Addressing global issues in film: The Girl in the Cafe (2005)

Extreme poverty has no place in the traditional love story formula, and it only just makes the agenda of the G8 Summit in the 2005 HBO film, The Girl in the Cafe--a not so traditional love story between a self-defeating civil servant and a plain-spoken young woman. Written by the Oscar-nominated English screenwriter, Richard Curtis, The Girl in the Cafe injects a serious message into what at first plays out like another cliché romance.

The Girl in the Cafe begins with the daily routine of an aging man. He brushes his teeth, takes a bite out of a biscuit, and grabs an umbrella on his way out of his apartment. As he trudges through the wet weather to the sounds of Damien Rice's Cold Water, even the camera slows to punctuate the pathetic fallacy. Drenched and dejected, the man enters a cafe, buys some tea, and surveys the crowded room for an empty seat. Left with no other option, the man awkwardly approaches a girl and asks to sit across from her. They discuss everything from falling in love at Marks & Spencer to unbuttoning the top button of pajama tops--and the camera movement is just as varied.  After gulping down the sugar at the bottom of his cup, the man introduces himself as Lawrence, to which the young woman responds by giving her name, Gina.

This opening scene sets the the oddly romantic couple up in traditional boy-meets-girl form. What follows are a number of relationship clichés including a scene in which the hesitant Lawrence works up the courage to call Gina, and another where their hands nearly meet. After an irregular date at an Italian restaurant, Lawrence calls Gina to invite her to join him on his trip to Reykjavik for the G8 Summit. Claiming she has nothing better to do, Gina agrees. At the airport, Lawrence's mind is as dreamy as the nondiegetic, mystical music that plays as he waits for his new female interest. The two of them board the plane to critical stares.

Once in Iceland, protesters line up to heckle the statesmen, and the mood becomes uncomfortably serious. Given a double-bed to share, it appears that Lawrence and Gina's relationship will also get more serious. At first, the two of them do not sleep together. But the sliding door between them soon opens and a romantic evening ensues. In the morning, Gina encourages Lawrence to be more outspoken in his fight against poverty, but soon realizes that she must also act. It is here that the film takes aim at a larger issue: the failure of world politics to achieve results. By testing the chancellor's priorities and disrupting the Prime Minister's dinner speech, Gina gives a voice to the world's needy. Because of her disruption, Gina is asked to return home. After resigning his post, Lawrence instructs Gina to turn on her TV as the British Prime Minister announces that he is prepared to stand up for extreme poverty. The Girl in the Cafe ends with an inspirational quote by Nelson Mandela, reinforcing its stab at world governance.

By leaving the top button unbuttoned, The Girl in the Cafe approaches a serious topic with unassuming charm. It uses a traditional, romantic setup to bring the audience in, but still manages to address a global issue. It is difficult to know what effect this film will have on the fight against world poverty, but change has to start somewhere.

The One-sided Relationship in Talk to Her (2002)

Most film presents itself as a representation of reality, however film is always a fabrication, a fantasy. This ambiguously "double" quality of film--existing simultaneously in two opposed binary states--plays a significant role in Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her, a drama with a traditional narrative structure that focuses on two male protagonists: Benigno, a nurse, and Marco, a journalist--and their comatose female counterparts: Alicia, a dancer and Lydia, a bullfighter. Not only is the theme of doubleness obvious in the casting and medium, but also in its presentation of the perverse nature of love. Most of the relationships represented in Talk to Her are one-sided, even when they go both ways. In other words, they are double-sided one-sided relationships.

Talk to Her begins with a red curtain rising to reveal two ghostly female performers in Pina Bausch’s Café Müller. We cut to a close up of the two male protagonists in the live audience as they watch the performance. They watch--Benigno in a stoic gaze and Marco in tears--as the two women move in subconscious grace as an ordinary man clears their path of café chairs and other obstacles. Occasionally the women bump into a wall as if they were patients at a mental hospital, one woman repeating the other's movements with a slight time delay. If it were not for the filmmaker to direct our gaze, we, too, would sometimes bump into walls of confusion, often in the same patterns. Silent film relies on text to provide the dialogue in much the same way Almodóvar punctuates the plot to announce large temporal shifts, much like chapters.

