Tag Archives: emigration

Two hard-to-believe 2015 films

The Argentine “El secreto de sus ojos” (co-written and directed by Juan José Campanella) won the best foreign-language film Oscar for 2009. It was updated and relocated to LA for a 2015 American version, with the title translated (without the definite article of the Spanish title) as “Secret in Their Eyes,” co-written and directed by Billy Ray (Breach, Shattered Glass). I did not think that Chewetel Ejiofor’s character, Ray Kasten, was credible (I blame the writers more than the actor). There were other even greater challenges to suspending disbelief, such as finding someone in a full Dodger Stadium, and the meeting of the suspect, the two who roughed him so that he had to be released, and the grieving mother of a daughter slain a dozen years earlier in an elevator (well on the ground floor with the mother set to go up in the elevator that has carried the other three down).


There is also an unexplained image of a cop played by Michael Kelly pouring something (I think bleach) into a burning car, and what happened to the killer.

Julia Roberts is completely deglamorized as the grieving mother (a policewoman called to the scene with Ray). I think switching the roles of Roberts and Nicole Kidman (a prosecutor for whom Ray carries a torch, even a dozen years after moving to NYC) might have helped, but IMHO there was no reason to make an American version. (The Argentine one already stretched my ability to suspend disbelief).

I did, however, like the aerial nocturnal shots of LA and, in general, the dark cinematography of Roberts’s husband (and father by her of three children), Daniel Moder. And supporting performances by Dean Morris, Joe Cole, and Alfred Molina.


It ran 111 minutes. Running even longer, the similarly opaquely titled 2015 Jia Zhanke film “Mountains May Depart” (Shan he gu ren) runs even longer (126 minutes). Alienation as well as ecstasy (at least joy) seem tied to westernization in Jia’s vision, which begins and ends with the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of the Village People’s ”Go West.” I have no doubt that the original VP song exhorted going west within North America, derived from Horace Greeley’s admonition “Go west, young man.” With an opening derived from the Soviet national anthem and the images of the Pet Shop Boys’ music video of Lenin, Red Army soldiers, etc. has a different connotation. Those dancing in rural China (Fenyang, Shanxi) probably don’t understand the lyrics, however.

Jia’s wife, Zhao Tao, is the sole dancer at the end (set in 2025), and the focus of those discoing ca. 1999 at the start. The first part of the movie is a triangle with her (her character’s name is Tao Shen) at the apex, choosing the aggressive entrepreneuer Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) over the mineworker (in the helmet department) Liangzi (Liang Jing Dong).

Fired by Zhang because he refuses to stop seeing Tao, Liangzi leaves the area and becomes a coal miner. By 2015, the second section, he has lung cancer and insufficient funds for treatment. Tao is divorced and has lost custody of her son, whom her husband named “Dollar.” Dollar, who is about nine years old, visits for the funeral of his mother’s father, then is going to move from Shanghai to Melbourne. For me, the middle section is the best part of the film.

The final part is set mostly in Melbourne. Dollar has forgotten how to speak Chinese and does not seem to be doing very well in a Beiinghua class that consists mostly of other young Chinese who have lost (or never had) command of their mother tongue. He seduces his teacher (this stretches credulity to the breaking point). After having her translate in a confrontation with his father (whose second wife is apparently gone, certainly is not present even in allusions or Skype calls), Mia (Sylvia Chang, who is Taiwanese) is going along with Dollar to visit his birth mother (Tao), though the film does not get that far and ends with her alone in a field dancing to “Go West” (playing in her head).


There is nothing futuristic about the 2025 segment (in, remember, a film released in 2015). The width of the image has swelled from segment to segment. Has the vision of anyone in the movie similarly expanded? The setting has changed, and for Dollar the language. Liangzi does not appear (nor is he alluded to) in the final part. That is awkward. The placement in 2025 just seems arbitrary to me.

