47 Days, Sound-less: Seeing Vietnam outside of colonial lenses at SAM at Tanjong Pagar Distripark

Published on 19 February 2024
By Team Catch

An elaborate network of mirrors hangs in the middle of a dimly lit room, casting oval shadows on the walls as light bounces off them. To the left and right of the room are two projector screens.  

From a myriad of speakers, the chirps of crickets and birds, sounds of gushing water, and strains from local and indigenous musical instruments echo around the room. 

Welcome to the Engine Room at the Singapore Art Museum, where Vietnamese artist and filmmaker Nguyễn Trinh Thi offers visitors an “expanded cinema” experience.

Wide shot of the installation setup of 47 Days, Sound-less

An all-encompassing film experience awaits, bringing Southeast Asian cultures closer to you in an immersive way.

47 Days, Sound-less combines two modes of watching: the conventional experience of watching a film from start to finish, and watching it as a gallery installation. 

Marrying reconstructed montages of natural landscapes and soundtracks from American and Vietnamese movies shot in Southeast Asia, the film challenges not only traditional cinema, but also how Southeast Asian communities are perceived.  

Frames against colonialism

Black and white mid shot of Nguyễn Trinh Thi

Nguyễn Trinh Thi breaks barriers between film, installation, and performance, amplifying the power of sound to unveil hidden histories and memories. Image credit: artesmundi

To Nguyễn, colonialism exerts not only political, economic, and social control, but also ideological influence. It alters all modes of perception by pushing and dictating only what it deems the “historically accurate” perspective.

When Nguyễn watched the 1979 American war epic Apocalypse Now, she found out that the movie’s extras, who were meant to portray the Vietnamese, were actually from southern Philippines. Based on a quick search on Google Maps, she found that it would take 47 days of walking to travel between both groups.

Wide shot of a woman in the installation setup of 47 Days, Sound-less

Nguyễn's dual-screen film challenges narrow perspectives by weaving together two simultaneous narratives, forcing viewers to broaden their gaze and piece together the story.

Incorporating this into her film title is her way of showing how narrow and unreliable the colonial worldview is. To Western imperialists, diverse Asian cultures are dismissed as a monolith, and their ignorance and arrogance have spilled over into their cinematic storytelling of Vietnam’s history. 

Nguyễn’s film – about a man who wanders alone in a dense forest with no memory of who or what he was – is played on two screens instead of one to challenge such blinkered beliefs. While the narration, dialogue, and text are the same, different films play simultaneously on each screen, forcing the audience to look at both screens to piece the narrative together. 

For instance, in one scene, the colourised screen shows an unidentified man lying face down, unconscious, on a rock near a waterfall, leaving the audience to wonder how he got there. They find their answer when they look at the second black-and-white screen, which shows him just seconds before, climbing up a cliff and falling off. 

Two screens, two realities – Nguyễn urges the audiences to acknowledge other versions of truth beyond the dominant Western worldview they are often presented with.

Wide shot of the installation setup of 47 Days, Sound-less

Challenge your perceptions and get lost in Nguyễn’s world through 47 Days, Sound-less.

Meanwhile, the complicated network of mirrors within the room serves to mimic peripheral vision and how the human eye sees. To Nguyễn, colonial subjects, such as the Vietnamese under French rule, are often side-lined – or pushed to the periphery. This is why she foregrounds natural landscapes and unidentified Vietnamese characters – centring what is often neglected.

By employing a unique narrative and pushing the boundaries of a traditional cinematic experience, Nguyễn makes clear her resistance against a colonial worldview – and urges us to do the same.

47 Days, Sound-less runs till 14 April 2024 at the Singapore Art Museum at Tanjong Pagar Distripark. Admission is free for Singaporeans and PRs. 

Top image credit: Singapore Art Museum

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