Another way Almodóvar uses doubleness is by using the color red to draw our attention to important visual stimuli. In the film, red juxtaposes the beauty and violence of bullfighting, but its link to the menstrual cycle allows for a more dubious interpretation. Benigno’s connection to Alicia’s pregnancy is left unanswered, but considering his feelings for Alicia it is not at all surprising that he would be accused of necrophilia. Following Benigno’s description of Café Müller to Alicia, a sequence of shots focus exclusively on the male nurse’s obsessional care for his patient. The drawn-out scene in which Lydia dresses for her bullfight is shot from multiple angles paralleling Benigno's neurotic sensitivity.

Several shots are taken from the point-of-view of Lydia or Alicia, despite their vegetative state. When Lydia is taken out of the bullring, Almodovar presents a reverse birdseye view shot so we see the downward glancing faces her eyes would have seen. We also watch Benigno and Matilde sanitize Alicia’s insensate body from the ballet dancer’s perspective. Benigno consumes himself with the possibility that Alicia can hear him, and he insists early on in the film that Marco should talk to Lydia.

In the same way that Benigno becomes obsessed with comatose ballet dancer Alicia, the audience’s relationship to cinema is one-sided.  As viewers, we occasionally verbally engage with characters on screen, knowing full well that they cannot respond. Benigno, on the other hand, believes that Alicia can hear him. He insists that his relationship is healthier than most married couples, when it is anything but. The film comes to a climax when Marco receives an obituary clipping that Lydia has died, and later a phone call that Benigno has committed suicide in prison. We flash forward a few months, Marco is again at the theater in the audience, but Alicia is there with her dance instructor. Now there is only one male and one female protagonist, but although this is a traditional ending (with the deaths of Lydia and Benigno, and the possibility of a new relationship between Marco and Alicia), it still feels unresolved and ambiguously disturbing.  

Vietnamese Identity in Film

From historical documentaries to big-budget Hollywood productions, film contributes to the perception of contemporary Vietnamese identity. In the documentaries, Daughter from Danang and Battle from Dien Bien Phu, the viewer gets comparative glimpses of Vietnam’s cultural identity through times of war and suffering. Fictional films also present viewers with an array of perspectives on Vietnam and its people. Here, the aesthetic depiction of Vietnamese culture in The Scent of Green Papaya contrasts with the U.S. military portrayal of the Vietnam War experience in Born on the Fourth of July. This essay will synthesize perspectives on Vietnamese identity by comparing the filmic techniques of documentary and fictional filmmakers.

Emotions run high in Daughter from Danang, the award-winning documentary feature about a daughter’s return to her Vietnamese birth mother 22 years after her evacuation in “Operation Babylift”. Vietnam and its culture are foreign to the Americanized Heidi, who struggles to identify with her relatives. Her naiveté shows in her impatience with her mother’s shopping and her introduction to Vietnamese cuisine. It is ironic  The filmmaker uses Heidi’s story as a commentary on learned identity and the rejection of cultural heritage. Above all else, the film is resilient in its documentation of the affectionate side of Vietnamese culture.   

In contrast, Battle from Dien Bien Phu is an unemotional historical patchwork of the Viet Minh’s decisive victory over the French in the First Indochina War. The viewer experiences the conflict through omniscient narration over grainy, archival military footage. Elements of conventional Vietnamese culture such as small open fires and traditional dress give way to gunfire and palm leaf helmets. Vietnamese identity becomes synonymous with warfare, destruction, and Ho Chi Minh. Panoramic views of Vietnam’s lush forests emphasize the disruption of the country’s natural calm, while the detailed narrative relegates the Vietnamese people to encyclopedic terms.

