Trinh T. Minh-ha and Film Criticism

Born Vietnam in 1953, Trinh T. Minh-ha came to the United States, studied music and comparative literature at the University of Illinois, and she studied ethnomusicology in France. Her later experience as a researcher in Senegal led directly to her first film work, Reassemblage (1982), a poetic transgressive film that transcends and revolutionizes cinema. Trinh T. Minh-ha’s films are extraordinary examples of ecriture feminine that combine her unique talents as writer, composer, filmmaker, and theorist.

TTMHHomeThe most exciting and, at the same time unnerving, distinguishing element of the oeuvre of Trinh T. Minh-ha is an uncanny mastery of those hybrid spaces or borders between categories: between fiction and nonfiction, art and autobiography, between documentary and document, between subject and object, viewer and viewed and identity as subscribed, and identity as self-inscribed. In an interview with Judith Mayne, reprinted in Framer Framed (1992), Mayne and Trinh T. Minh-ha discuss borderlines; in particular the borderlines that are routinely subscribed or inscribed on the body of the “Third World” artist. As a writer, Trinh T. Minh-ha found that her nondiscursive text, Woman, Native, Other, was initially met with resistance from many publishers. Eager to “eat the other;’ in the words of bell hooks, publishers were frankly interested in Trinh as an artist “from the Third World.” Nevertheless her text was initially rejected. As Trinh put it, “attempts at introducing a break into the fixed norms of the master’s confidant prevailing discourses are easily misread, dismissed, or obscured in the name of ‘good writing; of ‘theory; or of ‘scholarly work.’ ” (Minh-ha 1992, 138).

The space of the borderline, the taboo, the untranslatable, is the intersubjective space of Trinh’s writing and films. The struggle to mark new space, reframe boundaries is one that women writers and filmmakers of color are remapping in a struggle to conjure and write the body in a way that is actively “articulating this always emerging-already-distorted place that remains so difficult, on the one hand, for the First World to even recognize, and on the other, for our own communities to accept” (Minh-ha 1992, 139).

In an effort to transform cinema into a means of “speaking nearby” her “subjects” (African women in Reassemblage, and Naked Spaces-Living Is Round [1985], Vietnamese women in Surname Viet Given Name Nam [1989], and Chinese women in Shoot for the Contents [1991]), Trinh T. Minh-ha restructures the postcolonial gaze and its manufacturing device that almost guarantees a limited subject/object relationship between viewer and viewed. Trinh’s films have often been critically received (and reduced) as antiethnographies, antidocumentaries, and other reductionist categories. Ironically, the voice-over in Reassemblage criticizes “the habit of imposing a meaning to every single sign:’ as if playfully to outwit the viewer’s attempts to reduce the film to a limited Euroidentified category.

Reassemblage embarks on a radical, ludic deconstruction of documentary form and ethnographic film practice (especially in its avoidance of the reduction of Third World “subjects” into flattened out figures of sublimated desire and lack) in terms of subjectivity, alterity, and identity. Most certainly Reassemblage speaks nearby documentary gesturing toward its colonialist objectification of African women. However, the critique of documentary and ethnography are only some examples of border crossings in Reassemblage. Reassemblage’s structure has highly performative quality, with its use of abrupt jump cuts, black leader, silence on the track, noneyematches, bursts of repetitive voice-overs and disarming close-ups of the faces and bodies of African women. These experimental techniques are reminiscent of those used by New Wave filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and experimental women filmmakers, such as Maya Deren. Reassemblage is self-reflective in its voicing of self-questioning.

In The Woman at the Keyhole, Judith Mayne finds that Trinh T. Minh-ha “questions the very possibility of seizing the reality of Senegal through such a visual documentation” (212). Trinh’s voice-over deconstructs traditions of the colonialist documentary, critiquing Western notions of a unified “Third World feminine” alterity. The visual barrage of African female breasts refigures the Black female body as a marker in the discourse of ethnographic practice, medical discourse, and the clinical gaze. As if literally to remap the icon of the female breast, which conjures the Westerner’s routine signification of breast as fetishized object, Trinh uses repetition to reframe this image beyond the borders of Western voyeuristic film spectatorship.

While we gaze at the breasts of Senegalese women, the image gazes at us and the soundtrack disarms our critically reductionist impulses. This is a performative gesture that works on the viewer in a gesture of endlessly signifying self-reflexivity. On the soundtrack, for example, we hear an African tale that underscores African women’s subjective space in oral storytelling tradition, thus recontextualizing the breast as signifier on and in non-Western terms. Through the story of woman (depicted as fire) we learn of the signifier of woman as the possessor of fire, that which destroys and at the same time regenerates. The voice-over on the soundtrack intones, “Only she knew how to make fire. She kept it in diverse places. At the end of the stick she used to dig the ground with, for example, in her nails or in her fingers:’

Thus, the female body becomes a transcendent signifier that rejects those borders defined by medical literature, psychoanalytic literature, and the gaze of the ethnographer and documentarist. Later in Reassemblage, the voice-over returns to fire as a perception of women’s embodied presence. “The fire place and woman’s face. The pot is known as a universal symbol for the Mother, the Grandmother, the Goddess:’ The breast no longer reveals, perhaps it never did reveal, according to the performative logic of Reassemblage: “Nudity does not reveal. The hidden in its absence.”