˙2018, Stephen O. Murray


An Expat Croatian Looking Back

Having first read two books by Slavenka Drakulic[h], the second author on my journey of exploration of contemporary authors from the former Yugoslavia is Josip Novakovich (born in Daruvar in 1956). The reading list we received recommended his novel April Fool’s Day, but I started with his collection of essays Plum Brandy: Croatian Journeys (2003).


Novakovich emigrated from what was then the Croatian part of Yugoslavia to the United States at the age of twenty. He had studied medicine in Novi Sad (on the Danube in northern Serbia, its second largest Serbian city), studied theology at Yale and literature at the University of Texas. He started writing stories out of nostalgia for his homeland, and made regular visits there through the paroxysms of the breakup of Yugoslavia and independence that was less than utopian, thought about repatriating, and (as elaborated in some of the essays in Plum Brandy) concluded that just as he was a Croatian in America, despite being a native speaker of Croatian (which used to be distinct from Serbian primarily in orthography, but is diverging), he is regarded as an alien (in particular a rich American) in Croatia. (He feels that he cannot go home again to the communist, Serb-dominated Yugoslavia in which he grew up.)

The book only has 165 pages of text, split among three main parts. After an insightful introduction, “On Visiting Your Homeland,’ and a Prologue (about the owner of a Cleveland bookstore selling Croatian, Hungarian, and Slovenian books in a neighborhood in which the audience for such books was dying off, while their children dispersed to the suburbs and beyond), and before an Epilogue (on his son’s interest in the World Trade Center before and after 9/11), there are three main parts.

The first, titled “Sawdust Memories” contains six essays recounting and analyzing memories of his youth in Daruvar. The sawdust is salient, because his father made wooden clogs. Sawdust was a ubiquitous byproduct. There is also a meditation on wood, an exploration of the fascination of chess-playing in a place where politics was dangerous (so that fascination with strategy with sublimated) and a squib on bread. For me, the two outstanding essays from this section are “Grandmother’s Tongue” and “Our Secret Places.” Both relate vividly described particulars of his experience to more general insights into the Yugoslavia of his youth.

Novakovich’s family was Baptist, which not only made him stand out as suspect to the official atheism but as different (which for children always means “deviant”) from most Croatians (who are Roman Catholics). Like Slavenka Drakulic, Novakovich recalls finding a lack of privacy particularly onerous:

“Our ideologues regarded privacy as a bourgeois disease; everything was public…. Privacy was a disease (for Socialists) and sin and illusion (for Baptists)…. Precisely because both groups exerted or attempted to exert such total control over me, I desperately wanted some place to hide. But before I could worry about space, I had to worry about time.”

Since his father died when Josip was eleven, he doesn’t remember what his father sounded like. He describes his mother’s language as Sloveno-Croatian and regrets not listening more closely to his grandmother (now that as an adult writer, he is looking for stories to tell) or to his mother (who wanted to tell him about her experiences during the Second World War).

Given that both in the US and at “home,” males die younger than females, he concludes that language transmission is matrilineal, and is skeptical of any “pure” Croatian language:

I don’t even know what Croatian is, since it’s been changing under political pressures. It was always politicized: first it had to conform to Germanization and Magyrization, then to Yugoslavization (with Serb syntax and vocabulary), and now under the new nationalist government it’s been ‘ethnically cleansed’ to some archaic form (an invented “tradition”).

For me (and not, I think, just because I am looking ahead to embarking on a journey to the Croatian coast), the second set of essays, grouped as “Croatian Journal” are the most interesting and accomplished of the three parts (with the last being the least). The five essays are chronological (with dates of composition included—as they should be for the essays in the other two parts, too), but in no sense a continuous journal. They reflect on a series of visits during the attempt (greenlighted by the first Bush administration, and its Secretary of State, James Baker) by the Serb-dominant Yugoslavia to force the rebellious parts to be kept together. (Of course, I realize that the US fought a bloody war to prevent secession, not that I think it was a good idea…)

There are vignettes about casualties of the war (which, at least psychologically, everyone in the former Yugoslavia is, though the “ethnic cleansing” and most other atrocities were primarily Serbian—according to Novakovich’s accounts). Like Drakulic, Novakovich writes with personal pain about the inability of friendships between Serbs and Croats to survive the nationalist demand for loyalty to “blood” (ethnic ancestry).

