Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Literature. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 17 January 2021

The Vietnam War in Filmfree

  • Sylvia Shin Huey ChongSylvia Shin Huey ChongDepartment of English, University of Virginia


As a war that was not supposed to be a war—the United States never formally declared it as such—and yet was already the second in a series of wars—the first being the anticolonial war against the French that won Vietnam its independence—the Vietnam War is just as hard to pin down cinematically as it is historically. Although it is now recognized as a major film genre in US cinema, the category of the Vietnam War film can also include representations of Southeast Asia during French colonialism, the brief decades of independence before the entrance of US troops, and the long legacy of the war in terms of refugee crisis, political unrest, genocide, PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder), and protest. Not only Vietnamese but all of the peoples formerly grouped under the banner of French Indochina—including Cambodians and Laotians—were dragged into the war as willing or unwitting participants, and their experiences of combat and its aftermath are as integral to the Vietnam War film as those of the American soldiers that typically dominate the genre. The region of Southeast Asia beyond French Indochina—Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong—is also significant, both to the history of the war (as political allies, or hosts of military bases or refugee camps) and to the history of the film genre (as locations for filming, or sources for extras or actors or technical support). Outside of Southeast Asia, other nations such as the former USSR, Canada, Australia, France, and South Korea also played a part in the war, sending soldiers to the war or taking in Vietnamese, Cambodian, or Laotian refugees after the war, and these links also yielded further contributions to the Vietnam War film genre from these national cinema industries. The Vietnam War fueled many protest movements and forms of activism, becoming part of a larger, global post-1968 debate about imperialism, racism, capitalism, and militarism in many countries, and so the vigorous protests against the war also became a visible part of the film genre, especially in documentary filmmaking. As the direct survivors of the Vietnam War era begin to be supplanted by a second and even third generation for whom the war is a historical footnote, the legacy of the Vietnam War genre becomes dispersed into the larger genealogies of national cinemas and cultural memory industries, as the children of war veterans and refugees and protestors return to Southeast Asia armed with cameras and capital. Their attention is directed not only backward in time—excavating family or national histories—but also forward, forging new Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, French, Australian, and American cinemas that are indelibly marked by the Vietnam War but no longer obsessed with representing it as such.

Helicopters. Napalm. Machine guns. Thick green jungles. Guerrillas in black. Bloody soldiers. Exploding bodies. For most people, the Vietnam War film is as much about a set of visual clichés as it is about a specific historical phenomenon. Andrew Lam recalls his uncle lamenting, “When Americans say ‘Vietnam,’ they don’t mean Vietnam.”1 The Vietnam War is often deemed the first “television war,” because it occurred during the rise of the nightly television news broadcast in the United States.2 Even if the US military and government still controlled much of what was shown to the public, the daily violence of the war was nonetheless striking to many viewers used to even more sanitized conflicts.3 Such broadcasts played a role in the dismantling of the Production Code in Hollywood and its replacement by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings system.4 Fearful of the irrelevancy of film in an era of dramatic social change and growing alternatives for entertainment, Hollywood attempted to adapt by making room for films more responsive to this new social and cultural climate. Thus, the perception of the Vietnam War film as a raw and violent combat genre says less about the war itself than it does about the anxieties facing the US film industry as well as the US nation itself.

Beyond aesthetic concerns, the historical referent for the Vietnam War film is also difficult to pin down. The conflict is more chronologically and geographically diffuse than one might think, with origins stretching back to the First Indochina War and the French colonialism preceding it and a scope that encompasses not only Vietnam and its Southeast Asian neighbors but nations throughout Asia, Europe, and North America. The violence in the region did not end with the war but continued with the persecution of US-allied Hmong in Laos and the genocide of one to three million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge. One consequence of this violence is the refugee crisis that followed, creating a global diaspora of Southeast Asians that sharply transformed the populace and politics of the United States and other nations. As of 2015, the United States alone was home to over 1.9 million Vietnamese Americans as well as over 330,000 Cambodian Americans, 270,000 Laotian Americans, and 300,000 Hmong Americans, and an estimated 5 million Southeast Asians have settled worldwide outside of their countries of origin.5 As Viet Thanh Nguyen reminds us, riffing off of Tim O’Brien, “A true war story should tell not only of the soldier but also what happened to her or him after war’s end. A true war story should also tell of the civilian, the refugee, the enemy, and, most importantly, the war machine that encompasses them all.”6

The complex history of the wars in Southeast Asia has a particular importance for Asian Americans, as the postwar migration not only changed the constitution of Asian America but also altered its central political and social issues.7 Vietnamese Americans are currently the fourth-largest Asian American ethnic group nationwide, and sizable populations of Cambodians, Hmong, and Laotians have settled in the upper Midwest and Northeast.8 Southeast Asian refugees also unsettle the narrative of Asian American immigration as confirming the ideology of the American Dream. Because of the challenges that beset their sudden and recent migration, Southeast Asians often face higher levels of poverty, crime, health disparities, and lack of educational and employment opportunities, in ways that upset the “model minority myth” based on more established Asian American ethnic groups such as Chinese and Japanese Americans.9 This generational difference is also at play in the political gap between Southeast Asian Americans, who are often aligned in their anticommunist stances with the Republican Party, and other Asian Americans, who have historically found resonance for their civil rights concerns with the Democratic Party. Mainstream Asian American media activists may object to representations of the Vietnam War in film as racist stereotypes, whereas Southeast Asian Americans, many of whom are veterans of the war, might see these same films as validations of their combat experiences.

Whether documentary or popular action flick, these films should be understood not only in terms of historical accuracy but also for how they create, shape, and at times contest the popular understanding of the Vietnam War. A film’s production or distribution might reveal interesting eruptions of alternate histories unanticipated by its overt content. Similarly, documentary films may say as much about the institutional conditions underwriting such films as they do about their ostensible topics. At the same time, Southeast Asians cannot be seen simply as idealized victims of misrepresentation, as if their voices are a unified counterbalance to US-centered perspectives. It is too easy to view the Vietnam/United States binary as the central conflict of the war and then to map this binary onto others such as real/fake, right/wrong, victims/victimizers, East/West, them/us. For one, the physical and psychic toll of the war was suffered on both sides, albeit asymmetrically. For another, these binaries obscure the internal dissent within each category, as many South Vietnamese fought alongside rather than against US soldiers, and Americans were sharply divided on the war. This bifurcation also neglects the way that the refugee exodus has made “them” into “us,” in the form of Southeast Asian Americans. A reconsideration of the Vietnam War film genre should not only recenter the experiences of Southeast Asians both in and outside the region but also complicate the notion of the war in order to critique a larger history of colonialism, racism, and militarism of which the Vietnam War is merely a single episode.

