French documaker Jacques Perrin diverts from his fascination with nature (“Microcosmos,” “Winged Migration,” “Oceans”) with “The Empire of Mid-South,” a poignant, poetic found-footage feature on Vietnam’s long march toward independence. With lensers Eric Deroo (who co-directed) and Vincent Schmitt (who edited), Perrin has delivered a galvanizing reflection on national identity, colonial rule, war and its cost through the complex Vietnam prism, particularly the French Indochina colonial experience. Pic has rolled out to only a smattering of fests since its local release a year ago, and deserves far greater exposure.
Somewhat in the mode of filmmaker Peter Forgacs, who has also used found footage in service of historical memory, “Empire” primarily juxtaposes archival film (organized by researchers Anne Connan, Philippe Gautier and Catherine Mauchain) with texts read with velvety eloquence by Perrin, who had a long career as an actor before he turned to filmmaking. The citations, drawn from a vast range of sources (including such French literary figures as Marguerite Duras, Andre Malraux and Jacques Prevert), are grouped in subtly structured chapters — marked by newly filmed scenes of the Vietnamese countryside — tracing the country’s historical chronology.
Thus, color and black-and-white images of Vietnam’s valleys, deltas and coastline combine with texts relating the country’s mythological origins, while the early phases of French colonial presence (firmly asserting itself after the turn of the 20th century) are represented by remarkable footage of massive building programs, mineral extraction projects and painful images of a nameless, well-dressed white man lording over Vietnamese laborers.
Large forces of history can be felt to move through the film with the massive flow of the Mekong River, but personal detail also emerges, as in a telling passage on the day-to-day life of French colonialists living the good life in Saigon. Running counter to this are a number of sequences featuring the words and images of various nationalist anti-colonialists culminating with Ho Chi Minh, whose speeches are excerpted here and whose ingenious guerrilla tactics against the French and American troops are captured in the kind of footage you’d never see on the evening news. (Some of the footage, produced by Soviet filmmakers, reminds the viewer of North Vietnam’s key ally in the post-WWII era.)
“Empire” concludes not on a note of victory, but with a poetic sadness for the ravages left by war, and a sense that wounds can’t heal. This is arguable; Vietnam, though still far behind regional powerhouses like Singapore, is nevertheless rapidly developing and moving past its many decades as a besieged battleground.
Schmitt’s editing crafts fragments into a kind of film music, with color and black-and-white sometimes merging in beautifully sustained lap dissolves. Alongside Cyrille Aufort’s discreet score are sharply selected passages from Beethoven, J.S. Bach, Schubert, Debussy and Mahler. Text citations and footage origins are identified only in closing credits.