CHARLOTTE TRUONG, WHO HAILS FROM VIETNAM, WRITES — Recently, Netflix has stepped into the Asian movie market through collaborative works such as Kingdom of Korea and The Victim’s Game of Taiwan. Among them, Da 5 Bloods (Vietnamese title: 5 Chien Huu) is a film directed by Spike Lee, filmed in Saigon, with many Vietnamese crew members and with the participation of Vietnamese actors Ngo Thanh Van and Johnny Tri Nguyen.
Netflix’s Da 5 Bloods, the latest 16mm film of Spike Lee, premiered June 12th, 2020. The film is about racial issues that arose during the war in Vietnam, in which American black people fought for what they thought was the promise of a free life. Ironically, the movie came out just in time to coincide with protests in the US and the rise of anti-racist movements.
Nguyen Thanh Viet, a Vietnamese American writer – author of The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer, also about the effects of the war – took on the movie on Twitter: “If you have enough time to watch #Da5Bloods, hopefully you have enough time to read a book by or about Vietnamese people and their experiences of the war and being refugees.”
Da 5 Bloods is filled with stereotypes that foreign directors often use to portray Vietnam. The story involves a group of African American veterans who return to Vietnam decades after the war’s end. There is a scene with a vengeful, legless kid in a bar called Apocalypse; a river vendor tries to draw visitors (including these black American Vietnam veterans) to pay to for a river tour but when they refuse, he angrily yells, “You killed my family!” It has been a long time since the war ended and it’s undeniable that the war has affected people physically, mentally and emotionally. But today, for the most part, Vietnamese no longer automatically think about Americans killing their people or families. Vietnamese people are very hospitable, and they are happy when selling. They usually thank people, even if they don’t buy anything. Another stereotype: Vietnamese women, once prostitutes, and their postwar children whose fathers were American soldiers. These situations may not be false, but they present outdated stereotypes and have been overused in movies about the Vietnam war.
Disappointingly, the interactions of the four main American veterans: Paul (Delroy Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Otis (Clarke Peters) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) with the indigenous people of Vietnam are not really authentic; almost no friendship is established, and only the hatred from the past is echoed, which reflects a false picture of American-Vietnamese relationships in the country now. This makes the movie feel superficial and lack any true sense of humanity.
It is impossible not to mention the appearances of Vietnamese actors such as Johnny Tri Nguyen as a tour guide named Vinh, or Nguyen Ngoc Lam as Quan, who has a hatred for American soldiers. Most of them played their roles well but may not have left any special impressions on viewers’ minds because the characters in the script were so faintly drawn, and so alike, the actors themselves had nothing to make their appearances memorable.
In addition, the Vietnam fight scenes consist of very blurry, vague flashback scenes that serve almost as back-drops for this story about black veterans. The rivers and rice fields look like something in a travel film and show a poor, backward way of life in Vietnam.
Although Spike Lee approached the topic of war with a new perspective – the fate of black soldiers, rarely portrayed in American films – its view of Vietnam and Vietnamese people is 20-30 years behind the times.