Reassemblage critiques the so-called “mastery” of the documentary film over the ostensible “subject:’ By relegating the disembodied voice-over to “the eternal commentary that escorts images:’ Trinh T; Minh-ha moves the borders of objecthood to subjectivity, for in Reassemblage the images seem to escort the commentary, in a self-reflective enunciation of unique ecriture feminine. Reassemblage, as Judith Mayne points out, “explores the significance of oral traditions:’ both through the use of the filmmaker and the female voices of Senegalese women themselves (1990,216). These voices speak in a dissonant, yet poetic unity. Mayne reads this gesture as a rejection of any presumed unity of “Third World subject” and yet “the very division between the voice and the image suggests the possibility of another kind of observation, one resistant to the dualities of ‘West’ versus ‘Third World’ ” (1990, 216). Reassemblage revolutionizes spectatorship by demanding a kinship between the semiotic and symbolic boundaries, which become fluid and thus “demand a new means of perception on the part of its spectators” (Daly 245).

Reassemblage problematizes theoretical consideration as much as it invites active performative spectatorship. Its Kantian perspective moves the viewer into a reactive specular positionality. As Adorno remarks, postmodernist art can show us “something on that other side of reality’s veil” (23). Documentarists and ethnographers have sought to unveil the supposedly “primitive Third World Female Other” from the perspective of “mastery:’ The so-called “objective” documentary perspective has served to intensify the veil, enshrouding the “Other” in layers of the veil. Who is Robert Flaherty’s Nanook? Who is Nanook’s wife? Who are the “subjects” of African documents, documentarists’ texts? If Reassemblage undertakes a radical repositioning of ethnographic space, Naked Spaces remaps spatial questions into the area of ethnomusicological explorations of sound, voice, and translation.

Trinh’s filmmaking exposes the veil that enshrouds the ethnographer. The ideology of the lens as captor is exposed as a myth. The “objective” documentarist has captured nothing more than a mere signifier of his own subjectivity reflected in the eyes of his subject. Trinh T. Minh-ha exposes this irony in an aside in Reassemblage in which the ethnographer, the voice-over states, is sleeping next to his switched-on tape recorder missing his opportunity to “capture his subject. ” The mimetic capacity of ethnography is a flawed and veiled prospect. “To copy reality reduced reality and the copy becomes a veiled substitute;’ states the voice-over. My reading of Reassemblage celebrates its embrace of selfreflectivity and performative reinscriptions. Reassemblage is a film poem, an essay that “speaks nearby” African female subjectivity. The dissonance across images, sound, and signifiers is ludic. Embracing “the determinate and indeterminate [that which] remains ambiguous even after they have been synthesized” (Adorno 181), the active spectator partakes in a border transgression. Writing on the work of Trinh T. Minh-ha is a border transgression in the sense of critic as translator. Aware of my capacity as “translator;’ even as I attempt to write nearby my subject, I am reminded of Derrida’s location of the woman translator as empowering: “the woman translator is not simply subordained, she is not the author’s secretary …. translation is writing … productive writing called forth by the original text” (153).

The complexities of translation is one of the central explorations of Naked Spaces-Living Is Round (1985). In particular, the viewer as translator is located at the border of a critical rupturing of Eurocentric notions of the sounds of voices of “foreign” tongues. In particular, Trinh T. Minh-ha emphasizes the sounds of different dialects in several African women’s voices (from Senegal, Mauritania, Togo, Haiti, Burkina Faso, and elsewhere). Naked Spaces differs from Reassemblage in that it is a longer text that contemplates the viewer’s need/desire for translation. Three voice-overs are heard in the film that takes as its subject, loosely translated, women’s living spaces. Trinh problematizes this work in her use of natural low-light conditions of indoor spaces that are juxtaposed against outdoor spaces lit with harsh available natural light. In an interview entitled “Film as Translation;’ republished in Framer Framed, Laura Mulvey writes that both Reassemblage and Naked Spaces have soundtracks that are unique in their “movement back and forth between music, other everyday sounds, the various narratives and silences” (Minh-ha 1992, 121). One of the statements contained in the soundtrack of Naked Spaces specifically questions Western notions of “proper” music and sounds:

