deep dives

Watching Da 5 Bloods in Saigon

Netflix subscribers in Vietnam describe their experiences watching Spike Lee’s latest movie about the American war. Photo: Netflix

Ever since Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods was released on Netflix, Western critics have heaped praise on the director’s latest film, about a quartet of Black Vietnam War vets who travel back to Saigon to recover the body of their deceased commander (along with a trove of gold they buried decades ago). In particular, it has been lauded for its retelling of the conflict through an African-American perspective, landing at a time when the United States is experiencing a long-overdue reckoning with institutionalized racism.

The film has been met with a generally lukewarm reception, however, among the Việt Kiều (overseas Vietnamese), many of whom have taken issue with Lee’s clichéd representation of Vietnamese characters as sidelined tour guides, gangsters, and lovers — in contrast to its nuanced characterization of Black GIs drafted in disproportionate numbers to fight on behalf of a country that failed to grant them equal rights as white citizens. “Da 5 Bloods clearly aspires to be a movie that jabs at American racism and imperialist warmongering, but whereas it succeeds at the former, it fails at the latter,” Việt Thanh Nguyễn — who wrote the 2016 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Sympathizer, told from the perspective of a man hired to consult on a Hollywood rendering of the Vietnam War — writes in an op-ed for the New York Times. “Why? In putting Black subjectivity at the center, Lee also continues to put American subjectivity at the center.”

Aware of the potential backlash to another foreign portrayal of Vietnam — and cognizant of Lee’s desire to separate his film from other Vietnam War movies that “demonize or dehumanize” Vietnamese people — I was keen to speak to moviegoers (or, in this case, Netflix subscribers) in Saigon, where I live, about their experiences watching Da 5 Bloods. The conversations I had in the days after the film’s release were reflective of Saigon’s complex demographic and socioeconomic makeup; for some of the residents I spoke with, Lee’s attempt to draw parallels between the realities of Black GIs and their descendants and the realities of Vietnamese soldiers and their descendants is a much-appreciated step-up from the Western canon’s historical portrayal of the American War and its aftermath. For others, Da 5 Bloods is still a work of fiction, one that does a better job tackling American racism than it does American imperialism.

In the course of reporting this piece, Tuổi Trẻ newspaper dedicated an entire page to prominent film journalist Lê Hồng Lâm’s analysis of Vietnamese representation in film. In his op-ed, the critic (who has written a number of books on Vietnamese cinema) described Lee’s characterization of Vietnamese people as “distortions,” citing, among others, a legless beggar child and toothless former Việt Cộng soldiers. “These depictions may not be entirely wrong, but they are dated and have been well-worn in other movies about Vietnam … made by foreign directors.” Interestingly, a criticism I came across in my interviews runs counter to this reading and is perhaps another indication of the diversity of opinion in Saigon, where average monthly earnings are around $450 but can be as low as $190. For those who professed to have less upward financial mobility, the primary criticism they had of Da 5 Bloods had to do with its image of a presentable, modern Hồ Chí Minh City, which they felt incorrectly implied that standards of living across the city were universally high since the war.

Below are excerpts from my conversations with five Saigon residents (whom I connected with via Facebook groups and local friends): an advertising executive, a Cameroonian-Vietnamese fashion designer, an African-American expat, a family living in Saigon’s Thủ Đức district, and a 38-year-old swing-dance teacher, all of whom had varied opinions on Lee’s versions of historical events and his depiction of Vietnam.

“When it comes to accurately showing Vietnamese people in 2020, he failed.”

Saigon native Chi Uyen Thi Nguyễn, a 29-year-old advertising executive, found the film to be “entertaining,” but like Lê Hồng Lâm, she takes issue with the film’s stereotypical bent. “Not only was it not accurate, it was pretty insulting,” she says, noting specifically characters like the legless beggar child. She has come to expect as much from international directors, but Nguyễn says she had higher expectations for Lee, himself a minority. “When it comes to accurately showing Vietnamese people in 2020, he failed. He just borrowed the war and Vietnam to advance his own political message regarding the Black experience in the U.S.,” she tells me.

