War & Peace on Vietnam Film Front : Former Enemies Meet on a Different Kind of Shoot

Three Vietnamese men, dressed impeccably in brown and gray business suits, emerged from the dense jungle foliage and surveyed the war-torn remains of a makeshift Viet Cong camp. A smoldering campfire nearby indicated guerrilla soldiers had recently fled the area--perhaps retreating from invading American forces.

One of the three men spotted a hammock gently swaying between two trees and walked over to it.

"No, no, no," muttered Vietnamese film director Nguyen Hong Sen, speaking through an interpreter. He untied one end of the hammock and deftly formed a new knot. "You tie it this way, so water from tree does not run down onto man sleeping. Also, makes quick release when Americans come."

Sen, a former Viet Cong fighter in Southeast Asia, jerked the string and the hammock fell easily to the ground.

"Where were you when we shot the film?" asked American TV-film director and Vietnam War veteran Patrick Duncan with a grin.

Sen and his companions--Nguyen Thu, general director of the Vietnamese Film Department, and Hai Hinh, head of the Hanoi Film Department--had been invited by Duncan to visit the set of "The Last Soldier," this season's final episode of HBO's critically acclaimed "Vietnam War Story," for a first-hand impression of American film making. The three Vietnamese film makers were in town to participate in a symposium of American and Vietnamese film makers at UCLA's Melnitz Hall on Thursday evening.

Before the UCLA event, the Vietnamese film makers, guided by Duncan, picked their way through the war-weary set, displaying alternating senses of wonder and amusement.

The sprawling, 4,000-acre spread of land in Newhall is a bamboo, fiberglass and plaster-of-Paris re-creation of Vietnam, with lush jungles, a flowing reed-lined river, man-made swampland, thatched villages, a U.S. Army base camp and a scaled-down version of Saigon. In addition to "War Story," the area can be seen weekly as a backdrop for CBS-TV's "Tour of Duty" and in Duncan's recent film about Vietnam, "84 Charlie Mopic."

"This location provides a lot of variety. Everything here, you also see in Vietnam," Sen said while looking out over the Santa Clara River, which snakes through the set. He stooped down, picked some tall wild grass growing on the shoreline, examined it and stuck it in his shirt pocket like a carnation.

"Here you have the means," he said. "When we film war movie about Vietnam we need what you have here--helicopters and buildings and sets. Next time we do a movie about Vietnam War we should come here to film it."

In Vietnam, where 20 to 25 feature films are shot each year--more than 500 were shot last year in the United States--all that is available is crude and outdated film technology. Thu said Vietnamese films are government approved, often government funded and shot mostly on low-quality, black-and-white East German film stock, which is all they can afford.

The price of admission to a movie in Vietnam is 15 cents, he said.

"All our films are developed by the artist, based upon the needs of the whole country," Thu said. "There is a government committee that approves films, but after that film makers are given absolute freedom to do as they wish."

Duncan first met the Vietnamese film makers last year at the Hawaiian Film Festival in Honolulu. "84 Charlie Mopic" was screening on the USS Arizona War Memorial the same time as Sen's film, "The Abandoned Field--Free Fire Zone," the story of a young Vietnamese couple who work as liaisons for the Viet Cong in the marshes of the Mekong Delta while being relentlessly pursued by American soldiers.

As Duncan raced across the hall to catch "The Abandoned Field," he literally ran into Sen, who was rushing the opposite way to watch Duncan's film.

"This is an honor to bring these people over here," Duncan said. "Some of them I fought against. Some of their depictions of Americans in their films are pretty harsh. But their films moved me. You have to look at what we do to them in our films. Nobody knows better than the combat soldier that the enemy is just like himself."

"In American war films, the presence of the Vietnamese is symbolic," said Ninh, who had seen Oliver Stone's "Platoon," Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" and several episodes of "War Story." "The purpose of those films is to portray American soldiers, not Vietnamese soldiers. American films make Vietnamese look simplistic. But that's the same thing we do to Americans in our film, because we never had an opportunity before to exchange ideas."

"In 'The Abandoned Field,' the American character is a devil-like figure who wears a goatee. The character is played by a Euro-Asian who makes a lot of ferocious faces," said Geoffrey Gilmore, director of film and television programming for the UCLA Film and Television Archive, who traveled to Vietnam last year and selected six war-related films for the Vietnam film festival at UCLA this month.

"The films we showed (at the festival) spanned from 1979 to 1987," he said. "You see a change of tone from the older to the more recent features. They're looser, less simplistic and sharper in their ability to be critical of the government."

As Duncan led the Vietnamese film makers through the set, they paused over some Vietnamese headstones. Duncan reached down and picked one up; it was made of Styrofoam. Although Sen argued that the headstones were too high and narrow to be real North Vietnamese headstones, "War Story" Vietnam technical adviser Kieu Chinh was on hand to explain.

"They are higher so they can be seen by the camera," said Chinh, 49, who was a well-known actress and film producer in Vietnam before fleeing to the United States in 1975. "This is a very sensitive job. I understand Vietnam, but I also understand films. Sometimes the truth and film making have to be combined.

"I am careful to make sure Vietnamese are presented accurately. On 'War Story' we use only Vietnamese actors. Other television shows and films use Japanese and Chinese to portray Vietnamese."

As the visiting film makers headed away from the Vietnam set, accompanied by Duncan and several actors and crew members, they crossed through the middle of a scene being filmed 100 feet away.

"Quick, drop down!" the director bellowed at them through a bullhorn.

The entire group, Vietnamese and Americans, dropped to their knees on the dusty road to avoid being shot, even if only by a television camera. Nobody moved for a full minute, enveloped by the silence of the mock Vietnamese jungle.

"Cut!" the director yelled.

The Vietnamese stood, shook hands with their American guests and piled into a van heading back to the city.

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