In certain societies where sounds have become letters with sharps and flats, those unfortunate enough not to fit into these letters are tossed out of the system and qualified unmusical. They are called noises. It is known that one of the primary tasks of ethnomusicologists is to study what traditional societies consider music and what they reject as non-music. (Minh-ha 1992, 23)

In the interview with Mulvey, Trinh explains, “I fare with ease in the world of experimental music, perhaps because of the cultural hybridity of both its instrumentation and its deterritorialized space” (Minh-ha 1992, 121). The use of music, sound, and silence to transgress space adds a performative element to Naked Spaces and Reassemblage that almost transcends the need for any type of translation, despite Western notions of music and sound. Trinh remaps subjectivities across the boundaries of identity by cross-cutting sound (music and voices) of various different African dwellings, breaking a taboo of both ethnography and ethnomusicology. The manipulation of sound ruptures fixed notions of identity, for “the understanding of identification as an enacted fantasy of incorporation … that coherence is desired, wished for, idealized” (Butler, 136). Naked Spaces denies the translating act of corporeal signification and at the same time critiques the manner in which “the peoples of Third World countries used to be lumped together in an undifferentiated Otherness” (Minh-ha 124).

Featured-161105-ReassemblageNaked Spaces marks the integral feature of the universalized Third World Other as it has been mimetically sealed in Western art, or, in the eyes of Adorno, it shows us “the phenomena of the replaced” (257). Working from Kant’s writing, Adorno speaks of the phenomenon of how “knowledge of how to produce a phenomenon can replace the experience of what it it” (257). Thus instead of a film of “commentary that e~corts images;’ as Trinh describes traditional ethnography, Naked Spaces reverses the spectatorial identifactory process. As Mulvey sees it, “The imagery is kind of a grid which the spectator can consider your [Trinh’s] manipulations of sound” (l25). Trinh elaborates on the point, “the choice here was to have that transgressive fluidity in the sound” (l25). Minh-ha uses a similarly performative montage of disjunctive sounds and images in Reassemblage.

Rhetorically, Naked Spaces conflates a number of theoretical attempts to reconstitute (“woman’s space” -for example, Laura Mulvey’s “ludic” space, Teresa de Lauretis’ notion of off-screen space, Julia Kristeva’s notion of the prelinguistic space of the chora, or Luce Irigaray’s rereading of psychoanalytic “lack” of a voicing of the female body. Indeed, Naked Spaces conjures Cixous’ writing of the body across a grid of space junctures in a constant flux. At the same time, the film opens up an entirely new configuration of space as “women’s space;’ inviting the viewer into this performative evocation. Trinh T. Minh-ha’s border crossings freely appropriate new and taboo areas of space; not only for women, but for multiple subject formations. Naked Spaces locates a textual space making, a clearing and entering, a constant shifting of subjective identities and signifiers. Knowledge, women’s knowledge, is discursive and dialogic; it is ruptured and resignified as mobile and fluctuating. Naked Spaces moves the borders of narrative filmmaking itself between those walls of ethnography, personal film, experimental film, and documentary. Not unsurprisingly, the critical reception to Naked Spaces and Reassemblage was problematic, according to Trinh T. Minh-ha. Many viewers were unprepared for the formal elements of the films. Those who were willing to undergo the formalism of Reassemblage had little patience for the extreme long takes of Naked Spaces. The politics and poetic transgressions of Reassemblage are in some ways less difficult to translate or discern than those of Naked Spaces.

Interestingly enough, Trinh comments that Native-American viewers in particular responded to Naked Spaces with “intense and exalted feedback” (Minh-ha 1992, 131). The habitation of space, particularly “women’s” space and “Third World” space, is a critical hobby-horse of late, but Naked Spaces constructs and deconstructs space in a anti-Cartesian manner perhaps more in keeping with Native-American and African-American conceptions of community, space, and storytelling. The “subjects” of Naked Spaces are essentiallywhole different living spaces, spaces that remain on-screen for seemingly lengthy sections of film. Naked Spaces conjures the specular pleasures of images of spaces of mobility rendered in the context of the long-take in both Reassemblage and Naked Spaces. African women look at the viewer for lengthy periods of time. Is this look “contained” within the borders of the frame? Marc Vernet writes, “the look of the camera has a double effect; it foregrounds the enunciative distance of the filmic text and attacks the spectator’s voyeurism by putting the space of the film and the space of the movie theater briefly in direct contact” (48).

As a viewer, one experiences these looks, not as looks at the camera, but as direct gazes at ourselves as viewers. The films of Trinh T. Minh-ha are thus examples of post-story films as defined by Mas’ud Zavarzadeh: “a post-story film … [which is] a post-modern political meditation on the cultural discontinuities of late capitalism and the place of woman in it” (as qtd. in Dixon 42). Naked Spaces as post -story film rearticulates notions of film space and filmic pleasure across the specular regime of spectatorship and sound reception. It seeks new ground and asks questions such as those posed by Michel de Certeau: “how does time articulate itself on an organized space? How does it effect its ‘break-through’ in the occasional mode? In short, what constitutes the implantation of memory in a place … ?” (86).

