The old paternal house of the Le family, set in a rural scenery at the fringes of the small town of Ninh Hoa, close to the southern coast of Vietnam: A household dominated by women, neither rich nor poor, with chicken behind the kitchen and rice paddies bordering the plot.
Through the everyday life of the inhabitants of the house, the constellation of the extended family becomes visible. A constellation that is fundamentally marked by the course that history took in the second half of the 20th century, and that has made Germany a substantial reference point in the life of the Le family.
One part of the family has been living close to the former West German capital of Bonn for more than 40 years while the other part still resides in Ninh Hoa. The community of the Les includes both relatives that are present and absent, and extends into the realm of the spirit world.
Three brothers embody the trajectories that history has taken: One brother was assigned as a diplomat to the embassy of the Republic of Vietnam in Bonn in the early 1970s. He took his wife and children with him. At the end of the war in 1975, the nation that had employed him ceased to exist, and they stayed in West Germany. Another brother who was a soldier disappeared in the last days of the war. His remains have never been found. The third one was sent into a re-education camp after the end of the war. Today, he is the only male family member left in the house in Ninh Hoa.
Not far from the family house, by the National Highway that links the capital Hanoi with Saigon, the former capital of South Vietnam, stands the »Palm Tree House« that the children from Germany had built for their parents. Even though these parents never had been able to decide on a return to Vietnam.
In the summer of 2014, two visitors from Germany return to their family home in Ninh Hoa: The eldest daughter comes to decide upon the sale of the Palm Tree House, to spend time with her relatives and to look for some forgotten letters. In the meantime, her brother reaches Hanoi with the aim to align past, present and future of the family history. Looking for a spirit medium, he starts a search for his lost uncle. As long as the uncle’s remains have not been buried in the family grave, he keeps wandering as a »hungry ghost« yearning to come home.
Porous containers of time and relations
“In this society you have to be able to forget.”
How might one tell the stories that make and mark an extended family? How might one attune to specificity without reduction? Where might one locate urgency and depth in relation?
In A House in Ninh Hoa we first encounter one of the two central locations through an elegantly shaped window grid, a barrier of sorts, but not an absolute one. We then look down a long hallway, up a staircase, all walls bare, a bedroom with protective plastic covering up its sparse furniture. A sense of emptiness is however immediately countered by sound filling up the space we glance into: cars and lorries passing right next to the house, scooters honking, dogs barking. Equally, the following view onto green paddy fields is filled with birds chirping, slightly more remote traffic and the news from Radio Ninh Hoa, streamed publicly twice a day and hereby pervading the air with its news of military defense, agricultural achievements and traffic accidents.
Sound locates us spatially and temporally even before we attain that momentous and special familiarity with the two houses that are of different significance to the Le family:
One house is positioned along the main traffic route connecting the two parts of the formerly divided Vietnam, its interior reducedness making space and even amplifying the continuous histories and presents of Vietnam and the hopes that might be connected to occasional visits or a possible return to one’s home country.
Another house is surrounded by palm trees, organized through and filled with daily routines of those who remained, reverberating the histories of the family otherwise, with its lived in furniture, family photographs, letters and notebooks. Its textural qualities change with the time of the day, with daily chores like feeding the chickens in the morning, dusting the family altar, doing accounts, sleeping on the hammock in the afternoon, sharing an evening meal, watching TV interrupted by a phone call from Germany. As attentive spectators we can tune into the corporeality and the temporality of each house through the carefully measured and clearly framed access we are given.
Location is thus introduced simultaneously by the visual and sonic materiality of things, by present day mundane activities of house keeping and by brief references to historical events – the Vietnam war and the reunification process following it. Location is specific and a significant stage while also becoming a setting that does not pre-determine the family members that move in and out of it.
We are introduced to the extended Le family through their often care taking relation to those houses and through a series of mise-en-scène like albeit open episodes where an often static camera frames a seemingly casual dinner conversation, a reading together of the first letter written to South Vietnam from Bonn in 1975, a séance trying to converse with the disappeared uncle or a telling of tales to the grandmother, the oldest family member, evoking loss and reunion. Crucially, equal weight is given to each subtly and at times only minutely interlinked fragmentary element, and hereby a platform is provided where the ordinary and the extraordinary merge seamlessly, avoiding the spectacle of the ghostly and the seeking of attention through suspense. The careful crafting of the multi-textured setting, punctuated with not always evidently connected narrative details gives those very details a quality of irreducibility – no fragment, no person, no aspect of a story can easily be subsumed and defined under closure, solution or the spectator’s projection. At least not in this life – bringing the film closer to life as a series of open and often unnamed and not signified events.
The formal choice for narrative non-ending is furthered by an ethics of respect towards individual choices of remembering and forgetting, participating or leaving, adding to the film’s and their own narrative or not, at times obstructing our direct view.
When members of the Le family browse through photographs and letters or pay tribute to their deceased father at his grave, we are not given privileged access as spectators, but we often remain just one step back. In this A House in Ninh Hoa is an unusual family portrait, where intimacy and depth of relation is not created through the disclosure of family secrets or the dramatic build-up of emotional density. Here the filmic space is itself becoming a porous container housing within it stories and histories that together craft a contextually specific sense of time and ways of relating. The privilege that we as spectators then attain is to be given time to tune in to that particular textural sense of place, its temporality and a family’s manners of being side by side, communicating as well as leaving unspoken tensions untouched.
Called into question is hereby how much informational detail or revelations of cause for loss, grief or longing nostalgia we need to foster a responsible intimacy towards singular trajectories influenced by war and migration. Migration becomes a matter of fact historical and contemporary contingent crystallized in the trajectories of the three Le brothers, where one disappeared at the end of the war, one left the country and remained in Germany, and one stayed back, passed through a re-education camp and returned to the family home. The stillness of A House in Ninh Hoa holds these specifics while its attention to time allows for the multiple temporalities inscribed in each family member to surface, depending on where and how they lived the aftermath of the war. Time is also what ultimately becomes another possibility of relation where the film’s particular way of telling the story of one extended family opens out to the core trajectories of the 20th and 21st century: war and migration leaving fundamental marks, then and now.
Nicole Wolf, April 2016
"Exploring what the documentary form is and how much truth is conveyable through a certain cinematic style and approach, A House in Ninh Hoa is not only an eye pleasing piece of work — the stillness and beauty of the locations, and the shot compositions are outstanding — but also a fascinating dive into the limits of representation and the meaning of “truth” in relation to moving images."