For Chi, nowhere are the stereotypes more jarring than in a scene featuring Quân (Lâm Ngọc Nguyễn), a Vietnamese mercenary who attempts to commandeer the bloods’ trove of gold. In the middle of an armed confrontation in the jungle, Quân gives the veterans a short history lesson in an attempt to justify his stealing of the bounty, citing the atrocities of Lieutenant William Calley Jr., the American platoon leader convicted of killing 22 villagers during the Mỹ Lai Massacre, which resulted in the murder of as many as 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians. Here, Chi felt that the abrupt nod to the Mỹ Lai Massacre was insensitive. “Lee’s use of that atrocity is not okay for me,” says Chi. “Mỹ Lai is still a source of real pain that needs to be respectfully mentioned.”

Chi questions why Lee didn’t mention African-American PFC Herbert L. Carter during this scene, who was present at the Mỹ Lai Massacre but who allegedly shot himself in the foot while reloading his gun, becoming the only American casualty of the attack. Carter later claimed that the incident was not accidental and was an effort to avoid taking part in the slaughter. “It’s a shame Lee didn’t mention this, because I think it would have strengthened the points he was trying to make,” she says.

“I would have liked to have seen Lee dig deeper into their relationship.”

Tiên Huỳnh, a 26-year-old Cameroonian-Vietnamese model turned fashion designer, auditioned to play the role of Michon, the daughter of blood Otis and his former lover Tiên (played by Lê Y Lan). (The part of Michon eventually went to Sandy Hương Phạm.) For this reason and more, she was drawn to the trio of characters during her viewing of Da 5 Bloods. Huỳnh, whose family lives in An Giang province, tells me she only met her dad, a United Nations employee, once, a couple of years before he passed away when she was just 10 years old. Seeing the four Black vets on film was therefore very personal for Huỳnh, who had the impression, at times, “of seeing my father.”

Huỳnh says she understands Lee’s decision to depict Tiên as someone focused on her daughter’s future rather than dwelling on the people or events that lie in their past, but she is less understanding of his decision to have Tiên withhold the identity of Michon’s father until the end of the Da 5 Bloods’s timeline. Ultimately, Huỳnh wishes Lee had spent more time fleshing out the history and bond between Tiên and Otis ahead of the happy reunion that caps off their storyline. “That’s not how I would have imagined that encounter,” she says of the quick, sentimental embrace that closes out Da 5 Bloods, in which Otis returns to Tiên’s apartment and extends his arms to his daughter for a hug. She immediately obliges, tearfully telling him that she loves him, and the camera zooms in on their smiling faces. “I would have liked to have seen Lee dig deeper into their relationship.”

“Every African-American has an Uncle Paul in their family.”

Kimberly Blackett, 40, an African-American expat from Boston living in Vietnam, understands why Da 5 Bloods might not resonate with a Vietnamese audience. An attempt was made to tell both sides of a story, she says, “but not to the same extent.” She admits that the existence of Hanoi Hannah, the real-life Vietnamese radio personality played by Ngô Thanh Vân in Lee’s film, was a revelation to her: “I knew what the Black position was on Vietnam, but I didn’t know that Vietnam had a position on Black GIs,” she tells me. However, it was Delroy Lindo’s portrayal of Paul, the divisive, Trump-loving veteran suffering from PTSD, that stood out above all. “Every African-American has an Uncle Paul in their family,” she says. “Many ex-veterans (Black and white) still bear the mental scars of war, long after their physical ones appear to have healed.”

“In the aftermath of war, we suffered a lot as children.”

Thành Quốc Lương and Xuyên Thanh Nguyễn, who live in the city’s Thủ Đức district, were born in the shadows of postwar Vietnam, in 1975 and 1976, respectively. Whereas Lương is from Saigon, his wife, Nguyễn, is originally from the north, having moved south as a teenager. Lương’s mother, an elderly woman, has no appetite for war, not even on film, so she declined to watch the film with her son and daughter-in-law. (Instead, she retreated upstairs with her grandchildren to watch another American import: Tom and Jerry.)

Despite enjoying Da 5 Bloods, Lương, who has not been able to work since a stroke left him semi-paralyzed four years ago, and Nguyễn, who alternates as a housekeeper and nanny for a number of international families, believe the film inaccurately suggests that the Vietnamese have broadly prospered since the war ended. They point to early scenes emphasizing a modern, neon-lit Nguyễn Huệ Street and Lee’s depiction of Tiên, impeccably dressed in a high-rise apartment boasting privileged views of the city. (“You look like you’ve done well for yourself,” Otis tells Tiên, his guilt seemingly somewhat assuaged.) The couple turns to their modest surroundings — outside, scooters, hens, and laundry lines occupy the narrow concrete path that leads to their front door — as evidence to the contrary. Of all the film’s Vietnamese characters, they identify with Tiên and Michon the least.

