The Ground, the Root, and the Air: The Passing of the Bodhi Tree
Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba was born in Tokyo in 1968; he lives in Ho Chi Minh City. Among his works are a series of films that express through evocative imagery the impact on individuals, communities, and nations of recent historical shifts ranging from the Vietnam War to globalization.
Nguyen-Hatsushiba made the first of several visits to Luang Prabang in connection with The Quiet in the Land in November 2004. In the following months, he began to conceive the idea of making a film, and he returned to shoot in March and October 2006. During his initial visit, in addition to traveling to sites in and around the town, as well as to the Plain of Jars in the province of Xieng Khouang, he presented his work to students from the Luang Prabang Fine Arts School, who would ultimately become his collaborators. Founded in 1975, this school is the only art school in Luang Prabang Province and one of only three such schools in Laos (the other two are in Vientiane and Savannakhet). Presently, the school is led by Acharn Luk Singkhamtanth. It is administered by the provincial government, and the National Faculty of Fine Arts in Vientiane offers guidance on curriculum. This curriculum consists of courses in subjects including drawing, painting, graphic art, sculpture, ceramics, metalwork, and lacquerware. In 2004, a gallery was established within the school to provide a venue for students and teachers to display and sell their work. In 2005, The Quiet in the Land established a computer room at the school so that the students could study computer-aided graphic design, a field in which employment opportunities were growing. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Université de Vincennes, Paris 8—Saint Denis donated additional equipment, and students from these schools visited Luang Prabang and taught computer-aided graphics to the students, among other educational activities. After graduation, some students continue their artistic education at the National Faculty of Fine Arts in Vientiane; others continue their studies abroad, primarily in Vietnam. Most, however, seek employment as traditional artisans. The students and teachers of the school frequently collaborate with other projects, such as The Quiet in the Land and UNESCO’s Cultural Survival and Revival in the Buddhist Sangha project.
Nguyen-Hatsushiba became particularly interested in the challenges faced by young people, like the art students he met, as the pace of economic change in Luang Prabang accelerated. As of 2008, it was estimated that about 40 percent of the Lao population was age 14 or younger and that the median age was about 19. This generation is not only coming of age well after the 1975 Revolution, but also after the program of economic liberalization that began in the late 1980s, known as the New Economic Mechanism. The young people of Luang Prabang wear traditional Lao dress, as well as knockoff T-shirts, jeans, and athletic shoes emblazoned with fake logos, which are imported from China and sold at the Chinese Market. They listen and dance to traditional Lao folk songs, as well as American and Asian pop, dance music, and hip-hop. They participate in centuries-old Buddhist rituals, as well as watch MTV and Thai and Vietnamese channels broadcasting serial dramas and variety shows via satellite. And those who do not attend school work in their family’s traditional trades, as well as in jobs created by the burgeoning tourist industry, hoping to earn money to fulfill any variety of dreams.
One of the establishing shots at the beginning of the film shows the tak bat, the early morning almsround. To the left is a line of monks who are garbed in saffron robes and walk toward the camera as they gaze toward a single file of youths on the right, who wear track uniforms and move in the opposite direction. This scene foreshadows the cleavage between tradition and modernity that structures the film’s narrative, which unfolds in three sequences that are woven together, not presented one after the other.
The first sequence is called “The Ground.” A group of 50 young people wearing track uniforms and brandname and knockoff running shoes, purchased at the Chinese Market, slowly filter onto the field of an outdoor stadium, Luang Prabang National Stadium. The camera captures closeups of their feet, including the logos of Nike and its counterfeit, “Meike,” as they run around the track and perform calisthenics in formation with machine-like precision, equipped for a purpose that is left ambiguous.
The second sequence is called “The Root.” This sequence features closeups of the traditional lanterns made for Boun Ok Phansa, the annual nighttime “Festival of Light.” Some of the lanterns are decorated with paper cutouts of animals and other images and revolve slowly in the darkness. They hearken back to Luang Prabang’s rich cultural heritage.
The third sequence is called “The Air.” A flotilla of 50 boats motors swiftly down the Mekong River. The cacophonous noise, evoking the sounds of military exercises, disrupts the misty beauty of the river and its banks, shots of which evoke classical Chinese and Japanese ink-and-brush paintings. Each boat is occupied by a driver and an art student—the same 50 youths featured in the first sequence of the film, but now dressed in ordinary street clothes. Each balances with remarkable poise at the helm of his or her boat before an easel, trying to paint or draw the landscape in brush or pencil as it passes by elusively. As Nguyen-Hatsushiba has written, “What they pass will not be revisited. What they attempt to paint shifts across in grace, slowly and surely vanishing from view, allowing them only to romanticize the details of the moment.” The camera now captures closeups of the youths’ faces, which express commitment and determination. As they approach the Bodhi Tree of Vat Sing, a monastery outside of Luang Prabang, the sound of the motors gives way to the sound of chanting. Some of the youths jump out of their boats and swim toward the tree, the species of tree under which the Buddha attained Enlightenment. By contrast, others float by without stopping. Nguyen-Hatsushiba: “As locations and moments are left behind by the flow of the river, so will this symbol of Buddhism gradually fade away from the view of the painters, leaving them with some measure of doubt about the journey they have started.” Images of revolution—the youths running around the perimeter of the stadium, the lanterns revolving in the darkness, a whirlpool in the river—suggest that this journey, seemingly linear, is actually a cycle, in which tradition and modernity constitute a dialectical, rather than a binary, opposition that is subject to continuous synthesis.