The Wars Before the War

Early representations of French Indochina and other parts of Southeast Asia in US cinema are infrequent but telling, rendering the region as an undifferentiated exotic outpost in films such as Lady of the Tropics (1939), Saigon (1948), and A Yank in Indochina (1952). Lady of the Tropics freely mixes Saigon with Angkor Wat in Cambodia, blurs together Buddhism with Hinduism with Islam, and dresses its female protagonist, the French Vietnamese vixen Manon DeVargnes (Hedy Lamarr), in a mish-mash of Arabic, Indonesian, and Turkish costumes.10 One could include many orientalist representations of colonized Asia as precursors for the Vietnam War film, from Lost Horizon (1937), a representation of Tibet as a utopic Shangri-la overshadowed by the British Raj next door, to South Pacific (1958), a Rogers and Hammerstein musical set during World War II and featuring a French plantation owner with half-Polynesian children.11

After World War II, Indochina was returned to French colonial rule by the United States, thwarting the recently established Viet Minh–led independence movement. This led to the outbreak of the First Indochina War, which culminated in a dramatic defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The anticolonial struggle in French Indochina barely registers in American films of the era, but the concurrent conflict on the Korean peninsula provided many interesting parallels, both historically and cinematically. Both conflicts resulted in a multinational proxy war involving US-led coalitions against what were cast as communist enemies, and both resulted in the partition of each country into North and South. Director Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951) and China Gate (1957) illustrate this linkage in unconventional ways. The Steel Helmet bridges the gap between the World War II film and the later Vietnam War film, offering the Korean War as a space where the classic multiethnic (and now multi-racial) military squad both enacts national unity and challenges it. China Gate is one of the few American films (besides A Yank in Indochina [1952] and The Quiet American [1958]) to directly address the First Indochina War. It is much more staunchly anticommunist than The Steel Helmet, with its prologue dedicated to France, whose benevolent colonial leadership is described as “the barrier between communism and the rape of Asia.” Although the ending seems to anticipate the 1989 musical Miss Saigon’s Madame Butterfly-esque plot, the rest of the Viet Minh and communist Chinese fighters are a largely invisible and undifferentiated horde like those found in The Steel Helmet, with the setting of Vietnam nearly indistinguishable from Korea, down to the giant Buddha statues and plucky Asian orphans found in both films.12

The gap between the First and Second Indochina Wars was not devoid of geopolitical intrigue or American involvement, as “domino” theories of the spread of communism led to pressure on Asian nations to choose sides. The Quiet American (1958) focused on the fraught role of the American advisor in Vietnam, although it altered the premise of the novel by changing its main character, Alden Pyle (played by Audie Murphy, a famous World War II veteran-turned-actor), from a covert CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) agent to a well-intentioned economic aid worker. One of the uncredited advisors to the film adaptation, and often thought to be the model for Pyle, was Edward Landsdale, a CIA officer who advised multiple South Vietnamese leaders including Ngo Dinh Diem and who helped recruit the Hmong in Laos into a secret paramilitary anticommunist force.13 Similarly, The Ugly American (1963) focuses on a US ambassador, Harrison Carter MacWhite (Marlon Brando), to a fictional Southeast Asian nation called Sarkhan that is an amalgam of Vietnam (whose political situation it mimics) and Thailand (where it was filmed). It is difficult to view The Ugly American without comparing it to The King and I (1956), with King Mongkut (Yul Brynner) cheerfully welcoming his own white, Euro-American advisor in the form of Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr). Although set in the 1860s, The King and I reflects a similar image of an exoticized Southeast Asia receiving the benevolent guidance of the West.14

Decades after the Vietnam War, French Indochina again became a topic of filmic fascination. In 1992, three French films were released that revisited colonial Vietnam: Diên Biên Phu, a fictional combat-centered film by acclaimed documentarian Pierre Schoendorffer; Indochine, a big-budget historical melodrama that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1993, but which some reviewers likened unfavorably to a French Gone with the Wind; and L’Amant (The Lover), a steamy soft-core romance based on a memoir by Marguerite Duras and starring the well-known Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Ka-Fai.15 Perhaps these films were meant as a form of cultural rapprochement to accompany the normalization of French–Vietnamese relations in 1989. Nonetheless, all three films share an air of aestheticized colonial elegy that harkens back to the exoticism of earlier films. One exception to this melancholic mode is the US documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (2014), which exuberantly resurrects a slice of Cambodian popular culture in the 1960s before it was eradicated by the Khmer Rouge. But the film is not without its own nostalgia. The optimism of its American perspective, in which rock and roll symbolizes youthful promise and rejuvenation, uncannily anticipates how this popular music soon becomes the soundtrack to the militarist US Vietnam War film genre to come.16

Welcome to ‘Nam

After the official entrance of the United States into Vietnam in 1964, the conflict was slow to arrive on the big screen, although a number of documentaries appeared quickly: The Anderson Platoon (1966), a cinéma vérité film by Pierre Schoendoerffer that aired on both French and American television and won the 1967 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature; A Face of War (1968) by Eugene S. Jones, another vérité-style work also filmed while embedded within an American military unit; 17th Parallel: Vietnam and War (1968), by the Dutch director Joris Ivens that focuses on the North Vietnamese experience of American bombardments; In the Year of the Pig (1968), Emile de Antonio’s “collage history” of the war; and The World of Charlie Company (1970), produced by CBS News.17 While In the Year of the Pig and 17th Parallel are unabashedly antiwar, the other films come off as agnostic, largely following a single troop for an extended period of time and focusing on the war as a personal experience rather than a larger sociohistorical phenomenon. The Anderson Platoon and The World of Charlie Company were shown mainly on television, heightening their link to television reportage of the “living room war.”18 The stark violence revealed through the perspective of the ordinary soldier might be read as a de-romanticization of the war, but these films are missing the pointed commentary of In the Year of the Pig, which became prominent within the antiwar movement for depicting the racist and imperialist origins of the American war in Vietnam.

The only Hollywood treatment of the Vietnam War during these early years was the much-ridiculed The Green Berets (1968), a John Wayne vehicle that largely recycles tropes from earlier war films and even Westerns: from the sneak attack en masse of Viet Cong to the young Asian orphan who follows the American soldiers around. The Green Berets’ most celebrated goof is having the sun set over the eastern coast of Vietnam, although it turns the Vietnam War upside down in other ways, its optimistic, promilitary stance at odds with the portrayals from both television news and film documentaries after the violence of the Tet Offensive in early 1968. But The Green Berets did reimagine roles for Asian American actors, who were no longer relegated to simply playing the Asian enemy screaming in guttural nonsense. The Green Berets featured George Takei (known as Sulu on Star Trek [1966–1969]) and Jack Soo (who played Sammy Fong in Flower Drum Song [1961]) in English-speaking roles as ARVN (South Vietnam Army) soldiers. As the number of Vietnam War films grew, so did the opportunities for Asian American actors, although many remain mired in the position of the crazed enemy.

In this early period, other films also alluded to the Vietnam War in thinly veiled allegorical form, displaced variously onto zombie apocalypse (The Night of the Living Dead [1968]), the Texas–Mexico border (The Wild Bunch [1969]), the Sand Creek massacre of Cheyenne Indians (Little Big Man [1970]), the Korean War (M*A*S*H [1970]), World War II (Catch-22 [1970]), and Appalachia (Deliverance [1972]). Even World War II films such as Hell in the Pacific (1968), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), or Patton (1970) are difficult to view separately from the lens of Vietnam. What many of these allegories of Vietnam share is the link between the Vietnamese enemy and various other marginalized groups in the United States, as well as the disintegration of nationalist cohesion within “our” side due to distrust, moral degeneracy, or the absurdity of the mission of war or conquest. The visual signature of the Vietnam War appears as a form of a hyperviolence made allowable by images of the Vietnam War emerging in the news.19 In Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, bodies practically dance in bloody spasms, at times highlighted by slow-motion photography and special effects. During a press conference, actor William Holden defended the film: “I just can’t get over the reaction here. Are people surprised that violence really exists in the world? Just turn on your tv set any night.”20

These allegorical allusions to the Vietnam War also reflected on other problematic episodes in US history. The dehumanization of the enemy as “gook” stretches back to not only prior wars in the Pacific (the Korean War, World War II) but also the imperialist subjugation of Native American and Filipino populations at the turn of the century.21 In particular, the metaphor of Vietnamese-as-Native Americans borrowed from the mystique of the vanishing Indian to render the Vietnamese as romantically primitive but powerless victims, ignoring the contemporaneity of Native political activity such as the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969–1971 and the siege at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973.22 Interestingly, allegorical treatments of the Vietnam War diminish in frequency along with the prospects of the United States actually winning the war, as if the impending victory of North Vietnam undercut their narratives of victimization. By the time of Apocalypse Now (1979), four years after the end of the war, the indigenous theme in Vietnam is relegated to the “Montagnard” tribe on the Cambodian border into which Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has embedded himself at the film’s conclusion. Far from being noble savages falling victim to American aggression, these natives embody the purest form of primitive barbarity that Kurtz both admires and derides. Of course, such primitive violence has no place in peacetime, and the Montagnard compound is accordingly blown up in the film’s spectacular ending.

A different narrative emerges in films like The Deer Hunter, The Boys in Company C, and Go Tell the Spartans (all 1978), wherein American soldiers become the victims and the Vietnamese are portrayed as sadistic torturers, corrupt thieves, drug dealers, and indiscriminate killers—including the South Vietnamese, who no longer have to be valorized as allies. This emphasis on the damage done to the United States is difficult to reconcile with the asymmetrical costs of the Vietnam War, with approximately 58,220 American casualties compared with estimates of 1.5 to 3.5 million Vietnamese (North and South), Cambodian, and Laotian casualties during the American war, not to mention the physical devastation of these countries.23 The Deer Hunter’s infamous Russian roulette scenes, which dominate the “combat” portions of the film, epitomize this inversion by highlighting the futility of the war and the loss of control mainly for American soldiers. This “Americanization” of the Vietnam War is repeated in Platoon (1986), where the main character Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) must choose sides—not between North and South Vietnam but between two American soldiers (Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger) representing honorable versus dishonorable warfare.

Although post-1978 Vietnam War films displaced the Vietnamese at a narrative level, they increasingly relied on them at the level of production. Multiple waves of refugees from Southeast Asia spilled into other nations near and far after 1975. The first wave largely fled South Vietnam with American assistance just before the Fall of Saigon; the second wave after 1977 saw many of the so-called boat people held at refugee camps in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Hong Kong before being allowed to migrate to their ultimate destinations.24 The Deer Hunter was filmed in Thailand, while The Boys in Company C and Apocalypse Now were filmed in the Philippines—both nations that were neocolonial allies to the United States during the Vietnam War and which also had camps that held refugees in limbo while European and North American nations debated whether to accept them as migrants. These two locations would be favored by the second wave of Vietnam War film productions: in the Philippines, Platoon (1986) and Hamburger Hill (1987), and in Thailand, Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) and Casualties of War (1989). Go Tell the Spartans, in seeming contrast, was filmed in Southern California, but this area boasted one of the largest concentrations of Vietnamese refugees in the United States. Although some refugees reportedly relished participating in these films as extras, their inclusion far from guaranteed that the films would represent their perspectives on the war. Speaking Vietnamese roles would go to Asian or Asian American actors already active in the film industry rather than to these untrained Vietnamese extras. Even in later films, when Vietnamese performers were credited for their work in more major roles—such as Thuy Thu Le as the rape victim in Casualties of War or Ngoc Le as the female sniper in Full Metal Jacket—they had little input into the creative product of the film and instead served as realistic props to support the performances of the American characters around them.

Outside of Hollywood, there are some notable variations on these themes and patterns. Although films from communist Vietnam did not circulate widely, The Girl from Hanoi (1975), which dramatized the effects of US bombing raids on North Vietnam in 1972, was shown at the Moscow International Film Festival, and When the Tenth Month Comes (1984), set during the Vietnamese–Cambodian War, also circulated at the Moscow and Toronto International Film Festivals. In contrast to American films, both of these focus on female protagonists whose immediate families are killed in the course of the war, although some may view the exclusion of the American side of the war as evidence of these films as sentimentalist propaganda. Hong Kong cinema’s auteurs also tackled the Vietnam War, both directly with Ann Hui’s The Boat People (1982) and indirectly in Tsui Hark’s A Better Tomorrow III (1989) and John Woo’s Bullet in the Head (1990).25 Perhaps the impending deadline for Hong Kong’s return to communist China in 1997 prompted these films’ meditations on another communist regime, although the more immediate influence may have been the large Vietnamese refugee presence in Hong Kong, many of whom were Chinese Vietnamese.26 South Korean cinema has developed its own mini–Vietnam War genre, based on the experiences of Korean soldiers sent there as part of the US-led coalition: White Badge (1994), R-Point (2004), Sunny (2008), and Ode to My Father (2014). Despite being allied to the United States, the soldiers in these films are depicted as if they, too, were victimized by the Americans, forced to witness and take part in atrocities against the Vietnamese; however, the films fail to reckon with any Korean complicity in this larger Cold War project.27 Thus, while Vietnamese, Hong Kong, and South Korean films about the Vietnam War might seem to be an antidote to American films’ distortions and elisions, they too represent the war in ways that fit various nationalist or ideological agendas.

A number of these films were financially successful as well as critically acclaimed. The Deer Hunter and Platoon received Academy Awards for Best Picture, while Apocalypse Now was ranked number twenty-eight on the American Film Institute list of the top one hundred American films in 1998. These accolades help legitimize the tropes of the genre as the popular memory of the Vietnam War. By the time these tropes are parodied in later comedic films, they have morphed into farce rather than tragedy. The secret war in Laos is barely represented in Air America (1990), serving merely as the context for a drug-smuggling buddy film, and the Hmong leader General Vang Pau, who assisted the CIA during the war, is reduced to a yellowface minstrel figure played by Burt Kwouk of “Pink Panther” fame. Although Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993) is ostensibly about the Persian Gulf War in Iraq (the same war that President George H. W. Bush had proclaimed to banish the “specter of Vietnam”), it continually references the Vietnam War film, from its poster (mimicking the Rambo series) to its main star, Charlie Sheen (of Platoon fame) to the cameo by Charlie’s father, Martin Sheen (from Apocalypse Now). In Tropic Thunder (2008), the main referent is no longer war itself but rather the war film genre. The secret weapon that saves the actors from real violence is not any actual munition, but a TiVo box that blocks a grenade launcher. The TiVo box—a mundane household appliance that converts a live broadcast medium into an infinitely repeatable viewing experience—is a fitting metaphor for the ossification of the Vietnam War film genre. The living-room war has become the digitally rerun war.

Bringing the War Home

Originally, the idea of the “living room war” was that the television screen domesticated warfare by broadcasting it in miniaturized form into the private spaces of the home front. But the war also returned in embodied form, on the backs of two particular groups: veterans and refugees. Although differently racialized and traumatized, the two groups suffered similar forms of social marginalization upon their arrival in the United States. The antiwar movement fomented many of the themes that would accompany the later reception of veterans and refugees: that the war was unjust not only for its victims but also for those forced to do the fighting and that the war against the war was linked to other protests against racial and gender discrimination, capitalism, and colonialism. Yet, depictions of the antiwar movement portray it as merely antimilitary, ignoring the widespread participation of veterans in the movement. Furthermore, intersectionality between different protest movements did not mean that those under the antiwar umbrella necessarily emphasized the same issues.

Although mainstream media did not cover the antiwar movement to the same extent as the war itself, several independent filmmakers devoted themselves to creating a visual record of dissent. Possibly the first antiwar film was the French-produced Loin du Vietnam (Far from Vietnam, 1967), an anthology film with segments directed by Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Renais, Agnes Vardes, Joris Ivens, William Klein, and others, which briefly screened at the New York and Montreal Film Festivals before disappearing from American distribution. More notable are the contributions from Newsreel, a collective founded in 1967 to produce and disseminate films on protest movements as well as underground culture. Modeled on the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), Newsreel also featured the work of ICAIC founder Santiago Alvarez, including Laos: The Forgotten War (1967), one of the first exposés of the CIA’s secret war, and Hanoi, Tuesday the 13th (1967) and 79 Spring Times of Ho Chi Minh (1969), which offered glimpses into North Vietnamese perspectives neglected in American media. In films like No Game (1968), Yippie (1968), Summer ’68 (1969), and America (1969), Newsreel covered antiwar protests at the Pentagon in 1967, the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968, and in Washington, DC, in 1969, documenting the diverse antiwar coalition as well as the military-style violence used by police against protestors.28 Newsreel films, along with similar productions like In the Year of the Pig and David Loeb Weiss’s No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger (1968), bypassed the regular theatrical channels and mainly circulated on colleges and in GI coffeehouses, an informal network of antiwar activity concentrated around military bases. Although Newsreel disbanded in the early 1970s, some of its remnants split off into Third World Newsreel and California Newsreel, two media arts organizations that remain active today. More recent documentaries have illustrated the legacies of these alternative networks, including Sir! No Sir! (2005), which chronicles the participation of soldiers in the antiwar movement and the GI coffeehouse circuit, and A Song for Ourselves (2009), a Third World Newsreel film that offers an overview of the life of musician and activist Chris Iijima that highlights the intersection of the antiwar movement and the Asian American student movement.

No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger—referencing a quote popularly attributed to Muhammad Ali—displays the intimate link between antiwar protest and veterans, juxtaposing a narrative of the Harlem contingent of the larger 1967 antiwar march in New York City with interviews with three black veterans. If these veterans were neutral or mildly prowar before they were drafted, their experiences with racism within the military led them to become more politically radicalized, at times identifying with the North Vietnamese. The production history of Looking Like the Enemy (1995), which focused on the experiences of Japanese American veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, shows the limits of racial intersectionality, as some veterans spoke of fellow soldiers calling them “gooks” while others attempted to justify this as military camaraderie and refused to blame the system for fear that it would taint the honor of their service.29 The film reminds us that, as much as we might view the Vietnam War as a racist endeavor by a racist military, there have always been marginalized communities (people of color, the working class) who have celebrated the military as a space of relative equality and an opportunity for upward mobility in class and status.

However, the widely publicized atrocities of the Vietnam War made it more difficult to idealize than previous US wars. The documentary Winter Soldier (1972), dominated by the personal testimonies of US Vietnam War veterans on the crimes and atrocities they witnessed and participated in, illustrates the racist and dehumanizing basis of the war while also depicting the US soldier’s psyche as an additional casualty. Less explicit accounts would appear in the more mainstream documentary Hearts and Minds (1974), which won the 1975 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature (to the consternation of Oscar cohosts Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra). Its testimonies, many by veterans later affiliated with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), were meant as a direct rebuttal of the trials against the American soldiers involved in the My Lai Massacre, in which defendants dodged the issue of responsibility and tried to cast their prosecution as unpatriotic. While the VVAW failed to garner mainstream support for the investigation of other atrocities against Vietnamese civilians, they did legitimize the psychological suffering of war veterans, eventually helping to institutionalize the diagnosis and treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).30

Hollywood’s treatment of returning Vietnam veterans ignored their potential for a radical critique of the war and instead narrowly focused on their trauma as mental instability. The trope of the unstable Vietnam vet appeared in many films of the 1970s and onward, from the motorcycle gangster-turned-alternative hero Billy Jack (in Born Losers [1968], Billy Jack [1971], The Trial of Billy Jack [1974], and Billy Jack Goes to Washington [1977]) to Robert DeNiro as the infamous psychotic veteran in Taxi Driver (1976) (following up on DeNiro’s veteran roles in Greetings [1968] and Hi, Mom! [1970]). Later came the one-man armies of Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in First Blood (1982), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), and Rambo III (1988) and Chuck Norris as James Braddock in the three-installment Missing in Action films (1984, 1985, 1988). One acclaimed film sympathetic to returning veterans was Coming Home (1978). While it did depict the political dimensions of the veteran’s suffering, it also sentimentalized that suffering into a personal ordeal and triumph, ignoring the more systemic critique offered by documentaries such as Winter Soldier. Appearing over a decade later, Born on the Fourth of July (1989) was the second of Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, which included Platoon (1986) and Heaven and Earth (1993). It was based on the autobiography of VVAW activist Ron Kovic, but by the late 1980s, Kovic’s life, as well as the urgency of the draft and of antiwar protests, had disappeared into the morass of history. Stone’s biographical film can also be compared with Forrest Gump (1993), based on a wholly fictional character, which flattens out historical context into purely decorative background. Gump “runs” through the Vietnam War just as he does through other historical events, acting like the ordinary American that Kovic might have been if he had not lost his legs and did not become famous for protesting the war. The war is even more remote in Across the Universe (2007), a film more focused on its Beatles soundtrack and romantic comedy plotline than the events of the 1960s and 1970s that form the backdrop for its musical numbers.

However, the American veteran is not the only one to “return” to the United States after the Vietnam War. The Southeast Asian refugee arrives, too, scarred by the war, but suffers the additional stigmatization of racist xenophobia. While veterans’ rage and despair were suppressed by valorization of their patriotic sacrifices, the refugee’s psychological wounds were submerged under a veneer of gratitude, as if the US efforts to resettle them were a spontaneous gesture of magnanimity rather than a guilty reparation for the trauma directly caused by American actions.31 Although refugees appear in countless US Vietnam War films as unnamed combatants or civilian collateral damage, the refugee does not appear as a major character until Heaven and Earth (1993), the third of Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy and based on the memoir of Le Ly Hayslip, and Alamo Bay (1995), Louis Malle’s film about Vietnamese American fishermen in the Texas Gulf Coast. American veteran characters loom large in both films: Hayslip’s PTSD-suffering husband in the former and the racist antagonist who blames refugees for his personal and economic hardships in the latter. Both films make it difficult to view the refugee as having agency or complexity, rather than being the passive recipient of US largess or animosity, and neither highlights the large proportion of Southeast Asian refugees who were themselves veterans of the war.

The 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of a self-identified Asian American cinema, nurtured through alternative funding and distribution channels such as public television, academic affiliations, and minority-focused media arts collectives. These channels not only offered different representations of Southeast Asian refugees but also allowed for the possibility of self-representation. However, one should not assume that self-representation is more authentic than the Hollywood fare; instead, one might look at how the demands of new genres—avant-garde film, personal video diaries, visual ethnography—change the kinds of issues, stories, and themes tackled under the umbrella of “refugee” cinema. The most prominent Vietnamese American filmmaker of this period, although not a refugee herself, is Trinh T. Minh-ha, whose experimental and self-reflexive works challenge the expectation for transparent representation of whatever one might call the “Vietnamese refugee experience.” This is quite evident in her best known work, Surname Viet, Given Name Nam (1989), which deconstructs the authority of first-person testimonials.32 A different experiment occurs in A.K.A. Don Bonus (1995), a collaboration between Japanese American filmmaker Spencer Nakasano and Cambodian American teen Sokly Ny using the format of the video diary.33 The collaborative format is repeated in Nakasano’s Kelly Loves Tony (1998), about two Laotian young adults, as well as in The Betrayal—Nerakhoon (2008), codirected by Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath and filmed over the course of twenty-three years. Some of the early films about Hmong Americans also involved collaborations with anthropologists: Becoming American: The Odyssey of a Refugee (1982), which worked with the anthropologist Marshall Hurlich; Between Two Worlds: The Hmong Shaman in America (1984), which was coproduced by the ethnographer Dwight Conquergood; and Better Places: Hmong of Rhode Island (2001), which was codirected by the anthropologist Louisa Schein.

As younger Southeast Asian refugees came of age in the United States, they began to contribute to the body of refugee films, both mainstream and experimental, fictional and documentary. Timothy Linh Bui’s Green Dragon (2001) remains one of the few Hollywood treatments of the refugee experience, focusing on the temporary encampments set up at Camp Pendelton near San Diego, California, to house the first wave of Vietnamese refugees that arrived soon after the Fall of Saigon.34 Bui and his older brother, Tony, had achieved accolades for their earlier collaboration, Three Seasons (1999, dir. Tony Bui), which claims to be the first American movie filmed on location in Vietnam after the US embargo ended in 1994. The homosocial relationship between Americans and Vietnamese forms a different locus in the experimental video PIRATED! (2000) by Nguyen Tan Hoang, wherein the trauma of refugee passage is transformed into homoerotic fantasies referencing Hollywood footage and Vietnamese music videos.35 A more epic, if conventional, treatment of the Vietnamese refugee experience comes from Ham Tran’s Journey from the Fall (2006), an independent narrative feature film that raised its entire production budget from contributions from the Vietnamese American community.36 Like the family at the center of its story, the film is split into two parts, with one following the mother’s escape from Vietnam as a “boat person” and settling in the United States and the other documenting the father’s imprisonment in a Vietnamese re-education camp.

But the refugee film is not limited to re-enactments of the passage from Southeast Asia or the trauma of resettlement. Later documentaries portray the diversity of everyday life in the diaspora, from senior citizens’ beauty pageants in The Queen from Virginia: The Jackie Bong Wright Story (2006) and the mental health consumer movement in Can (2012), to community organizing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in A Village Called Versailles (2009) and the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress in Mr. Cao Goes to Washington (2012). In fictional feature-length films as well, Vietnamese American themes also expand beyond the scope of the war, from the intergenerational family comedy All about Dad (2009) to the nail salon interracial romance of Touch (2011) and the coming-of-age story in Viette (2012). Hmong Americans occupy a controversial but prominent role in the Hollywood film Gran Torino (2008), debuting actors Bee Vang and Ahney Her as the foils to Clint Eastwood’s grumpy racist white savior.37 Variations on the theme of refugee migration appear in the documentaries Mai’s America (2002), which chronicles the experiences of a high-school-aged Vietnamese exchange student who spends a year in Mississippi, and Kim’s Story: The Road from Vietnam (1996), focusing on Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the young girl infamously burned by “accidental napalm” in Nick Ut’s iconic 1972 photograph, and who lived in Vietnam and Cuba until her defection to Canada in 1992.38

The refugee film is quite distinct from the veteran film, yet the two subgenres are ultimately intertwined, as a scene from the end of Kim’s Story illustrates. Kim Phuc is invited to speak at a Veteran’s Day ceremony held at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, and there she is pulled aside by an American veteran, John Plummer, who wishes to apologize directly to Phuc for causing the airstrike that burned her with napalm. Unseen in the film is the subsequent controversy over Plummer’s claims by other veterans who refute his account of responsibility while also positing a counternarrative of dignified warfare that cast the blame of the war’s failures on other groups—politicians, South Vietnamese, the media.39 If, as Winter Soldier and Born on the Fourth of July showed, the US veteran brought the war home in the form of unexpiated guilt over wartime violence, then Kim’s Story, like Heaven and Earth and Journey from the Fall, prevent easy closure by showing the war’s continuing psychological, social, epistemic, and economic violence. The refugee acts as an embodied reminder that the wounds of the Vietnam War have yet to heal.

