, so I made a short film about that topic first. After making that short film, I felt that maybe this topic is too big and too restraining for me. I felt that I had to follow a certain way because it was about history and about war veterans and it would take a long time. And I had to be more disciplined to make this kind of films. But this way of filmmaking, so disciplined and so heavy on history, is not my nature of filmmaking. Suddenly another idea came to me and I was thinking about the image of a house that I saw a long long time ago on the mountain. That image stuck with me. For some reason it created a very strange and melancholy atmosphere of a lonely house on the mountain. From that very abstract memory, I slowly developed the film. It took a long time because the origin of the film was so abstract; it was the abstraction of the memory about a house, a home. I was thinking, how I could make a film about this. There were many options and I decided to follow the hermit life of Ruc and Kor folks who live in solitude. Those people were born in that area and had to live in that kind of destiny. Portraying this from the kind of a romantic point of view of a filmmaker who comes from a city to the countryside life, I don’t think it’s good. Slowly the deeper connection about the meaning of a home came up, and the meaning of a physical house and then a house in the memory which also leads to the historical aspect. It’s hard to describe. That’s why it took a long time.
So the thinking process took longer than the shooting itself….
It’s true. The thinking process and the editing as well, which we kept changing. You are seeing the final version here, but the two versions before this one were totally different.
How did you start to add the idea of war veterans into the image of a house?
The idea of war veterans is a different one. I felt that I could not follow that thoroughly at this moment, so I chose to do Tree House instead. And then I linked to that world somehow. The characters in the film come from minority communities and live far from each other and do not know each other. I could see their connection point, which is the war, the war between Vietnam and America, like the story of Ms. Hau who used to live in a cave. That’s how her people used to live more than 50 years ago. During that time they had to move from one cave to another one to hide from American troops. After the war finished, they had to move from their cave to the village built by the government. We can see how their way of living had been affected and why she and her people haven’t lived in a cave anymore since then. The same for Mr. Lang, he lived in the forest with his father for more than 40 years. More than 40 years ago his father ran away from the village to the forest with him as a baby because his house was bombed.
It feels like a love letter to the planet earth because of the futuristic framework of a filmmaker on Mars reminiscing about the past on earth.
For me, Mars in the film is more like a metaphor. It was a film recounted by a filmmaker living on Mars in 2045. It’s not real. It’s the imagination, the metaphor for the distance, the distance between somebody and their root. It doesn’t matter whether it’s from here to Vietnam, or from Mars to Vietnam. You are no longer there anymore. It doesn’t matter anymore. The memory of your house is only there in your memory. It is also linked to the reality of our time when people try to conquer Mars and live on Mars. I put a question there and try to link these characters, those who live far away from their original house, their original home, with the bigger scale which is that of the human species; one day we have to live far away from the planet earth.
Where do you draw the line between documentary and fiction in your mystical way of meandering from this futuristic framework into the ethnographical and anthropological approach? Where does the documentary start? Where does it end? How is it blurred?
It’s very interesting. It’s also the process of how I edited the film. The previous versions were very documentary and very straight forward. I felt something was wrong about it and something did not work because what I wanted to say is very abstract. If I just follow the real characters to tell their stories, I would not be able to express something abstract about what I want to say, about memories, about house, about home, about time and space. If we think deeply about home, it’s all about that, all the abstract things. Slowly slowly after one year I came up with this version of editing. You mentioned meandering, that’s exactly the right approach for the film. Actually, it’s very hard to say anything concretely about this. We have to find a way to express our incompetence and our inability to control the story and to say that we will never be able to complete this film. The subject matter is out of my reach, so the only way is to approach the film is this meandering way, contemplative way, by using different materials including science fiction. But the foundation of the film is still documentary.
You use a lot of dichotomies in the film, such as life v.s. death, positive v.s. negative, tree house for the living v.s. house for the dead, here v.s. there….
In the film there are two aspects of the house. There is the physicality of a house, the architecture of the house, from what kind of materials house was built, the living space inside, the indoor, the outdoor, the nature around – that’s the physical being of a house. At the same time, what makes a house interesting is the spiritual being; it’s the space that contains so many things, such as memories and eventually the dead. And then there is the part of the story about the tomb house; the minority people in the central highlands built mountain house for the living and the dead people. That aspect of the house is the spiritual aspect of the house. Not only for the living but also for the dead. House is not only the place where you stay but also the place where you remember about the dead.
How did you find your characters Mr. Lang and Ms. Hau? Are they aware of what you are doing and did they see the result of the film?
It’s very simple thanks to the internet. Lang, the man who has lived in the forest for 40 years, is famous in the media six years ago. At that time, he took his father from their place in the forest to the village, so all the media wrote about him. So I knew about that. During the research phase I read about the minority people and knew that they used to live in a cave. Suddenly the connection point appeared between Lang and the people there. For Lang, it’s the memory of the house to which he could not return. For the Ruc people the metaphor is the metaphor of the cave. Of our own human being. For the Ruc people I just went to their village in the central Vietnam and I went there without any intention. I didn’t know anyone there and I just wanted to see them. By coincidence I went to a village and I asked the villagers if it was the village of the Ruc people. They said no and suggested me to ask a woman who appeared nearby. I asked her and she said that it’s not the Ruc village but she was the Ruh people. It’s by luck. So I worked with her.
Arnaud Soulier and Ernst Karel’s sound beautifully mixed many elements, from folk music to modern beats. How did you decide on the sound?
We decided to have a mixture of what is real and what sounds sci-fi but is at the same time real. For example, we used sound from the footage from NASA when a spaceship was landing or the sound of signals which were transmitted from space. We mixed them a bit further to make it sound more weird.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.