I don’t know why “Letter from Croatia” (ca. 2000) is not in the middle section. It is the most sustained attempt to portray what post-civil war, post-Tudjman Croatia was like for someone used to living in America (who shared the local mother tongue).


A New York Times travel section piece on Hvar (pictured by me above) seems superficial in ways that focusing on specifics (like sawdust and bread are not). A two-page essay on why Croatians are not fat manages to say some things. I guess the story of not catching a train does, too, and appreciate the points of the story of finding the grave of a grandmother in Cleveland more in retrospect than I did while reading them.

I think there are some weak (low in insight) pieces and some repetitions, but overall, I found Plum Brandy not only interesting in showing me some Croatian and Croatian-American experiences, but in the general question of the gains and losses of migration and traditions in the world of many diasporas (that some call “globalized”), analogous to Richard Teleky’s Hungarian Rhapsodies.

©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

An account/review of Vietnamese-American writer Andrew Pham and his short story collection Birds of Paradise Lost

Andrew Lam (1964-) is probably the best-known Vietnamese-American journalist. To two collections of essays, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora (2005, which he characterized as a cri de coeur, and I found frustratingly repetitious despite some moving essays) and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres (2010, which he characterized as “more celebratory than Perfume Dreams), he has added a collection of short stories, Birds of Paradise Lost.


The son of much-decorated Army of Vietnam Lieutenant General Lâm Quang Thi (1932-) Andrew Lam, his mother and sister were evacuated by air from Saigon two days before its fall in May 1975, followed (on a US Navy ship) by his father. Since then Andrew and his father have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. The stories in Birds of Paradise Lost are set in San Francisco or the South Bay, with poignant memories of Vietnam. Unlike the author, many of the characters fled as boat people and spent lengthy times in refugee camps. Though his nuclear family did not have such experiences, he said that relatives were jailed by the communist victors in Vietnam or becalmed in refugee camps or lost at sea trying to escape.

He stressed that the stories are fictions, noting that he is not an elderly palm reader as is the protagonist of “The Palmist” or a teenage girl helping out in her mother’s restaurant as the narrator of “The Slingshot” is. Indeed, his background in Vietnam was more elite than those of any of the Vietnamese-American characters in his stories, with the exception of “Close to the Bone,” which focuses on a student/martial arts protégé of a former ARVN general who was successful in the US and is narrated by a gay son.

I often feel let down by the (non-)endings of short stories, particularly the prototypical New Yorker short story that stops rather than ends, and have added some of Lam’s stories to that cache, including “Close to the Bone,” which has a strong epiphany, but keeps going. I was also disappointed by the sputtering out of “Hunger,” a story with extreme material (cannibalism on a boatload of refugees from Vietnam), though in a way I can rationalize that the extreme drama was a one-time occurrence followed by more prosaic frustrations in a US housing project (Sunny Dale).

The story I like least, despite having a protagonist in whom I can believe, “Love Leather,” which opens the volume has an ending, though not one I find plausible. The reason I don’t much like it, however, is that it contains too much explaining, not enough showing.

The much-anthologized “Grandma’s Tales” has a fanciful ending, but its patent magic realism is pleasing. My other favorites, “Show & Tell,” “Slingshot,” and “Yacht People” have satisfying endings (the last of these the least, but good enough).

Aside from not having an ending, I find “Stand Up and Whistle” contrived (two characters with Tourette’s Syndrome at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library/Museum). I also find “Everything Must Go” rather contrived, though it has a tidy ending and not implausible characters, and “Bright Clouds Over the Mekong” (the only story not credited as having previously been published) very contrived, albeit with a plausible ending.