Poststructuralist notions of women’s space go hand in hand with a search for a definition of knowledge as it is created by on-screen women subjects and off-screen sounds in Naked Spaces. Trinh T. Minh-ha locates the space sought after by Lyotard; where the difference between conversational knowledge and ordinary spoken discourse partakes in a dialogic exchange, where, “the interlocutors use any available ammunition, changing games from one utterance to the next: questions, requests, assertions, and narratives are launched pell mell into battle …. The rules allow and encourage the greatest possible flexibility of utterance” (17). The implicit rules of traditional filmmaking have denied any sort of physical or philosophical interaction between participants on and off-screen, and the filmmaker herself. Trinh T. Minh-ha moves toward a performative feminist dialogic through this extraordinary and often unexpected use of countermoves.

Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989), Trinh T. Minh-ha’s next film, crosses the boundaries of “acceptable” or “appropriate” ethnographic filmmaking in the inclusion of restaged interviews of five Vietnamese women. The “staged” qualities of the interviews disrupt the received notions of veracity in documentary technique. Instead of “collecting” interviews on film of “subjects” (as objects), Minh-ha decided to overturn the idea of “objective” recording of talking heads by deliberately and carefully choosing interviews and actors to reperform these “interviews.” Five women were chosen and then asked to help define themselves by their choices in clothing and camera work, lighting and gesture. In short, they became “actors;’ acting “themselves;’ thus calling into question the veracity of “non-staged” interviews in traditional documentary filmmaking.

As Trinh T. Minh-ha told Laura Mulvey, the strategy of restaging interviews initially provoked strong reactions; some positive and some negative, “some viewers were furious because they expected to be told about it at the outset of the film” (Minh-ha 1992, 146). Truth and its construction are scrutinized by this blatant overturning of the “rules” of documentary filmmaking. As the filmmaker comments, “by playing with the false and the true at work in the two kinds of truth, what is taken for granted in interviews suddenly becomes very prominent” (Minh-ha 1992, 146). The boundaries of “fiction” and “nonfiction” are re/located at the nexus of a dialectic that forces the viewer into a discourse on the question of “who is speaking:’ This is further represented in the film by the use of a combination of extradiegetic text scrawling across the screen with voice-overs, and diegetic speech in both Vietnamese and English, sometimes translated and subtitled, and sometimes left deliberately “untranslated.”

Text, speech, “Otherness;’ and the identity of “Third World Women” are scrutinized and problematized by the performative formalistic strategies in Surname Viet Given Name Nam. Speech utterances, text that is translated into performance, the spoken words orchestrate themselves in a manner that defies hermeneutics. This departure from hermeneutical taxonomy is repeatedly underscored in the film with statements of self-reflexivity such as “Spoken, transcribed and translated. From listening to recording; speech to writing. You can talk, we can cut, trim, tidy up.”

minh-ha05-1024x757Often, as above, Trinh directly confronts her own formal practice, as in the statement, “By choosing the most direct and spontaneous form of voicing and documentary, I find myself closer to fiction” (Minh-ha 1992, 78). The viewer is drawn into a performed heteroglossalis, one in which one must choose whether to listen or to read the text, whether to look for “truth;’ or respond to fiction. The voice-over also poses the question, “Do you translate by eye or ear?” Suddenly the term “translation” is rife with multiplying signifiers. Viewership becomes an act of translation; filmmaking is translation of fictions into truths and truths into fictions. Identity is also a form of translation, a translation from the subject to object, from who one is to who one is perceived to be. Speech itself is a translation of self, identity, and its markers. Who is the Vietnamese woman speaking? Who is the Third World subject? Just as the film itself is untranslatable (and at the same time endlessly signifying), the subject-object relationship itself is unknowable, yet it registers itself through a subjectivity usually not present in dominant cinema. The subject as text is self-translating.

