In VINYAN, written and directed by Fabrice Du Welz, Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Béart play a couple who lost their young son in the tsunami while holidaying in Thailand. Unable to accept that he’s dead, they stay on, and when Béart thinks she sees the boy in a video of survivors in neighbouring Burma, they decide to hitch a ride with triad people-smugglers into the heart of darkness to rescue him.
The whole time I was watching the film — magnificently shot by Benoît Debie (an amazing aerial shot introducing and then sinking inexorably into a verdant ruin, the film’s Conradian darkplace, is breathtaking) with impressive sound design and fine performances, especially from Sewell — I was conscious of discomfort at the portrayal of the Thai and Burmese characters.It was only after the film ended that I became aware that I was shaking with anger. An unusual reaction for a mild-mannered, good-humoured type like your friend and humble blogger.
It wasn’t just that the “ethnic” types on display were all either shady gangster murderers or weird, alien, incomprehensible and possibly psychotic “savages,” although that is certainly central to my problem. Since the film starts out with both feet at least partially planted in the realist domain — I’d say heels, arches and balls of said feet in realism, toes in psychedelic melodrama — but ends in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST by way of APOCALYPSE NOW, with face-painted feral children re-enacting your favourite moments from the Kurtz compound, there’s a tonal problem which cannot really be resolved except by dismissing all the film’s sociological/ethnographic trappings as pure fantasy. And if it’s pure fantasy, riding it in on the tsunami seems like a pretty gross error of taste.
But the error is more egregious than simply exploiting a real-life tragedy for purposes of entertainment. That happens all the time, of course, and there are all sorts of factors which can come into play and arguably make it more acceptable: the passage of time seems to be one many of us accept. It’s hard to imagine the INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS getting made, in any form, near the end of World War II, but certainly there will be those who don’t have a problem with it now. And making an entertainment with a real-life tragedy as backdrop might also be quite acceptable if we could say that the entertainment has its heart in the right place.
Of course, neither time nor heart-placement seem to be on the side of VINYAN. The tsunami is horribly recent, a living memory to millions, and the really offensive thing about this movie is that it wades into a landscape ravaged by a natural disaster and casts the victims as the villains. This seems to me to be like making a monster movie in Germany in 1947 with cannibalistic Jews as the monsters.
It’s all very unfortunate, to say the least, considering the amount of craft and talent at work to make this film. There are some absolutely stunning images, not just the expected landscapes, but the way the light falls on Béart’s eerily beautiful, scalpel-sculpted face, or Sewell’s rugged, hollow-eyed mask of pain. The relationship between the protagonists is mostly compelling — though as Béart slides into madness, all we really get is the lowered chin and up-gazing eyes known to impudence as the “crazy Kubrick stare,” a once-effective gimmick which, through substituting posture for psychology, has become seriously devalued currency. But at least,as regard the couple at the film’s heart, there is a seriousness of intent. But there is no seriousness about the portrayal of the world of the film, which is an idea of the East that would have looked lurid and one-sided in a 1930s Hollywood melodrama. And when you weigh the dimensional and clearly motivated white folks against the evil and, yes, inscrutable Asian characters, the imbalance tips the film into an abyss. Praising the film in the Edinburgh Film Festival’s programme, fest director Hannah McGill focuses on its portrait of a distraught couple, calling it a kind of “APOCALYPSE DON’T LOOK NOW.” You might as well call it DON’T GOOK NOW.
Since I don’t believe the filmmakers are purely evil, I have to assume a colossal blindness to issues of sheer human decency. DW Griffith owed his bigotry to his upbringing but was still culpable for his inability to mature past it. JUD SUSS is a crafty piece of anti-semitic porn, wily and insinuating but quite resistible to anyone not already steeped in racism: the film’s wickedness is quite conscious. VINYAN seems at least as worthy of condemnation because surely there’s a point where thoughtlessness becomes criminal, and it worries me that people will accept it merely as a hardcore thrill-ride like the director’s previous CALVAIRE, and not question the sinister lens through which it observes the East.
Those Burmese and Thais are very far away. Their culture is very different from ours. They’re not like us, are they?