Most of the characters in all thirteen stories are of Vietnamese origin, a mix of those who came to America as adults and those who came as children (“generation 1.5). Some are nostalgic for the privileged position(s) they had in Vietnam. There is no consideration of why the evil communists won beyond US abandonment. There is no consideration of the views of ARVN fecklessness and unwillingness to fight that is a staple in the literature by Anglo veterans of the Vietnam War, nor of the utter failure of the RVN government to generate commitment from the populace or its soldiers below the rank of colonels. Two of the stories (Slingshot, Bright Clouds Over the Mekong) feature Anglo Vietnam veterans who remain besotted by Vietnamese women (seemingly to me in general, though doting on women owning and running Vietnamese restaurants in San Francisco and in the first instance the children as well as the female restaurateur) and Vietnamese food. The Anglos who do figure in Lam’s stories are seen entirely from the view of Vietnamese-American characters/narrators. I can suspend disbelief in them. Indeed, I can suspend disbelief more easily in the Anglo suitor in “Bright Clouds Over the Mekong” than I can that he is the former lieutenant of the Vietnamese American restaurateur’s most traumatic memories. And the only character (a walk-on) who was an opponent to American involvement in the civil war in Vietnam is regarded with contempt. The Anglo Americans not fixated on Vietnamese women and cuisine (no veterans of the war there) are little developed, more one-dimensional placeholders than characters with any nuance.

Andrew Lam (1).jpg

At an appearance at the San Francisco Public Library, Lam expressed frustration at being asked “Is that about you?” even asked (somewhere else) if he had a grandmother who returned from the dead (as the one put on ice in “Grandma’s Tales” does). I was reminded of Robert Stone’s observation (at a book appearance for his memoir Prime Green) that, these days, American readers think that writers are incapable of inventing anything (writing fiction), except in autobiographies in which everything is suspected of being fictionalized. I don’t know that Lam had the second frustration in regard to Perfume Dreams, but first-person narratives from minorities are consumed in part for their seeming promise of authenticity (recall the annoyances at Famous All Over Town by “Danny Santiago”).

Another work (a memoir) about the 1.5 generation (that is, those who came to the US as children) that Lam praised was I Love Yous Are for White People by Lac Su – who provided one of the many blurbs for Birds of Paradise Lost. The two that have most impressed me are Catfish and Mandela and The Eaves of Heaven by Andre X. Pham (who also contributed a blurb, as did Pulitzer Prize winners Oscar Hijuelos and Robert Olen Butler, plus ones from Maxine Hong Kinston and Aimee Phan (We Should Never Meet).

No one (had time to?) ask Lam about his literary influences, which is perhaps a first in book-hawking appearances in San Francisco.

I thought the most interesting answer he gave was to a question about the difference between writing essays and writing fiction. I had just read a 1 March 1940 diary entry from Italian poet/novelist Cesare Pavese proclaiming that “the balance of a story lies in the coexistence of two things: the author, who knows how it will end, and the group of characters, who do not. If the author and a protagonist become merges, as with a story in the first person, it is essential to increase the stature of the other characters who restore the balance. Therefore, the protagonist, if [s/]he relates the story himself[/herself] must be primarily a spectator” (giving Moby Dick and Notes from the Underground as examples). Lam’s stories with first-person narrators follow Pavese’s prescription for balance, but Lam said that a pleasure of writing fiction is not knowing how the story he is writing will end. I have heard other authors say that after setting up a situation and characters, they discover what they characters will do (that is, how the story will turn out). The disparity between Pavese and Lam may be less than it seems in that, using “Slingshot” as an example, Lam said that after reaching the ending, he went back an provided some foreshadowing “clues,” so that the finished product has more of the author knowing how it will end than the actual process of drafting a story. had (Another difference Lam mentioned was the lack of deadline for fiction in contrast to journalistic pieces, though there are writers of essays without deadlines and fiction writers with advances.)

©2013, 2017, by Stephen O. Murray