(Czech Republic 2021; Dir: Diana Cam Van Nguyen)

Love, Dad

A Prison of Letters

review by Michiel Philippaerts

Love, Dad

length: 12

year of production: 2021

country of production: Czech Republic

director: Diana Cam Van Nguyen

production: Karolína Davidová

director of photography: Kryštof Melka, Matěj Piňos

editing: Lukas Janicik

sound: Viera Marinová

music: Viera Marinová

festivals: Locarno Film Festival 2021, TIFF 2021, Festival du nouveau cinéma (FNC) 2021, IDFA 2021, Sarajevo Film Festival 2021, Tampere Film Festival 2021, Leuven Short Film Festival 2021, Uppsala Short Film Festival 2021, Vilnius International Short Film Festival 2022, Glasgow Short Film Festival 2022, Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival 2022, Go Short 2022, Filmfest Dresden 2022

© images: 'Love, Dad' (Diana Cam Van Nguyen)

Epistolary correspondence in cinema: it’s a shaky marriage, always has been. Protagonists in films of frugally gifted filmmakers all too often reach for their quill, pen, or keyboard to melodramatically reveal their emotions to their objet du désir or distant pen pal – often paired with whispered voice-overs, so the audience doesn’t have to actually read. Be that as it may, letter writing can also pursue the highly cinematic. Not only do we experience the passage of time — the long wait for an answer, the slow dialogue — the letter itself, the object even more than the 'archaic' medium of communication, carries a certain load.

In films, we often see small boxes full of letters found in dusty attics. Close-ups on curly letters that, years ago, gently let their secrets sink in the yellowish, discolored paper: a metaphor for the slow fading of memory? Writing a letter presupposes intimacy and the private stirrings of the soul, yet should not be limited to that. Stationery can carry deceit or pretense as well; a kind of shield behind which the writer can hide.

Czech-Vietnamese filmmaker Diana Cam Van Nguyen also finds letters from the past. Fifteen years ago, her father was imprisoned. The affectionate messages he sent her from jail in those days prompted her to write a response on January 20, 2020. As befits a graduating student at the famous Prague film school FAMU, this is done in film form – or at least after the letter she wrote struck her for too long and above all, too harsh.

We can picture it clearly: Van Nguyen heaving not only the collection of her father's letters, but also boxes full of old family albums, children's drawings, and postcards from the storage room to answer the man and reflect on their difficult relationship. This hyperpersonal set-up of Van Nguyen's film thus fits in with a tradition of essay films and 'letter films', reminiscent of Chantal Akerman and Chris Marker. Just like those OG’s, Van Nguyen understands that the intimate nature of her animation film, made of paper cuttings, should not stand in the way of taking on a broader scope. After all, the autobiographical can inspire an accusation against a system: “the personal is political”.

Van Nguyen's father left her mother when she was pregnant with a daughter, after three miscarriages. Believing that his family tree would die out without a son, the man disappeared from their family life. A rejection which, evidently, touches Van Nguyen deep in her heart. Would everything be alright if she had been a boy? She dares to ask the question aloud, but without making it sound melancholy: in a short, flashy montage we see a young Van Nguyen, now transformed into a young boy, happily spending time with her father. They race bumper cars through the desert, travel together by train and catch big fish in the river, while cutesy 8-bit music seals the deal. The fantasy, however, is short-lived. Van Nguyen dismisses the thought when she (literally) tears it off and stuffs it into a ball of crumpled paper. She realizes how the prison letters, in which her father writes lovingly but fails to mention his painful departure, smolder between the two like a great silence, keeping her from facing a bitter truth. Yearning for an escape from the confines of the unspoken, her answer is as considerate as it is combative: "I understand that we grew up in two different worlds, but I don't want to accept this part of your culture."

A very personal story thus becomes one of intergenerational and -cultural (Van Nguyen grew up in Czech Republic) confrontation. Even so, the young filmmaker manages to keep her film, loaded with such hefty themes, surprisingly light; a feat she pulls off by virtue of her playful formalistic experiments. The animated photo and text collages – some from Van Nguyen's personal collection, some staged – make clever use of a materiality that carries an inherent (pained) melancholy within, but simultaneously lend the film a distinctive vibrancy. It’s this scrapbook-like aesthetic, which invokes a quirky spirit of joie de vivre, that causes an interesting friction with the aching family drama at hand. While the rapid passage of years is displayed via turning pages, we catch sight of a mature filmmaker, unafraid to tackle her trauma from different emotional angles. Always with a fresh dose of humor and without ever treading into the treacherous territory of navel-gazing.

So, when her father, after seeing the film, only asked questions about the impressive film techniques, we can only interpret it as his inability to express an unspeakable grief, rather than a failure on the film’s part. Yes, Van Nguyen’s formal proficiency is dizzying, to say the least, but at no time is it applied as a shield. On the contrary, the lack of ambiguity in her response is touching. If only all letters were this sincere.

This review was previously published in Dutch on Kortfilm.be.