Coda: Maybe You Can Go Back Again

In “Tomorrow I Leave,” a multimedia artwork by artists Lana Lin and H. Lan Thao Lam (known as Lin + Lam), the refugee camp reappears not in its historical form but rather as a picturesque set of ruins in contemporary Malaysia and Hong Kong that become the site of reunion tours for former Vietnamese refugees now residing comfortably in Australia, Canada, and the United States.40 But the refugee is not alone in returning. The veteran has also found his or her way back to former battlegrounds, for personal repentance, organized humanitarian work, or perhaps simply for recreation. Younger folks—sometimes the children of refugees or veterans—also find their way to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos to retrace the steps of their literal or symbolic ancestors and also to reimagine the media images that form their postmemories of the war.41 Museums and tourist attractions such as the War Remnants Museum and the Củ Chi Tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City, and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, are aimed as much at visitors from abroad as they are for local residents.42 But tourists are just as likely to seek out the Ho Chi Minh Trail along the Vietnam–Laos border as a biking path, or the beaches of Vũng Tàu in Vietnam or Pattaya in Thailand (both military R & R locations during the war) as tropical resorts, remaking the landscapes of war into objects of consumption.

The filmic record of return begins as early as the 1980s, with the thirteen-part documentary series Vietnam: A Television History (1983), originally broadcast on PBS. The chief correspondent for the series, Stanley Karnow, was also a “veteran” of sorts, having been a journalist in and around Vietnam from 1959 to 1975. Although heavily relying on archival footage of the war, the series also featured hundreds of original interviews, including communist generals, former guerrillas, and ordinary villagers. Although many of the major South Vietnamese figures featured in the documentary had resettled in the United States, the producers also relied on interviews taken in Vietnam, obtained with the permission of officials in Hanoi, to flesh out the perspective of the “other” side.43 In one sense, these interviews help the documentary achieve something like ideological balance, which is especially important since Vietnam had been largely inaccessible to most Americans after 1975. Their inclusion so disrupted the dominant narrative of Cold War anticommunism and American exceptionalism that the series received a rebuttal in the form of another PBS documentary, “Television’s Vietnam: The Real Story” (1985), accusing it of sympathizing with the former enemy and downplaying North Vietnamese atrocities. But in another sense, going back to Vietnam for interviews continues the binary logic of the two “sides” of the war. Even the interviews with exiled South Vietnamese officials such as former South Vietnamese prime minister Nguyễn Cao Kỳ (interviewed in Westminster, CA) downplayed their current embeddedness within the United States as refugees.

A different mode of return occurs in From Hollywood to Hanoi (1992), a documentary memoir directed by Tiana Alexandra (the stage name of Thi Thanh Nga) and produced by Oliver Stone. The daughter of a former South Vietnamese foreign ministry press secretary, Alexandra returned to Vietnam for the first time in 1988 with a group of US veterans and later with a small film crew to tour Vietnam and interview prominent officials. While mimicking some of the techniques used in Vietnam: A Television History, From Hollywood to Hanoi is also a deeply personal exploration of Alexandra’s own hybrid and multiple identities as a first-generation Vietnamese American with deep ties to American popular culture. In fact, the “Hollywood” side of the story not only refers to the Hollywood war film but also Alexandra’s own career in the United States as a racialized erotic oddity: as a “Karaticise” workout instructor, an undercover cop/Chinese war bride in Catch the Heat (1989), a Cyndi Lauper-esque pop star called Tiana Banana in “Dumped On,” and an Asian dominatrix in the music video “Lust in the Jungle.” Thus, unlike the disembodied interviewers and narrators of Vietnam: A Television History, Alexandra is an excessively embodied subject (as well as object) of representation.44

This tale of the refugee’s return is repeated with variations in documentaries like Daughter from Danang (2002), about an Amerasian woman brought to the United States as an “orphan” in Operation Babylift after the Fall of Saigon, reuniting with her biological mother with unsettling consequences; New Year Baby (2006), about a journey back to Cambodia that reveals family secrets embedded within the history of the Cambodian genocide; and Sleepwalking through the Mekong (2007), in which Los Angeles–based band Dengue Fever visits Cambodia, native home of their lead singer, Chhom Nimol.45 One of the Cambodian musicians whose songs were covered by Dengue Fever, Ros Serey Sothea, was also the subject of a short film called The Golden Voice (2006), whose filmmakers later collaborated on a feature-length film, Two Shadows (2012), dramatizing a fictional return by a Cambodian American woman searching for her long-lost siblings. Similar to From Hollywood to Hanoi, these films generally feature the younger refugee generation who left Southeast Asia as children and thus feel artificially cut off from their cultural origins by the vicissitudes of war and often view their countries of origin as foreign lands. Their experiences may not match those of their parents’ generation either, who may view the homelands through the lens of more concrete memories or perhaps may even refuse to return at all.

But the journey back is not always to find one’s “roots,” as the common ethnic documentary formula implies. Unlike other Asian American immigrants, the Southeast Asian refugee returns to a homeland devastated by war, and family reunions, if possible, are also mournings of those who perished in re-education camps or secret prisons. Some Cambodian refugees return as if to the scene of an unsolved crime, attempting to uncover or document the details of the genocide that might otherwise be lost. The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor (2015) recounts how the Oscar-winning actor of The Killing Fields (1984) returned to Cambodia to deliver humanitarian aid to refugee camps on the Thai border and push for international tribunals to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to justice, only to be murdered in 1996 in Los Angeles, over a decade before the first tribunals began. The work of Rithy Pahn, the celebrated French Cambodian filmmaker who moved back to Cambodia in 1990, is similarly devoted to chronicling the history of the genocide and its aftermath, from his earliest documentary Site 2 (1989), on Cambodian refugees on the Thai border, to his most recent film The Missing Picture (2013), a recreation of his own family’s fate using animated clay figurines to fill in the gaps of his own memory and of the historical record. Going back, then, is both a geographic and a temporal journey to an impossible destination that no longer exists and yet haunts the present with ethical urgency. Pahn also helped to produce the recent film adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir, First They Killed My Father (2017), which was funded by US-based Netflix but filmed entirely on location in Cambodia and in the Khmer language.

