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Dat Kho – Land of Sorrows

Dat Kho – Land of Sorrows is a film depicting the story of one South Vietnamese family during the Vietnam War. Although the story is fiction, it is drawn from real life experiences. The writer weaves many timeless and poignant issues that are raised during the war.

The film is directed by Ha Thuc Can, a former CBS cameraman that covered the war. This was his one and only venture in directing film. The film was shot on location in Vietnam and actually contains real footage of the evacuation of Hue during the Tet Offensive. The film stars Trinh Cong Son, a Vietnamese musician and antiwar protester. His songs are incorporated into the story line and help bring great emotional depth to the film.

Several issues are addressed in the film, mainly the circumstances and hardships of Trinh Quan’s (Trinh Cong Son) family; the issue of Buddhist immolation, the Tet Offensive and it also weaves a romantic subplot. The romance revolves around Thuy, Quan’s sister, and Nghia, who is firm in his political neutrality. By creatively manipulating all of these issues, Ha Thuc Can delivers a wonderful depiction of what it was like to be a South Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.

The opening of the film is grim and dark, both in content and cinematography. The author’s attempt to convey the bleak conditions of the war is firmly delivered. Quan questions Nghia about the conditions and status of the war. Nghia replies that they have a strong chance of winning and the ‘morale is high’. Historically though, ARVN morale was notoriously low and they never had a very high chance of winning. Nghia candy coats the issue as to not worry Quan.

Naturally, Quan will relay any news, good or bad, to his family and that will only cause conflict within the family unit.

Protection of the family morale becomes a recurring theme throughout the movie. This opening scene ends with a powerful stare off between the Nghia and Quan where the camera shifts from one to the other a few times. Both are staring relentlessly at each other with furrowed brows. There is a sense of bonding and connection here that is greatly conveyed with this technique.

Next we hear in the distance prayers and chants of a Buddhist congregation. The congregation is praying for the immortal soul of Dieu Dihn whom has recently immolated herself in protest of the war. Nghia and Quan overhear this congregation. Quan comments that this is the fifth immolation since the beginning of the war. Sparingly and very nuanced, the film addresses a few times the issue of Buddhist immolation.

Immolation, though, was not a phenomenon reserved to the era of the Vietnam War. On a small level, Buddhism has a history of immolation and self-mutilation. It is mainly referred to in religious texts and is usually reserved to metaphorical interpretations. During the Vietnam War, immolation was propelled into literal action by at least 37 devout Buddhists. The film should not lead one to believe that Buddhism, in general, condones these extreme acts of protest.

Quan joins a group on foot to walk back to his home city of Hue. You see the group walking by foot down the winding roads. The beginning credits are rolling and the sound of the traditional Dan Bau is playing. As they walk the road, focus is on the mountains and calm sea inlets. It is close to the end of this scene that a major motif is introduced; the sound of shots firing in the distance in 2 successive shots. This comes to symbolize the war and is revisited throughout the entire film.

The group parts in the darkness so they have walked nearly 24 hours. Quan has a quick rendezvous with a love interest. They agree to meet the next day at Tu Duc’s royal tomb. Tu Duc is frequently referred to as Vietnam’s last emperor before French colonialism ensued. He staunchly opposed French occupation and was said to have cursed the French in his dying breath. The fact that Quan chooses this location to rendezvous is symbolic of his own wish for a free and independent Vietnam.

Quan continues on to his family home where he finds his mother and sister Thuy sorting our winter clothes. He surprises the two and after an emotional reunification, Thuy serves a meal. Mother briefs Quan on what has been happening with the family. Quan is then encouraged to perform a song on his guitar. Quan plays a song in Western style, in a Western key but which is sympathetic to the Vietnamese plight and relevant social conditions. This is a wonderful fusion and balance of Western and Eastern culture. Throughout the film, Quan comes to represent on a deeper level a balance between the East and West. Quan states, ‘My songs speak of the sufferings of our people and our desires for peace.’ The film embeds three of his songs. One is as follows;

When peace returns to our country
I shall visit many sad cemeteries
And tombs covered with grass
When killing ends in our country
Then children will sing on the roads
When peace returns to our country
I shall be continuously on the road
From Saigon to the centre
From Hanoi towards the south
I shall share everyone’s happiness
And I hope to forget the history of my country

The remainder of the film revolves around the hardships of broken Vietnamese families. Nghia returns to his home only to find that both of his parents had been killed and his younger siblings were forced to live in a hillside with barely enough food to subsist. The climactic point comes when Quan’s family comes under attack on the eve of Tet. They are joyfully playing a dice game despite the fact that Ha, one of the family brothers, was recently killed in Dakto. An American deserter is residing with them at this point. Once they realize that they are under fire and it’s not just the sound of holiday firecrackers, they flee for safety. The American turns himself in, in hopes that it will help protect them somehow. Evacuation by the entire village is mandatory. They take up shelter and refuge in a Catholic church. This refuge only provides temporary shelter until it is also seized by gunfire. It is at this time that the director incorporates some chilling footage of actual evacuation of Hue’s citizens.

The romantic subplot is tied up with an encounter between the two lovers, Thuy and Nghia. They risk their safety by meeting in secrecy in the woods. The scene becomes violent when they get shot at but as the gunfire ceases, Thuy finds a flower and points out the timelessness of its beauty to Nghia. She queries, ‘The flowers blossom despite the bombs, why?’ Nghia replies, ‘The war goes on but flowers will go on blossoming and lovers will go on loving.’

The film ends on a tragic note when one of the family members is shot during the evacuation from the church. That family member’s last words sum up the desperation of everyone. They were, ‘it’s no use shouting for help in this damned land, Mother, nobody would pay any attention…I no longer suffer’. The family makes a hard decision to bury the deceased on the road side and continue on home. Mother states, ‘For if we must die, we shall die at home.’ The film ends with them walking down the road towards home. The Dan Bau is playing and you hear the succession of shots once again as a haunting reminder that the war and violence continue. – Kimberly A. Waites [30.03.08]