Neither Lương nor Nguyễn were able to complete high school, they tell me. “In the aftermath of war, we suffered a lot as children; our bellies were empty and the clothes on our backs ragged. Life still isn’t easy, but we’re determined to ensure our children are educated and that they never have to suffer like we did,” Nguyễn says. They see little difference between Lee’s movie and earlier American offerings: a Black American film about the war is still an American film about the war, they said. When our discussion turns to Black Lives Matter and whether the pair sympathizes with the historic frustrations and injustices depicted in Lee’s film that have given rise to protests around the world today, they say they are familiar with the history of slavery and the ways current American systems uphold inequalities, but they admit to being somewhat detached from what’s happening abroad. “It’s not that nobody cares,” says Nguyễn. “But Trump has a lot of support here.”

“There’s a generational divide.”

Từ-Thúy Uông, a 38-year-old swing-dance teacher who lives at home with her devout Catholic family, watched Da 5 Bloods with her 81-year-old father and 67-year-old mother, both of whom support Donald Trump. “There’s a generational divide,” says Uông, who has never lived abroad but feels social media connects her to overseas Vietnamese who understand the need to galvanize support behind the Black community.

“Older people don’t usually support the protests [in the U.S.], but the young are trying to respectfully help their parents understand Black grievances,” Uông adds. “When my parents see what’s happening in the U.S., they feel indignant on behalf of our relatives there, who are part of the diaspora and who have worked so hard to make a life for themselves, having arrived with nothing. The protests, for many people of my parents’ generation, are seen as potentially jeopardizing the fruits of their hard labor.” But for her parents, she says Spike Lee’s film provided a necessary context for the movement. “By the end of the film, they were a lot more understanding of the Black experience — and not just in relation to the war.”

In terms of the movie’s depiction of Vietnamese people, Uông’s parents point to a scene that has drawn the ire of critics abroad, in which a Vietnamese chicken-vendor character is used to illustrate the PTSD suffered by Paul. The seller — who repeatedly thrusts his bird upon the group of vets, eventually shouting “You killed my mother and father!” — has been perceived by Vietnamese critics outside and inside of Vietnam as an unrealistic present-day caricature. Contrary to the scene’s widespread condemnation, Uông’s parents felt the chicken seller’s aggressive sales technique was fairly accurate and would not have been out of place in Saigon’s usually overcrowded Bến Thành Market. His command of English, however, did not ring true. A Mekong merchant, they say, wouldn’t speak English, let alone accuse anyone of killing his parents in the language.

Uông herself sympathizes with the vendor’s rage. “If Paul were Vietnamese, he’d more likely be a struggling chicken seller than a former soldier spending his evenings in expensive bars frequented by expats,” she says, referring to an “unrealistic” scene in which the group of elderly Việt Cộng vets are seen hanging out in Saigon’s Apocalypse Now nightclub. Overall, she defends Lee’s film, describing his depiction of Vietnamese people as “mostly respectful.” She sees strength in single-mother Tiên and admires the reconciliatory character of guide Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyễn), who she feels is typical of many Vietnamese who have learned to let go of whatever resentment they once harbored towards the U.S. In the end, attempting to tell a tale of underrepresented African-Americans was always going to be Lee’s priority, she says. “Is it really his job to tell our story?”

“If you want to see a film about the American War told from a Vietnamese perspective,” Uông adds, “seek and you will find.”

One such film comes from Da 5 Bloods’s own Lâm Ngọc Nguyễn, who plays the mercenary Quȃn. Nguyễn is better known for his role as a producer behind the criticallyacclaimed 2006 film Journey From the Fall. It’s one of the few films entirely financed by America’s Vietnamese community; not surprisingly, it is also on the Vietnamese government’s list of banned films for its depiction of Communist reeducation prison camps in North Vietnam. Lee’s movie, by contrast, has been widely publicized by state-controlled media. In fact, it spent the first week after its release in the top ten most-watched programs on Netflix Vietnam.

In an effort to avoid the mistakes of other filmmakers, Lee hired a number of local people to work as part of the cast and crew, as well as French-Vietnamese art director Đạo Trương Trung and Vietnamese-American dialogue coach and onset consultant Jennifer Trang Lê.
Watching Da 5 Bloods in Saigon