In a few cases, the return voyage is coerced, as in the case of deportations of Southeast Asians since the passage of several anti-terrorism and immigration laws in 1996 that increased the offenses for which noncitizens can be detained and repatriated.46 In Sentenced Home (2006) and Cambodian Son (2014), Cambodian Americans who were brought to the United States as children and had spent time in the criminal justice system during their youth are again accosted by that system as adults, punished a second time for their crimes even though they had served their sentences and had begun to rebuild their lives. They are repatriated back to a Cambodia where they have few living relatives, do not speak Khmer, and lack the ability to support themselves, in the process leaving behind jobs and families in the United States. As NBC’s digital documentary series Deported (2017) discloses, over 16,000 Southeast Asian Americans have been given orders of removal since 1996, and more than 600 Cambodian Americans have been deported.47 The cases not only highlight the hostile and byzantine nature of the immigration court and detention system but also the ambivalent attitude of the US state toward refugees as occupying a space between desired immigrants and undocumented “illegals.”

The US veteran also undertakes various forms of return to Southeast Asia, if not to seek a lost home, then to retrieve other things that have been left behind—innocence, fallen comrades, forgiveness, perhaps even closure. The earliest films of return are easily confused with actual war films, since John Rambo and James Braddock go back to Vietnam to rescue American prisoners of war (POWs) and thus complete the unfinished business of the US war. But the combat theme gives way to pseudo-humanitarian ones in later films. Braddock returns a second time in Braddock: Missing in Action III (1988) to retrieve his Amerasian son and lead a group of orphans to safety, while in Rambo (2008), an aged John Rambo agrees to help a group of Christian missionaries and their hired mercenaries into Myanmar to aid the Karen ethnic minority. Returning to Vietnam also serves the benefit of the veterans themselves, as the literally named Going Back (2001)—also released in a shortened form in the United States as Under Heavy Fire—follows a group of veterans who return with a documentary film crew in tow, weepily revisiting old battlefields and experiencing flashbacks that explain their current states of PTSD. Even the children of veterans can make the journey back to Vietnam on behalf of their deceased parents, as in the case of Tracy Droz Tragos, creator of the documentary Be Good, Smile Pretty (2003) which aired on PBS’s Independent Lens series. While the documentary focuses mostly on Tragos’s reconstruction of her father’s life and death by seeking artifacts and memories from his fellow soldiers, a follow-up trip recorded by CBS News and 60 Minutes II shows Tragos and her mother traveling to Vietnam to visit the place where her father had been killed.48 A number of veterans as well as refugees have also become involved in the disposal of unexploded ordinances left behind by decades of US bombing in Southeast Asia, with documentaries such as Bombies (2001) and Bomb Harvest (2007) tracking the continuing devastation of these weapons in contemporary Laos.

But the tourist infrastructure set up to receive these veterans and their families is just as likely to welcome visitors with no prior experience of Vietnam. The food personality Anthony Bourdain proclaimed Vietnam his “first love” and visited multiple times on Travel Channel’s No Reservations (2005, 2009, 2010) and CNN’s Parts Unknown (2014, 2016). Although praised by many Vietnamese for treating their culture and cuisine respectfully, his travelogues inevitably juxtapose the consumption of the war alongside other savory victuals, as when he toured the tunnels of Vịnh Mốc north of the imperial city of Huế, where an entire underground village from the American war had been reconstructed complete with mannequins and tunnels enlarged for tall Western tourists, in between scenes of an imperial-style banquet with French and Vietnamese artists and grilling fish on the beach with a local fisherman who grew up in the tunnels.49 A more sinister image of war tourism appears in the experimental video work “The Guerillas of Cu Chi” (2012), by the Vietnamese artist collective The Propeller Group, which juxtaposes footage from a 1963 Hanoi-produced propaganda film with video of contemporary tourists playing with guns at the shooting range at the Cu Chi tunnel complex outside of Ho Chi Minh City.50 Such war games are repeated closer to home, at paintball parks such as SC Village (for “Sat Cong Village”) in the Mojave Desert outside of Los Angeles that stage locations such as “Mekong Delta” for weekend warriors to live out their Vietnam War fantasies.51 Vietnam War re-enactors, as depicted in the documentary In Country (2014, directed by Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara), often have no military experience at all, although a few are veterans—not only of the Vietnam War but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well. As Harry Baumgardner, one of two Vietnam War vets in In Country, exclaims, “They say you can’t go back, but for a couple of hours, I went back.” The other Vietnam veteran, Vinh Nguyen, refutes the assumption that “going back” is traumatic: “I don’t exactly know why you said ‘bad memories’ . . . I am still whole now, I am still stronger when I am with the South Vietnam Army.” But the “back” to which Baumgardner and Nguyen refer is as much a visual, filmic referent as it is a pure, unmediated memory, which then puts them in a similar position as memory tourists such as Bourdain, both fantasizing a wholeness and agency that has been eroded by civilian life and exile.

Many Southeast Asian American refugees also harbor fantasies of return in order to overthrow the communist governments that currently control their home nations. In 2007, several prominent Hmong leaders, including General Vang Pao and his associate Lo Cha Thao, were arrested on conspiracy charges of obtaining heavy weapons and plotting to overthrow the government of Laos, as documented in Operation Popcorn (2015). The elderly Hmong veterans were branded as terrorists, which is ironic given how the CIA used Hmong soldiers for covert actions during the “secret war” against North Vietnamese, although eventually all charges were dropped. A similar phenomenon has been documented within the Vietnamese diaspora, with anticommunist groups such as the Government of Free Vietnam plotting to reinvade Vietnam.52 The documentary Enforcing the Silence (2011) looks at the 1981 killing of a left-leaning Vietnamese American journalist, Lam Duong, as possibly a form of retaliation from such anticommunists within the refugee community.

As Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos develop economically and socially into the 21st century, the reasons for return expand beyond the orbit of the 20th-century wars. One of the first Viet Kieu directors to return to Vietnam was the French-trained Tran Anh Hung.53 His first film, The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), was made entirely in France but set in Vietnam and was Vietnam’s first and only nomination for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. However, Tran’s second feature film, Cyclo (1995), was filmed on location in Ho Chi Minh City, and his third, The Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000), was filmed in Hanoi. Other Viet Kieu from the US film industry who have returned include the actor-turned-director Dustin Nguyen, actor and stuntman Johnny Tri Nguyen, director Charlie Nguyen, actress Kathy Uyen, director Tony Bui, cinematographer and director Stephane Gauger, and director Victor Vu.54 Dustin Nguyen’s career follows an interesting arc, as he became established in Hollywood fairly early with a leading role in the television series 21 Jump Street (1987–1990), but later returned to Vietnam seeking “roles with great depth and roles that you wouldn’t see in Hollywood for Asian Americans.”55 Rithy Panh has started to develop an infrastructure for local Cambodian filmmaking through his Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, enabling productions such as The Last Reel (2014) by Sotho Kulikar, whose first job in film was as the local production coordinator for the Angkor Wat scenes in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001).56 Similarly, Laotian cinema is starting up with the help of filmmakers such as Mattie Do, who was born in Los Angeles to Laotian refugee parents but moved to Laos in 2010 and has since directed three Laotian horror films, including her second film, Dearest Sister (2016), which became Laos’s first and only submission to the Academy Awards.57

