The Scent of Burning Grass (Mui Co Chay): Luang Prabang Review

Moments of comic relief and portrayals of frailty in the face of patriotic sacrifice spice this Vietnamese answer to "Saving Private Ryan."

Vietnam's Foreign Language Oscar entry last year chronicles four young soldiers' tribulations trying to fight back U.S. forces during the bloody siege of Quong Tri in 1972.

It's hardly a surprise the Vietnamese film regulators would choose The Scent of Burning Grass to be the Southeast Asian nation's Foreign Language Academy Award entry last year. Epic in scale (at least in the country's terms, with its protracted and highly pyrotechnical battle scenes) and carrying ample political significance (it marks the 40th anniversary of one of the bloodiest episodes in the Vietnam War), Nguyen Huu Muoi's film ticks every box in how Hanoi would want the country and its film industry's presence to be felt in the US.

But it's also inevitable that the 97-minute film, which is based on memoirs from real-life soldiers having fought in the 81-day defence of the Quang Tri citadel against US-backed South Vietnamese forces in the summer of 1972, wouldn't really register with Academy members helping to finesse the shortlist. Bookended by an aged survivor's lament about his fallen comrades and motored by many a trope of the classic war-film genre, Scent probably takes too much of its cue from Saving Private Ryan – while naturally not being able to match the visual, stirring spectacle of Steven Spielberg's Hollywood blockbuster because of its economic, technical and political constraints.

Indeed, the film probably wouldn't travel well apart from to either regional festivals – such as the five-day event in the Laotian city of Luang Prabang, where the film was screened from a DVD at on Friday – or possible bookings at specific Vietnam War-themed showcases.

To dismiss Scent as merely propaganda, however, will simply be churlish. While the film still valorizes those who died in fighting the US and its local South Vietnamese proxy army during that decade-long war, a humanist overtone is still very much evident as the film seeks to reveal more about the young conscripts' state of mind. In a way, Scent's backward and slightly more multiplistic view of geopolitics and history could be seen as a slightly less contentious successor to the 2010 film Don't Burn, in which a US intelligence services operative readjusts his caricatured perceptions of the so-called "Viet Cong" through the reading of a late North Vietnamese doctor's wartime notebook and then his returning of the documents to his daughter.

What marks Scent is its adherence to the character-development and narrative-flow conventions of many a war film beyond its shores. The four soldiers are sharply delineated types: Hoang (Nguyen Nang Tung), with the older version played by the director himself) is the child-faced poet; Thang (Dang To Tuan) is the thinker who pens an essay (correctly) predicting a win for the communist north in April 1975; Thanh (Le Van Thom) is the prankster; and Long (Nguyen Thanh Son) the loverboy hailing from a dysfunctional family. Leading them through torturous drills is the harsh platoon leader Phong (Le Chi Kien) – someone who would, of course, prove to be a father figure proud to the end of his boys.

Proving how even this particular part of undisputed glory days in Hanoi's historical discourse could be moved about for a bit, there are frequent moments of comic relief: the oft-deployed slapstick gag of a private hitting of his supervisors' privates during training, or Thanh's performances in drag both during training and then during a lull on the frontline. And these soldiers are also hardly fearless, dogmatic patriots, too: they fret before crossing a river exposed to the enemy's sniper fire, and flounder as they recount how the were stepping on sunken cadavers of their fellow conscripts as they struggle in the water; searching through the pockets of an enemy combatant's corpses and finding a picture of his mother, the protagonists also lament how every conscript is equal in having a family back home.

The last episode happens after the characters went to the length of burying the dead South Vietnamese soldier on a live battlefield and under threat of enemy fire; it's an act heightening the gallantry of "our boys" perhaps excessively. There are still certain lines to be toed – but don't all war films, whether it be American, Japanese or Vietnamese, have to look at a certain bottom line anyway? It's a case of one step at a time, and Muoi's film presents a small one forward: both to a more contemplative approach towards history, but – worryingly, maybe? – to the conventions of mainstream commercial filmmaking.

Venue: Luang Prabang Film Festival
Production Company: Vietnam Feature Film Company
Director: Nguyen Huu Moi
Cast: Nguyen Nang Tung, Nguyen Thanh Son, Dang To Tuan, Le Van Thom, Le Chi Kien
Producer: Vu Din Than
Screenwriter: Hoang Nhuan Cam
Director of Cinematography: Pham Thanh Ha
Editor: Vuong Duoc
Music: Pham Quoc Truong
Art Designer: Do Huong Quan
In Vietnamese
97 minutes