Watching a screen is an act of translation, and, as Minh-ha reminds us in the voice-over, “Translation seeks faithfulness and accuracy and ends up always betraying either the letter of the text, its spirit, or its aesthetics … grafting several languages, cultures and realities onto a single body. The problem of translation, after all, is a problem of reading and identity.” Surname Viet Given Name Nam demonstrates the importance of the unspoken politics of translation, while carefully transcending the borders of erasure, denial of difference, and conflation of identity:

Trinh T. Minh-ha moves in a discourse of female authorship which recovers the objectified Other’s discourse, upping the ante on Gayatri Spivak’s question, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Speaking subjects in this film (Tran Thi Hien, Khien Lai, Ngo Kim Nhuy, and Tran Thi Bich Yen) turn persuasive discourse into speaking persons, “fictions” into “truths” in a struggle which Bakhtin describes as creative and self-liberating:

This process becomes especially important in those cases where a subject is striving to liberate [her]self from the influence of such an image and its discourse by means of objectification, or in striving to expose the limitations of both image and discourse …. All this creates fertile soil for objectifying another’s discourse. (348)

As spectators, particularly Western spectators, we are scrutinized by the onscreen participants. Our discourse of film pleasure is deconstructed in and by our viewership: we are faced with the gazes and voices of a panoply of resistant storytellers who preclude our preconceptions and epistemologies of solid ground. Ngo Kim Nhuy, as “Kim;’ for example, voices her resistance to objectification: ”At first I was very hesitant when you asked me to participate, but then I thought: why would I refuse, when I am a Vietnamese woman myself, and the role in the film speaks the truth of the Vietnamese women still in Vietnam as well as those emigrated to the U.S.?” This resistant gesture of anticompliance is an exemplification of one that often “occurs [when there isla separation between internally persuasive discourse and authoritarian enforced discourse” (Bakhtin, 345). Discourse is questioned, the “Third World subject” becomes an individualized subject, and her enunciation exposes the boundaries of Western subject-object relations.

Surname Viet Given Name Nam has provoked hostility, according to Minh-ha. In fact, it provokes so many varying reactions in viewers. Because of the overt feminist politics of the staged interviews, many viewers, the filmmaker tells Laura Mulvey, show a “lack of concern … for any earnest inquiry into gender politics” (Minh-ha 1992, 132). Others are uncomfortable with the lack of a binaristic model of North/South, or communist/anti-communist system in the film:

These viewers tend to deny or worse, to obscure entirely the question of gender by constantly casting the Vietnam reality back into the binary …. They also seem to be more preoccupied with what they militated for, or more eager to preserve an idealized image of Vietnam they supported, than they are willing to look at the actual situation of post-revolutionary Vietnam. (Minh-ha 1992, 132 )

Surname Viet Given Name Nam enacts the discourse of “female identity closure;’ which Trinh T. Minh-ha alludes to in her book Woman, Native, Other. The “Third World woman subject” (a category which I am only using for the purpose of arguing against its presupposition as available label) is, at least in some discourse practices, a category that suppresses the postcolonial feminist speaker. As Trinh T. Minh-ha writes, “the difference (within) between difference itself and identity has so often been ignored and the use of the two terms so readily confused, that claiming a female/ethnic identity/difference is commonly tantamount to reviving a kind of naive ‘male tinted’ romanticism” (Minh-ha 1989, 96). Thus, the films of Trinh T. Minh-ha threaten to disrupt the definitions of “Third World;” “feminist;” and an essentialist definition of a “Non-Western woman.” Remaking language, resubjectifying identity, and unmasking veils of difference are postcolonial moves away from authoritative discourse toward internally persuasive gestures. The writing and filmmaking of Trinh T. Minh-ha refutes reductive readings of the very concept of “Third World;’ and “woman;’ and a host of other homogenizing, globalizing terms. What is a “Vietnamese woman” after a screening of Surname Viet Given Name Nam? How do we define African women after seeing Reassemblage and Naked Spaces-Living Is Round? How do we construct identity? Minh-ha argues that identity has its uses, though she underscores the importance of resistance:

Again, if it is a point of redeparture for those of us whose ethnicity and gender were historically debased, then identity remains necessary as a political/personal strategy of survival and resistance. But if it is essentialized as an end point, a point of “authentic” arrival, then it only narrows the struggle. (Minhha 1992, 157)

Trinh T. Minh-ha politicizes issues of identity and difference. Her films invoke a multiply formed, constantly moving, negotiating identity. This mobile deconstruction and reconstruction of identity repoliticizes difference issues in ways that inform the multiply produced subjectivities. With Shoot for the Contents (1991), Trinh T. Minh-ha moved her cinematic gaze to China and Chinese women. Once again, Minh-ha crosses the borders of insider/outsider status, as she does in her films on Africa. In an interview with Nancy N. Chen, “Speaking Nearby:’ Trinh T. Minh-ha explains that she feels free to traverse cultural borders, “instead of minding our own business as we have been herded to” (435). Once again Minh-ha forces a rereading of borders of identity (in this case the parameters of the “Third World” filmmaker). “Having one’s work explained (or brought to closure) through one’s personality:’ she quips, “is the best way to escape the issues of power, knowledge, and subjectivity raised” (Chen 436). She approached the subject of feminism and China from the point of view of “speaking nearby:’ a mode that she tells Chen “does not objectify, does not point to an object as if it is distant from the speaking subject or absent from the speaking place” (443).

