Directed by Đặng Nhật Minh
When the tenth month comes
Rice ripens in the storm-softened fields.
I leave behind me days of longing,
filled with loss and hardship.
While the autumn sky shines bright and blue...
In case you have never checked a map, there happen to more than three countries in Southeast Asia. Therefore, there are movies from Asian countries other than China, Japan, and Korea. I just wanted to get that out of the way, because we film lovers tend to forget that countries exist if they don't have a prominent film industry, or at least a critically respected one. But they do. One such example is Vietnam, who despite being involved in several wars throughout the 20th Century managed to produce some exemplary films. But then, why don't we see them more often? My guess is that Western audiences don't like to be confronted with the subject matter that always seems to find its way into Vietnamese films. That subject is war. Particularly the war against the United States and to some extent France. And I'm not exaggerating. I wasn't until 1945 that the government became involved in the national film industry. When the Ministry of Information and Propaganda created a film department, they focused on documenting battles of the First Indochina War and other documentaries. During the Vietnam War with the United States, North Vietnam focused on making propaganda films. Their documentaries and feature films would even go on to gain some attention from Eastern Europe. But for the most part, the Hanoi-based film industry spent most of its time documenting the Vietnam War. Take this interesting statistic that I found:
Between 1965 and 1973, 463 newsreels, 307 documentaries and 141 scientific films were produced, in contrast to just 36 feature films and 27 cartoons.
Even when traditional films were made, they would linger over issues of war. Things became even more morose (thematically speaking) when North and South Vietnam were reunited. Filmmakers began to make social realist films. Three of the most popular topics were: 1) Heroic efforts during the revolution, 2) human suffering caused by warfare, 3) social problems of post-war reconstruction. It has only been recently that Vietnamese filmmakers have pursued more commercial stories and themes. Therefore, most classic Vietnamese films have to do with war. And since said wars were with two foreign superpowers who happen to have great influence in the film industry, is it any surprise that Vietnamese films didn't get as widely distributed as those from China, Japan, and Korea?
But they should. Vietnam has its own cinematic voice that deserves to be heard. Because of its near continuous state of warfare in the 20th century, it has a unique outlook on such subjects. One great example is the 1984 film Bao Giò Cho Đến Tháng Mười, which translates to When the Tenth Month Comes. Instead of focusing on the war itself, it dwells on the psychological toll that it has on the families of soldiers who die. The main character is a young woman named Duyen who lives in the small village of Trung Nghia. When we first see her, she is walking by herself and seems incredibly depressed. This is probably due to the fact that she has just discovered that her husband, Comrade Tran Dinh Nam, has been killed in action. This leaves her as a widow with a young child named Tuan. When we first see him, he is running around playing with a plastic machine gun. I cannot imagine how Duyen must feel when she sees this after learning of her husband's death, but she certainly doesn't show it. She loves Tuan and her late husband's family. She loves them so much that she is going to sacrifice her own happiness (and eventually part of her sanity) in order to protect them.
She decides to hide her husband's death from everybody. When they ask her where he is, she replies that he is sick and in the hospital. Where is he stationed? The Central Highlands. Shouldn't he be here on leave? She is letting other soldiers go on leave first. But what about the letters? A-ha! Therein lies the flaw to her plan. So she makes the decision to ask one of her friends, a schoolteacher named Khang to write letters to her family and address them as if her husband had written them. Naturally, Khang is shocked by this request. After all, he doesn't believe that he is dead. Alas, she reveals that he has actually been dead for almost a year. “His unit was preparing the letter of death just as I came to visit,” she sorrowfully replies. So he agrees. Duyen gives him all of her husband's other letters so he can mimic them appropriately.
It is at this point that we ask why she would go through so much trouble to hide her husband's death from her family. Well, take a look at them. Her father-in-law has already had a son killed in action in Quang Tri in 1968. He has a picture of his enshrined up on the wall. The other wall is covered with pictures drawn bu Tuan of soldiers and warfare. It is obvious that he idolizes his father for being a soldier. Even his grandfather dotes on a tree that he planted one time when he came home on leave. Further more, his death happens to come right near the anniversary of his mother's death. Duyen realizes that the news of his death would crush them, so she suffers in silence and commissions fake letters to cheer her family. But this doesn't take into account her own personal feelings. She holds out hope that he may still be alive. When Khang says that it is wrong to hide her husband's death from her family, she replies, “But maybe they've made a mistake. Maybe he's still alive somewhere, and hasn't been able to contact anyone.” Could it be possible that when the fake letters arrive, she pretends that they are real? After all, they were dearly in love. She is obviously in denial. It's quite possible that the letters are just as much for her as they are for the rest of the family.
Alas, while this plan originally works, it is not long until one of her neighbors intercept one of the letters and read it. They realize that the handwriting is different. They take it to he authorities who investigate it. They find out that it was Khang who wrote the letters. They confront him and he confesses. Another stunning realization occurs when he confesses that he loves Duyen. Was that his motivation for writing the letters? Who knows. Whatever the answer, he moves away to a different school system. This is all too much for Duyen who has begun to have hallucinations of spirits. She mentions earlier in the film, “My grandma says that in the old days, on the 15th of the 7th lunar month there was a ghost market here where living and dead people could meet.” Eager to meet her husband again, she goes out in the middle of the night to try and find him. She has a couple of encounters with spirits. Her first is with the ghost of a dead soldier who has become a kind of guardian protector for her village. “I once went off to war like your husband, and left behind a young wife like you,” he says. She asks, “Is my husband truly dead?” He pauses and answers, “He now lives on only in people's memories. I live to this day for that same reason.” But things do not really begin to get strange until she actually stumbles upon the ghost market. She desperately searches for her husband. In a moment of great joy, she finds him. She tearfully confesses that she has hidden his death from everybody. He doesn't care. “Only living people can bring happiness to each other. I've completed my role in the living world,” he says. The rest of the movie concerns her attempts to reveal his death to her family. Unfortunately, a patrol of soldiers arrives to deliver the news first...
When the Tenth Month Comes is a powerful film dealing with a powerful subject matter. It's director, the criminally under-appreciated Đặng Nhật Minh wrings every last drop of emotion out of his actors. But probably his greatest triumph will go unnoticed by many. He never makes any distinction between the real world and the supposed “spirit world” where the ghosts live. Neither does he use any transition shots. They are just there, as if it were perfectly natural. I think that this was a stroke of genius. Because the line between reality and the other world is so vague, it brings up an important question: is it all real? Is there really a spirit market, or did she create the illusion of one so she could invent a scene where she meets her husband? Maybe she hallucinated it all in a desperate attempt to find closure. Whatever the answer, the power of When the Tenth Month Comes remains. It is a story about war. But more important than war, it is a story about loss. The lose of life, the loss of loved ones, and the loss of a future. Let us pray that we survive with our sanity intact.
Editor's Note: In order to help explain the title, here is a handy little quote that I found:
The tenth month in the title of the film refers to the time of forgiveness in Vietnamese culture.
Once again, thanks to taipeistory for recommending and providing this film. As of this time of writing, the whole film can be watched at:
Thanks again Marc!