Hiếu is a short film by director Richard Van, named after the character he briefly portrays. This snapshot of life provides an opportunity to showcase several aspects, aspirations specific to people of Vietnamese origin, several characteristics that I would like to dwell on for a few moments by focusing on three images, three key moments in the film.
In this picture we see Hiếu from behind, facing a group of Vietnamese Americans who came to listen to him. He is looking to recruit “collaborators” for his business of selling any kind of products, in this case, probably food products. He questions several people from his audience and asks them three things: what job they do, since when and if they have become millionaires. In this scene, we have a condensed version of the “American dream” in both its classic and modern versions, if any difference is relevant. Like many migrants, arriving in a new country means “starting from scratch”, a loss of economic and social capital. The priority for all the first generation is therefore to find a job in order to provide for their primary needs and to be able to pass on to the next generation the financial means to “take off” socially.
We see, among the characters who come to listen to our protagonist, rather old men and women who have low-skilled jobs with low wages: worker, employee, esthetician, etc.
It is interesting to note that solidarity within the community is also staged. For practical reasons, because one speaks the same language, because one has the same background, because one has been put in touch with trusted acquaintances, etc., one can hope to rely on one’s community members to do business.You can expect to rely on the members of your community to do business. It was this sense of solidarity that drew the audience to hear a Vietnamese man talk about money-making opportunities (and also the lure of money). This feeling also has its limits, since once the presentation is over, nobody seems convinced.
There is a sense of the fallen American dream in the staging of these people. These people have come to listen to a speech to earn money because they aspire, because they have aspired to become rich by living in one of the richest countries in the world. On the other side, there is a smooth talker who tries to convince himself as much as his audience that he can still get rich thanks to a new pyramid business system. We later learn that he has no place to sleep. In short, he is a loser and this is what makes this film so interesting. It succeeds in bringing a fairly accurate vision of this situation, which is neither that of the poverty of the migrant unable to integrate nor that of the luxurious abundance of the self-made man, who stands out from the model minority, and whose success proves the efficiency of the social system. We are here exactly between the two, showing how long and difficult economic integration is, how much sacrifice is required and how even when we incorporate the discourse and practices of the most “modern” businesses, nothing is guaranteed. In short, here, it is a question of connecting the situation of this person as an immigrant, with his or her initial capital and aspirations, but also as a member of a social class that goes beyond his or her origin and maintains a mass of people in the precariousness depicted.
Being eager to “come back there”
From the very beginning of the film, one of the most popular songs from southern Vietnam, Sài Gòn đẹp lắm, serves as a pretext to trigger a discussion about Vietnam left behind at the time of exile with, without fully stating it. It is an obvious one, the tension between nostalgia and longing for return for the man and a kind of indifference and contempt on the part of his wife. Is this the reason for their separation? In any case, the two characters will continue to embody these two ideals, these two opposing relationships to Vietnam or the United States, as can be seen in this image in the kitchen.
The film holds this tension experienced and embodied by Hiếu who does not find his place here in the United States and wonders if he would be better off returning to his native country. A few years later, when he visits his wife and son, he shares this lingering doubt. He shares with his ex-wife the example of a comrade who returned “over there”.
This “over there” which is evident for him, does not evoke anything anymore for her though, who, at least in appearance, does not understand of which place he speaks. This is very powerful and shows once again how two imaginations, two postures oppose each other. For him, Vietnam is so present in his life here, that if he speaks of a return of any kind it is necessarily there. For her, this country she left no longer exists and there is no question of considering setting foot on this now unknown territory. She embodies integration and somehow oblivion, or at least acceptance, as emphasized by her new white companion.
This tension that opposes them is not as binary and frontal as one might think. The man, who is looking for his place, is summoned by his ex-wife to recover the last things he left at her place. Between the two of them, let’s not forget to mention the son, Brian, who also embodies this tension between these two parental poles.
The last scene is very tense. Locked in the room and not responding, his ex-wife and their son imagine the worst. Once they enter the room, they find him asleep. Sorry, he resigns himself to leave. Go where? Go back to that friend he’s been squatting with? Go back to Vietnam like Dung? We don’t know exactly, this sentence means anything.
He accepts his situation, he gives up his dreams, he lets it up.
There are obviously many more filmic elements to analyze, but these are the main ones that deal with this dynamic of memory and identity in the American diasporic context.
If you haven’t seen it yet: