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DVD, 152 minutes, color, 2000

Reviewed by Michael G. Vann

movie cover for indochineDespite commercial success and receiving the academy award for best Foreign Film, Post-colonial critics such as Panivong Norindr, Nicola Cooper, and Lily Chiu have strongly criticized Régis Wargnier’s 1992 epic Indochine as neo-colonialist nostalgia.1 The standard line, drawn from Edward Said’s analysis of representations of “the other,” is that the film romanticizes the French colonial empire, glamorizes the lives of white colonials, and uses the indigenous Vietnamese and overseas Chinese population as mere props, as racial backdrops that add color to a white man’s fantasy.2 This review argues against the established academic interpretations of the film.3

Rather than a whitewash of the colonial encounter, Indochine lays bare the decadent excesses of the French colonial lifestyle in Việt Nam and shows how this luxury was predicated upon the brutal and violent exploitation of the non-white population. Indochine is full of scenes that show French colonialism at its worst, depicting the institutionalized use of physical discipline on the rubber plantation and on the railways, the sexual exploitation of Vietnamese women, the dire economic conditions under colonial rule (including famine and the spread of cholera), the use of torture by the secret police, the exploitation of impoverished peasants by labor “recruiters” in what looks like a slave market, and the decadent, hypocritical, and unsustainable life of leisure enjoyed by the white colonial population.

photo of a man and woman in suit and dress walking by people in torn and older clothing (there is a class difference clearly)
Eliane Devries and her father attend, as the only invited European guests, the Mandarin’s “Day of Tranquility” festival. ©1999 Columbia TriStar Home Video.

In the film, one sees the theoretical concept of “whiteness” illustrating the racist structure of colonialism, which, to paraphrase Frantz Fanon, ensured that if you were white you were rich and if you were rich you were white.4 The film should thus be seen not as a celebration of empire—what Salman Rushdie in the Anglo-imperial context has characterized as a Raj Revival—but rather a document highlighting historical abuses of human rights, compromised government ethics, and violations of social justice.5

photo of a woman running with other people nearby
Camille runs away in search of Jean-Baptiste. ©1999 Columbia TriStar Home Video.

A tragic family drama lies at the heart of Indochine. while containing elements of an over-the-top soap opera, the narrative structure places the characters in situations that reveal crucial elements of the colonial encounter and interlaces them with critical historical moments in Franco-Vietnamese colonial history. the film opens with the adoption of an orphaned Vietnamese princess, Camille (Linh Dan Pham), by a white family friend, Madame Devries (Catherine Deneuve). Devries alternately dresses in manly jodhpurs, khakis, and a pith helmet as she manages the family rubber plantation, and elegant evenings gowns when she throws elaborate parties designed to recreate France in the tropics. Clearly, she enjoys the racial power the colonial setting gives her (power a woman in France would not have enjoyed). She orders her servants around, beats her disobedient “coolies,” and displays a maternal attitude towards her Vietnamese acquaintances, while her decadent father amuses himself with his teenage concubine.

photo of a woman in a straw hat holding a woman as she dies
Camille experiences the suffering of her country people. ©1999 Columbia TriStar Home Video.

Eventually, a love triangle between Devries, Camille, and a young naval officer named Jean-Baptiste (Vincent Perez) tears this colonial fantasyland apart. When Devries uses her social connections to have Jean-Baptiste transferred to a distant outpost where he guards what one officer calls “a slave market,” stocked with impoverished northern peasants looking for work on the plantations of the south, Camille runs away in search of her lover. What she finds along the way are the numerous ways French rule is making her compatriots suffer (forced labor, famine, high taxes, epidemic disease, and other ills are all directly linked to colonial rule). She befriends a poor peasant family who fled the corvée labor of the railways. they take her with them to the labor market. When a French officer brutally kills the family for protesting their separation, Jean-Baptiste arrives on the scene and frees Camille. In a Fanonian moment of violence-as-colonial-liberation, she fires a pistol into the head of the murderous French officer. The last reel of the film depicts the flight of the lovers and the way Camille becomes “the Red Princess,” a mythical nationalist, and later communist, hero.

a man in military uniform and a woman
Jean-Baptiste saves Camille from the slave traders. ©1999 Columbia TriStar Home Video.

Indochine is an extremely useful source for teaching a critical history of imperialism/colonialism in Southeast Asia. showing both the dark side of the colonial system, as well as the seductive pleasures enjoyed by the French elite, the film would be an excellent addition to courses on the history of Việt Nam, Southeast Asia, and colonialism. Despite its strengths, the film should not stand alone. it needs a solid historical introduction to contextualize the rather melodramatic narrative. When paired with critical readings on French rule in Southeast Asia, such as Tran Bu Binh’s Red Earth: A Vietnamese Memoir of Life on a Colonial Rubber Plantation, students will be able to see the colonial period in Southeast Asia from multiple perspectives.6

  1. Nicola Cooper, France in Indochina: Colonial Encounters (Oxford: Berg, 2001), 203–218, and Panivong Norindr, Phantasmatic Indochina: French Colonial Ideology in Architecture, Film, and Literature (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 131–154, and Lilly V. Chiu, “Camille’s Breasts: The Evolution of the Fantasy of the Native in Régis Wargnier’s Indochine” in Kathryn Robinson and Jennifer Yee, eds. France and Indochina: Cultural Representations (New York: Lexington Books, 2005), 139–152.
  2. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).
  3. Eric T. Jennings, “Visions and Representations of French Empire,” The Journal of Modern History 77 (September, 2005), 701–721, is one of the few academic reviews to note that Wargnier’s film does provide a sharp and strong critique of French rule in Việt Nam.
  4. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York, Grove Press, 2005), 40.
  5. Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981–1991 (New York, Penguin, 1991), 91–92.
  6. Tran Tu Binh, The Red Earth: A Vietnamese Memoir of Life on a Colonial Rubber Plantation, trans. John Spagens, Jr. (Ohio: Ohio University, Center for International Studies, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1985).

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