It wouldn’t be going too far from the idea of speaking nearby to suggest that in Shoot for the Contents, the camera gazes near its multiple subjects: language, women, the body, Mao, writing, and the camera apparatus itself. Nor would I be straying too far, I think, from Trinh’s statement if I said that the soundtrack of Shoot for the Contents invites the listener to hear nearby. The voice-overs and speakers do less guiding of the listener than gesturing. The camera lingers on objects, a street scene, for example, jumping to a close-up of a young Chinese girl. The structure, says the filmmaker, “is devised precisely so as to emphasize the heterogeneity of Chinese society and the profound differences within it” (Chen 446). However, Shoot for the Contents cannot be neatly assigned to the category of the film poem.

Shoot for the Contents, Trinh T. Minh-ha states, is neither “illogical, elliptical, and metaphorical” nor “logical, linear, and dogmatic” (Chen 446). It is both poetic and political, in terms of language and cinematic device. The visuals are lyrical and poetic, bathed in light, classically framed-beautifully photographed calligraphy for example. The speakers are both Chinese and “non-Native:’ For example, an African scholar speaks at length on China and its colonialist history. The teachings of Mao and Confucius are appropriated and at times conflated. “Such a merging is both amusing and extremely ironic for those of us who are familiar with Chinese history” (Chen 448). What is probably the most fascinating and compelling feature of Shoot for the Contents, and for the films of Trinh T. Minh-ha, is their endless movement between fixed and unfixed signifiers, or, as the filmmaker herself calls it, “the ‘unsutured’ process of meaning production” (Chen 450). Trinh T. Minh-ha moves the burden of struggle, the (delightful yet frustrating) work of the mind, from the subject to the viewer. The viewer is thrust into the position of knowing his or her own positionality.

Trinh T. Minh-ha’s A Tale of Love, co-directed with Jean-Paul Bourdier, is an experimental film that follows the narrative of Kieu, a freelance Vietnamese-American writer who supports herself as a sex worker/model. The film is constructed around Kieu’s growing self-awareness as she investigates and writes on the Vietnamese nineteenth-century poem The Tale of Kieu. Kieu and Trinh T. Minh-ha renarrate the poem in a performative feminist postcolonial act of resignification. Kieu acts as a transgressive figure who guides herself (and the viewer) through a postmodern rendering of The Tale of Love as she lifts the veil from the voyeuristic act of spectatorship and narrative. The narrative itself deconstructs and reconstructs narrative into a scopic regime of fluidity between the borders of memory, reality, and fantasy.

The Tale of Love; the poem on which the film is based, is the Vietnamese poem of love, and it is comparable to the love story of Romeo and Juliet. In the poem, a martyred woman sacrifices her “purity” and prostitutes herself for the good of her family. As Kieu states in the film, “Kieu” is a powerful allegorical figure for Vietnamese of the diaspora: “Kieu is a folk symbol of love. She is both passionately admired and blamed.” “Kieu” has come to represent Vietnam herself. Kieu unravels and unpacks the poem as she researches and writes about the poem. In between her meditations on the meaning of the poem, Kieu supports her free-lance writing by posing for a photographer, Alikan, who shrouds her body in veils and won’t allow her to look at him while he looks at her.

Kieu frustrates her traditional family members by her pursuit of a career as a writer, rather than her pursuit ofa “suitable” marriage. She is in love with writing. She finds pleasure in dreaming and fantasy, in living the poem she seeks to understand. After her aunt reminds her of the saying that “She who has no husband is like a bed with no nails;’ she explains that she needs a room of her own to write, for “It is writing that I am in love with.” Female creativity is closely linked with Kieu’s quest for knowledge as is rehearsed as a passionate and erotic, pleasurable sense of knowledge and imagination. Kieu’s quest exposes how in fact “romantic love is an imaginary dimension of the poetic power of the imagination” as Monika Treut reminds us (118). As the film unfolds, and Kieu begins to write more and more frequently, the film becomes less and less linear, and we are treated to elliptic fantasy sequences from the subjective point of view of Kieu. As in romantic love literature, which combines fantasies of pleasure and pain, Kieu exists in a liminal state of desire. Kieu’s foremost desire is to rework desires that objectify her into fantasies that deny Alikan (and the viewer) the voyeuristic pleasures that are designed around the eroticism of headless female bodies. In a key scene, Kieu goes to Alikan’s studio and watches him watching another model who is told not to look at the photographer, and to keep her head covered.