Even the old guard is returning, as Nguyễn Cao Kỳ in 2004 became the first high-ranking South Vietnamese leader to visit Vietnam after its reunification. Ironically, upon his arrival, many younger Vietnamese asked why he didn’t bring his daughter, Nguyễn Cao Kỳ Duyên, co-host of the popular Paris by Night musical series.58 That same year, Paris by Night 74 featured the singer Hoàng Oanh, another first-wave exile, singing the song “Về Đây Anh,” while a video montage played behind her, showing Northern Vietnamese fleeing from communist rule to the South during the partition of Vietnam in 1954.59 Kỳ’s return may have signaled some kind of reconciliation with this past, but Oanh’s performance reveals the continuing haunting of the present by these memories of war. Even as this generation of soldiers, protestors, refugees, and bystanders who witnessed the wars in Southeast Asia passes on, the filmic representation of their experiences will resurrect their ghosts for others to see and respond to. As one Vietnamese American commented on Kỳ’s death in 2011, “Old generals don’t fade away.”60 Neither do old war films.

Discussion of the Literature

Although the Vietnam War officially ended in 1975, the bulk of the films produced about the war did not begin to appear in earnest until after 1978. Scholarship on the Vietnam War film also lagged behind until the early 1990s, when a series of anthologies and monographs were published. This period, of the late 1970s to the early 1990s, coincided with the rise of the academic fields that were most pertinent to the study of the Vietnam War in film: cinema studies and Asian American studies. As these fields began to professionalize through the establishment of academic departments and programs, peer-reviewed journals and book series, and dedicated conferences and symposia, these institutional and social structures shaped the appearance of the first collected and in-depth scholarship on the Vietnam War in film (as opposed to film reviews, even if they appeared in academic journals). Among the first important collections are From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film (1990), edited by Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud; The Vietnam War and American Culture (1991), edited by John Carlos Rowe and Rick Berg; and Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television (1991), edited by Michael Anderegg.61 It is worth noting how many of the scholars in these anthologies are situated in English literature or history departments rather than film departments, reflecting both the uneven institutionalization of cinema studies by the 1990s and its interdisciplinary affinity with literary and historical research on the Vietnam War era. The timing of these anthologies also reflects the release of a second wave of Vietnam War films in the United States, as well as various commemoration events marking the tenth anniversary of the end of the war or the twentieth anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Unusual as well for academic scholarship is the highlighting of military service among the various editors (specifically, Dittmar, Michaud, and Berg), as if to claim an authenticity of direct experience that might balance accusations of political correctness against the anthologies’ consistent critique of US nationalist ideology. But the film scholarship on the Vietnam War film mirrors the historical scholarship on the Vietnam War in focusing mainly on the United States as both a military and a cultural hegemon and presuming a normative whiteness in its construction of the United States.

While some of this early film scholarship acknowledges the issue of race and racism in the representation of Southeast Asians involved in the war, the rise of Asian American scholarship pushes race to the forefront in different ways. Born out of a larger wave of ethnic social justice movements in the 1970s that also protested the Vietnam War, Asian American studies situates the representation of the Vietnamese in US films as part of longer histories of the oppression of Asians and other peoples of color in and outside of the United States. Two of the earliest works of Asian American scholarship that deal with the media representation of the Vietnam War are Darrell Y. Hamamoto’s Monitored Peril: Asian Americans and the Politics of TV Representation (1994) and Peter X Feng’s Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video (2002).62 Both Hamamoto and Feng attempt to portray Vietnamese and Cambodian subjects as more than passive, anonymous victims of US aggression, but they also subsume these Southeast Asian subjects into the larger panethnic category of Asian Americans in ways that may obscure their differences with other Asian American groups. In the 2010s, a more recent wave of Asian American scholarship that focuses on Southeast Asians has attended to the specificity and complexity of their refugee and postcolonial histories. Lan P. Duong’s Treacherous Subjects: Gender, Culture, and Trans-Vietnamese Feminism (2012), Mimi Thi Nguyen’s The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (2012), Cathy J. Schlund-Vials’s War, Genocide, and Justice: Cambodian American Memory Work (2012), and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016) form the core of this intervention, centering Southeast Asians as both subjects and objects of representation.63 Supplementary works like Sylvia Shin Huey Chong’s The Oriental Obscene: Violence and Racial Fantasies in the Vietnam Era (2012) and Jodi Kim’s Ends of Empire: Asian American Critique and the Cold War (2010) situate Southeast Asians and the Vietnam War within historical frameworks of imperialism and resurgent nationalism and foreground the specific incorporation of Southeast Asian Americans into an Asian American racial formation.64 The inclusion of these scholarly perspectives has radically changed the direction of Vietnam War film studies, as seen in the essays included in Brenda M. Boyle and Jeehyun Lim’s Looking Back on the Vietnam War: Twenty-First Century Perspectives (2016).65 Most importantly, such work has made it impossible to fall back on the binary logic of us (United States) versus them (Vietnam) by insisting on the inclusion of Southeast Asian Americans in the making of American cultural memories of the war, whether dominant or resistant.

Further Reading

  • Anderegg, Michael, ed. Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.
  • Boyle, Brenda M., and Jeehyun Lim, eds. Looking Back on the Vietnam War: Twenty-First Century Perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016.
  • Chong, Sylvia Shin Huey. The Oriental Obscene: Violence and Racial Fantasies in the Vietnam Era. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.
  • Devine, Jeremy M. Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second: A Critical and Thematic Analysis of Over 400 Films about the Vietnam War. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1995.
  • Dittmar, Linda, and Gene Michaud, eds. From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
  • Duong, Lan P. Treacherous Subjects: Gender, Culture, and Trans-Vietnamese Feminism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012.
  • Feng, Peter X. Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.
  • Hallin, Daniel C. The “Uncensored” War: The Media and Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
  • Jeffords, Susan. Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.
  • Klein, Christina. Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
  • Lembecke, Jerry. The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
  • Marchetti, Gina. Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Cinema. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
  • Ngô, Fiona I. B., Mimi Thi Nguyen, and Mariam B. Lam, eds. “Southeast Asian American Studies.” Special issue, Positions: East Asia Critique 20, no. 3 (2012).
  • Nguyen, Mimi Thi. The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.
  • Nguyen, Viet Thanh. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.
  • Rowe, John Carlos, and Rick Berg, eds. The Vietnam War and American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
  • Schlund-Vials, Cathy J. War, Genocide, and Justice: Cambodian American Memory Work. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
  • Schlund-Vials, Cathy J., and Sylvia Shin Huey Chong, eds. “(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War.” Special issue, Asian American Literary Review 6, no. 2 (Fall 2015).