On the other hand, the entrancing feature film, The Scent of Green Papaya, depicts the rich culture of wealthy Vietnamese citizens. Traditional music and practices are interwoven in the narrative of a young servant girl’s life. Sitars, flutes, and gongs mesh with chirping crickets and croaking frogs to impart an impression of the true sounds of Vietnamese daily life. Servants are shown preparing food, watering plants, and hanging wet clothes to dry with little to no speech to convey the stoical nature of Vietnam's underprivileged. Elements of the film’s mise en scène such as the vibrant costumes of the wealthy characters and the elaborate vases found around the family’s house further illustrate the magnificence of Vietnamese high culture.

Lastly, in the American film, Born on the Fourth of July, the Vietnamese people are labeled as communists and enemies that hide “in caves”. There is only one instance in which the viewer gets to see the human side of the Vietnamese – when the U.S. soldiers bemoan their accidental slaying of civilians. The resounding cry of a surviving Vietnamese baby symbolizes the victims’ innocence. In a film that simultaneously glorifies and questions the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the absence of any true commentary from the Vietnamese point-of-view is disappointing. The viewer is given no other image beyond the wailing baby to develop an understanding of the implications of war on the survival of a culture’s identity.

By comparing the perspectives on Vietnamese identity through these films, it becomes clear that constant warfare affects a culture and its people. Many westerners may overlook the fact that Vietnam is a country, not a war. The Vietnamese are a people of long-standing tradition, and unfortunately the ceaseless warfare of the twentieth-century has overshadowed the richness of Vietnam's cultural identity.

"To move harmoniously": Narrative through sound in The Scent of Green Papaya (1993)

Anh Hung Tran’s serene love story, The Scent of Green Papaya, relies on sound to narrate the life of Mui, a young servant girl in Vietnam. By harmoniously blending interior and exterior sounds the film’s depiction of Vietnam is vibrant and full of life.  The film’s sound track combines the tranquil sounds from the natural world with rhythmic musical patterns to emphasize important narrative elements.

Early in the film, the sound track blurs the line between diegetic and nondiegetic sound. The source of what at first appears to be music outside of the story is brought to light when the father is shown strumming a sitar. After the curfew siren rings, the father’s eldest son joins the chorus of chirping crickets with soft flute riffs. The sparse use of silence in this expositional scene prompts the viewer to focus on the sensual elements of the narrative.

The viewer quickly learns to associate certain sounds with characters through repetition. Scenes in which the mischievous young boy pesters Mui are coupled with the high-tempo pitter-patter of what sounds like a xylophone. Even before the young boy is in frame, the music cues the viewer to anticipate trouble. Short of words, the xylophonic pattern replaces the young boy’s voice and becomes synonymous with his character. When he has sufficiently bothered Mui, the music comes to a close and his exiting fart punctuates his interruption on the narrative.

Music similarly characterizes the grandmother, who strikes a wooden block like a beating heart as she mourns the loss of her husband and granddaughter. The rhythm of her prayer symbolizes the monotony of her life. Shown almost exclusively from behind, the grandmother conveys her sadness solely through sound. She ends her prayers with the tolling of a gong to signal to the family that she is either ready to eat or rest. Together with the dripping of Mui’s cleansing water and the ringing curfew siren, the gong is part of the daily rhythm of the family’s life.

The slow-moving narrative only begins to pick up near the very end. Shrill violins and the whirring of a pair of ceiling fans substitute for dialogue as the pianist’s girlfriend throws things from shelves in a fit of anger. The accelerated tempo matches the action and her distress is captured in the resulting cacophony. Clashing sounds contribute to the sense of uneasiness prevalent throughout the narrative. A discordant mixture of violin riffs and the sound of an airplane’s takeoff is played during the Mui’s final moment with her old mistress. And Mui’s fascination with insects, frogs, and the white seeds of the unripe papaya is met with dissonant chimes that convey her sense of wonder.

Of all the filmic elements that compose The Scent of Green Papaya, none are as deserving of praise as sound. The sound track makes significant contributions to characterization and atmosphere through the use of repetitive musical themes and synchronous sound. Musical arrangements suit the mood and tempo of the action on-screen and flow with character movements. The Scent of Green Papaya is a sensual experience worthy of a verb meaning “to move harmoniously.”