“You don’t want a nude;” she tells him, “what you want is a female body without a head.” Here Trinh T. Minh-ha exposes the link between sexual voyeurism and the virtual decapitation of women in love stories, at the same time involving Kieu as a quest-heroine who looks without-being-Iooked-at, a role usually carried out by the photographer, filmmaker, and spectator-as-voyeur. Kieu ponders voyeurism in the context of “The Tale of Kieu” and undergoes a process of self-recreation that moves beyond the divided nature of knowledge of the self and knowledge of the erotic female body. Her self-knowledge goes against the grain of Western Kantian binarisms that split eroticism from rational philosophical inquiry, suppressing women and Eros in a quest for rational thought. As philosopher Robin May Schott explains, “Kant’s hostility toward sensuality is correlated with a dismissal of women as sexual beings who are incapable of thought” (129). A Tale of Love reimagines and regrounds the erotic within the boundaries of subjective knowing in a feminist answer to Kantian denial of the female body.

A Tale of Love is centered around a complex and formal reworking of the scopic regime of film voyeurism. As Trinh T. Minh-ha argues:

Voyeurism runs through the history of love narrative, and voyeurism is here one of the threads that structure the “narrative” of the film. Is the film about love? Is it a love story? As the title suggests, it is above all a “tale”; a tale about the fiction of love in love stories and the process of consumption; a tale that marginalizes traditional narrative conventions such as action, plot, unity of time and realistic characters. Opening up a space where reality, memory and dream constantly pass into one another, A Tale of Love unfolds in linear and non-linear time. It offers both a sensual and an intellectual experience of film and can be viewed as a symphony of colors, sounds and reflections. As a character in the film says, “Narrative is a track of scents passed on from lovers to lovers.”

Kieu acts as a foil to a multiplicity of desires embodied in the other characters. With Alikan, Minh, Java and Juliet, she experiences love through sight, sound, smell and touch. Similarly, the film offers the spectator more than one way into its own “love stories:’ Rather than being homogenized, the relationship between the visuals and the verses remains layered and elliptical. Light, setting, camera movement, sound and text all have a presence, a logic and a language of their own. Although they reflect upon one another, they are not intended to just illustrate the meanings of the narrative. The film also works with a subtly “denaturalized” space of acting. In the way the shots and the dialogues are carried out, both spectators and actors share the discomfort of voyeurism: the unnaturalness of those who “look without being looked at” (the makers, the spectators) versus the self-consciousness of those who “know they are being looked at while they are being watched.” (Minh-ha 1995, press packet)

Kieu finds a form of subjectivity in that Imaginary realm described by Fredric Jameson where “a uniquely determinate configuration of space-one not yet organized around the individuation of [one’s] own personal body” carries the spectator toward a “liquid perception;’ (355) or what Gilles Deleuze terms “the semi-subjective” (76). Kieu admits, for example, that she can no longer mention her namesake without feeling “somehow implied:’ Later she tells her friend Juliet that she feels as if she’s living the tale of Kieu herself. At this point in the narrative, Kieu’s perspective seems to melt between the void of the subjective and objective positionalities. The viewer is given few clues as to where Kieu’s “reality” and “fantasy” sequences end or begin. We only view her writing and contemplating, as she is intercut with sequences in which she moves further and further toward self-knowledge and erotic mastery. In these sequences, as throughout the film, the musical accompaniment is composed of dissonant music and sounds, performed by the group the Construction of Ruins. This aural and visual dissonance is characteristic of postmodern feminist poetic transgressions. Rosi Braidotti characterizes such dissonance as one of the modes of expression of sexual difference; for Braidotti it implies a “nomadic quest for alternative representations of female feminist subjectivity” (135).

np011Kieu, who moves between the dissonant voice-overs of The Tale of Kieu; her own narratives, her various levels of fantasy and her rerendering of “Kieu” acts as a subjectivity that reminds one of Deleuze and Guattari‘s devenir-femme (272). Kieu, as a “becoming woman” motions toward a multiplicity of subject positions. In rendering Kieu as the devenir-femme, Minh-ha uses many of the characteristic flourishes of her earlier films: her signature jump-cuts, disjunctive editing, extradiegetic voice-overs, repetitive bursts of music and voice, and post-structural disintegration of narrative time. Kieu’s own voice off is particularly dissonant, breaking the rules of off-screen knowledge in traditional film technique. If, as Pascal Bonitzer writes, “the voice-off is presumed to know” (324), Minh-ha renders Kieu’s voice-off as that which instead seeks to know, seeks to become, and in a way supports Minh-ha’s notion that the “filmic image becomes a thinking image” (1992, 263).

