THE JOURNEY OF VAAN NGUYEN (Duki Dror, 2005)

Born in Tel Aviv to Iraqi refugees, Duki Dror—the family changed their Arabic name Darwish to Dror, meaning freedom—makes films about ambiguous, conflicted cultural identity. His lovely, aching The Journey of Vaan Nguyen, from Israel, is in Vietnamese, Hebrew and English. The film’s eloquent pace is set to the tranquil hum of the moped that Hoiami Nguyen, accompanied by grown young daughter Vaan, uses on his return to Funin, his ancestral village, after a quarter-century. It is a transport from urban-sterile to lush green country/forest.
     Hoiami is a slender, gracious, impoverished man with four younger daughters besides. He and his wife were among 200 “boat people” that Israel welcomed as new citizens in 1979 following the 1975 fall of Saigon. His daughters speak little Vietnamese, and understand less; Vaan is a forthright Israeli, not a modest Southeast Asian girl. However, like her sisters, Vaan adores and respects her father.
     In Vietnam, Hoiami discovers that his ancestral lands now belong to others. He hopes somehow, therefore, to buy land there and relocate with his family. Vaan experiences her own, different dilemma in her father’s native land. “I’m here as a tourist, as an Israeli,” she tells us, but of course she is being impossibly glib. She is called a VQ, the derisive term for those who look Vietnamese but are not really Vietnamese. Thus, her voiceover tells us, “I officially became a foreigner.” So? Why ever would she choose to move to Vietnam as her father plans on doing? Because now she knows something of how her father felt in Israel—and indeed playground taunts to one of her sisters and an Arab playmate suggest the lingering impossibility of complete absorption even for the Israeli-born among those citizens with non-Jewish ancestry.

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