In the immediate aftermath of the American-Vietnamese War, Hollywood produced stories to persuade American audiences of a pseudo-victory and to historically whitewash certain aspects of the war. Even antiwar films like “Apocalypse Now” did little to accurately reflect the conflict. Much acclaimed Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen has wrestled with the message of this Francis Ford Coppola classic: “It was an antiwar movie about the war in Vietnam, but the movie was about Americans,” Nguyen told the New York Times. “The Vietnamese were silent and erased.” Fortunately, “The Little Girl of Hanoi” (Em bé Hà Nội ) offers a profound response to such films.
Released in 1975, three years after American bombs showered the Vietnamese capital, the film retells the bombardment from the point of view of Ngoc Ha, a young girl searching for her family amid the destruction.
While emotionally challenging, “The Little Girl of Hanoi” acts as a cinematic time capsule for Hanoi and its people. The eternal chaos of the city’s streets is featured, albeit with less motorbikes and more missile-launchers. One scene gives a glimpse to 1970s Hoan Kiem Lake during a late-night celebration, with the old temple silhouetted by dozens of fireworks. In a pleasant memory, Ngoc Ha listens to her father’s admiration of a massive tree stretching beside the Temple of the Jade Mountain, “perhaps this banyan tree was still here in ancient times.” Sure enough, the tree remains there today.
“The Little Girl of Hanoi” features footage of the actual destruction caused by the American bombardment. The war footage, while grainier than the rest of the film, depicts the devastation of each unexpected blast. Director Hai Ninh’s inclusion of the war footage edited beside shots of close-up portraits of horrified citizens makes for effective personal storytelling. Additionally, the director’s manipulation of sound depicts Hanoi with an eerie stillness before unleashing tense sequences of B-52s terrorizing Hanoians from above. In the following scenes, the shocked citizens gather among the rubble, mourning the dead and tending to the wounded and orphaned. While “The Little Girl of Hanoi” is a stark portrayal of the trauma felt by wartime Hanoians, it also provides a message of hope.
In one particularly moving scene, a young Saigonese woman is killed while protecting infant children under a crumbling building. An elderly doctor discovers among her personal effects architectural designs and a letter to her boyfriend. The young woman’s voice reads the letter, revealing her desire to see a restored Vietnam: “My love after saying goodbye to you, I continue to concentrate on my maps and designs with dreams of not only rebuilding Hanoi, but my Saigon as well. Your spirit is always in my designs.” As the voiceover continues, the doctor looks over drawings of a future Hanoi, rebuilt with modernist architecture. A careful observer could identify such buildings throughout present-day Hanoi.
Some critics of “The Little Girl of Hanoi” might dismiss the film as a piece of propaganda. While the film does include heroic shots of revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, soldiers, policemen and other pillars of the Communist state, the film is one of the few feature films to portray an undauntedly Vietnamese perspective of the war. The film does not outright attempt to offend American viewers. Unlike American movies regarding the war, “The Little Girl of Hanoi” depicts the opposing side with some dignity. In one scene, an American nurse, sympathetic to the Northern Vietnamese cause, consoles an anxious Vietnamese woman at a hospital. “I understand you,” she tells her, “I would have sent my son to Vietnam if he were old enough.” While “The Little Girl of Hanoi” may be a piece of propaganda, it is not interested in crafting a negative portrayal of the Americans bombing the city. Instead, the film aims to inspire Hanoians to overcome, rebuild and prosper.
Watching “The Little Girl of Hanoi” decades since the end of the American-Vietnamese war is still a challenge, especially in today’s political climate. As a smaller country with a war-torn history, Vietnam is still in the process of rebounding from America’s brutal military campaign and following economic sanctions. Meanwhile, America’s numerous conflicts in the Middle-East still feature the trademark destruction of drones, bombs and missiles as seen in the film. For concerned global citizens, “The Little Girl of Hanoi” provides a poignant reminder of the personal loss felt amidst imperialist destruction.