As Kieu hears snippets of “The Tale of Kieu:’ she conjures up fantasies of increasing self-inscription. She sees herself looking at a book of erotic photographs and she takes control of the photo-shoots with Alikan. In a signifying gesture of self-erotic becoming, she places the veils on herself and looks directly at the viewer and at the photographer. Next, she ridicules and interrogates Alikan: “A headless body. Women are not supposed to have a head, are they? … She is all flesh and body-He is the head, the mind, the thinking eye. That’s nothing new, is it? Just look at the Egyptian Isis right up to Adam and Eve. Women have always been made to lose their heads:”

In a later sequence, Kieu fantasizes that the photographer himself is blind. This scene is perhaps an allusion to Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, another love story in which the male protagonist figure is blinded by the woman author. Alikan is blinded by the masterly position of Kieu’s becoming-subjectivity process. His blindness is as blind as psychoanalytic renderings of the feminine as lack. As Shoshana Felman writes, “To occupy a blind spot is not only to be blind, but in particular, to be blind to one’s own blindness; it is to be unaware of the fact that one occupies a spot within the very blindness one seeks to demystify; that one is in madness, that one is always, necessarily, in literature” (199).

Kieu is now the one-who-gazes, and Alikan is grounded in a positionality of to-be-Iooked-at-ness. He finds the position painful, and he tells her to stop looking at him, because she’s “hurting the story:’ perhaps by dislocating the center of the traditional romantic narrative. Kieu and Minh-ha do indeed “hurt the story:’ in the sense that they disallow its continued presence as a unified, monolithic, tragic, and binaristic love-tale, “interchangeable with any love tale:’ Minh-ha seeks to render this “love tale” as a fluid, multiplicitous, never-ending, and ever-varying series of tales. As Kieu tells her friend Juliet, near the end of the tale: “I haven’t got just one story. I have several; all unfolding without a proper climax or an ending:’ Kieu thus orchestrates the manner in which the viewer views her tale, denying simplistic narrative construction. Her gaze returns the camera’s gaze. She looks directly at the viewer at several key moments in her fantasy sequences, directly confronting voyeuristic pornographic representation. These gazes culminate in a fourth look, one that is described here by Paul Willemen:

What is at stake here is the “fourth look;’ as I have called it elsewhere. That is to say, any articulation of images and looks which brings into play the position and activity of the viewer as a distinctly separate factor also destabilizes that position and puts it at risk. All drives have active and passive facets and the scopic drive is no exception. When the scopic drive is brought into focus, then the viewer also runs the risk of becoming the object of the look, of being overlooked in the act of looking. (56)

As the object of the look, the viewer is inextricably bound to Alikan as viewer/viewed and to Kieu as tale-teller. The scopic lifting of the veil of narrative and spectatorship invokes an interactive specular regime that captures the viewer in the pleasures of the tales of Kieu. The viewer is implicated in the many narratives of Kieu, Kieu’s fantasy sequences, and her mythmaking. An important facet in Kieu’s reintegration of scopic selves is a fantasy of her meeting with her childlike self within several flashbacks and flash forwards in the film. The first few times Kieu imagines herself as a child-alone, naked. Later, she reimagines the fantasy with the child holding the hand of Kieu (as an adult). This is a fascinating reworking of what Teresa de Lauretis terms “the maternal imaginary of feminism” (1994, 165). Minh-ha’s rendering’of the maternal metaphor suggests a restaging of Kieu as a subject who undergoes loss and recovery of her own body that has been fragmented (decapitated by the voyeurism of Alikan). Here Kieu remaps and transcribes strategies of fetishism to acknowledge the libidinal loss of the integrated female body and to restage a primal scene of feminist psychoanalysis. Kieu’s view of herself as selfgazing and self-knowing is a distinctively creative act, one that conjures the myth of psyche, where a woman’s sexual and creative awakening are conjured through an imagination that combines both the rational and emotive sides of play and creativity. The Tale of Kieu emphasizes the importance of female fantasy, and, in turn, the importance of female interpreters. Kieu’s remarks, fantasies and gazes confront us with the fact that she is a Vietnamese-American woman rereading a Vietnamese tale, or, as Tania Modleski reminds us “to read as a woman in patriarchal culture necessitates that the hypothesis of a woman reader be advanced by an actual woman reader: the female feminist critic” (133- 34). The restaging of The Tale of Kieu in a twentieth-century feminist context is a brilliant location of a woman reader’s recontextualization of the female text and the female body in culture.


Source: Foster, Audrey. Women Filmmakers of the African & Asian Diaspora: Decolonizing the Gaze, Locating Subjectivity. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997.

Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. C. Lenhardt. Ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf
Tiedemann. London: Routledge, 1983.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic lJ:nagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary
Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Chen, Nancy N., and Trinh T. Minh-ha. “Speaking Nearby:’ Visualizing Theory. Ed. Lucien Taylor. New York: Routledge, 1994. 432-51.

Dixon, Wheeler Winston. It Looks At You: The Returned Gaze of Cinema. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Mayne, Judith. The Woman at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women’s Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Minh-ha, Trinh T. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989
Pines, Jim and Paul Willemen, ed. Questions of Third Cinema. London: BFI, 1989.


Categories: Feminism, Film Theory, Literary Theory

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