The film refrains from judging whether the pursuit of modernity at the expense of tradition is positive or negative. Instead, it formulates the question, while it suggests that everything is as impermanent as the shifting shapes of the luminous white clouds in the blue sky, which constitute the first shot of the film, and as fluid as the currents of the river. And according to Buddhist doctrine, attachment to such things, represented by the youths’ efforts to capture the passing landscape on paper, leads to suffering, a truth to behold whether one strives to cling to the past, to embrace the new economic order of the future and its fetishization of material goods, or to forge a new way that blends the two.
Film Direction: Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba; Project Direction: Bounkhong Khuttao and France Morin; Asssistance to Film Direction: Ngo Tan Lam, Nguyen Thuy Diem, Nguyen Tran Giang Xuan; Project Coordination: Outh Litthavong, Francis Engelmann; Art School Coordination: Acharn Boungnalitsavong, Acharn Luk Singkhamtanh; Student Leaders: Chanpheng Chanthavong, Sone Khounepaseuth, Sidavong Vatsadakone, Khamla Punhyasith
Swimmers: Sa Vuong Oun Dy, Kheak Khunpaseuth, Sithon Inthavong, Thongvan Laochung, Tu Sinlahxai, Sonxai Vilaichit, Somtu Xaithilat, Keo Vilaivong, Saiphone Viennasaih, Chanty Sayachit
Painters: Aninethone Singkhamsone, Sompheth Duangta, Khampheang Singnammavong, Onkeo Vannavong, Pheu Bounxaithip, Keo Vilaivong, Somchit Xaithasak, Khamphet Xaiyavong, Sa Vuong Oun Dy, Kheak Khunpaseuth, Sithon Inthavong, Thongvan Laochung, Tu Sinlahxai, Okh Chanthavy, Muanxai Vilaisak, Sangna Bounmyxai, Khonesavanh Keothong, Khamphou Olavong, Somsi Vilaiphone, Seangsouphan Kittavolavog, Khonekean Thipphakun, Phanseang Bounthasouk, Sidavong Vatsadakone, Khampheang Keo On Kham, Phitsamaih Sisomphone, Chanmala Southan, Bounfeang Paseuth, Singkham Onphachan, Keonakhone Phanthalavong, Sisouphan Inthavong, Sonxai Vilaichit, Somtu Xaithilat, Keo Vilaivong, Saiphone Viennasaih, Chanthy Sayachit, Vayo Simsamaih, Noy Phoummavong, Chanthy Phakdy, Khampheang Khonemany, Vanxai Lekh, Seangathit Chittaboupha, Chanpheng Khunpaseuth, Thanognasak Phetchaleuan, Phonekeo Keopaseuth, Chanpheng Chanthavong, Sone Khounepaseuth, Khamla Punhyasith
Boatmen: Lan Phongsavat, Veang Vannalat, Khamphon, Lon Indavan, Ngai Alunvat, Keo Keopaseuth, Yot Ditsaphon, Xayachak Soulidone, Air Duangsavat, Khao, Kuang Malaiphet, Somphet, Nu, Si, Thit Say Oudomsak, Onh, Thit Peu Seangsavat, Somphone Keoxaiya, Siphan, Houmphan Inthachak, Chan Mimi, Touay, Manh, Ot Phonepaseuth, Solai Phongsavat, Tun, Buathong Chaleuansouk, Thone Vannalat, Meo Soukkhaseuam, Khamdy, Buathong, Phon Athanh, Joy Chanmanifong, Peuang, Sai, Somsy, Souvan, Chan Lit Phaypaseuth, Sithomh
Boatmen Coordination: Tan Duangdahak, Buanvan Vannalat; Camera Boat: Amkha Chaleuanphon, Si Silisak, Pheang; Security Boat: Thao Ai Phongsavat; Big Boat: Khammy Sipaseuth
Video: Nose Daisuke, Watanabe Jun, Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba; Documentary Camera: Imai Yukari, Ngo Tan Lam, Nguyen Gia Hai; Editing Assistance: Nose Daisuke; Produced by: The Quiet in the Land, Mizuma Art Gallery, Tokyo, Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York; Special Thanks to: Acharn Boungnalitsavong, Tan Duangdahak, Francis Engelmann, Outh Litthavong, Acharn Luk Singkhamtanth, Khamvanh Vanvilai, Sueo Mitsuma, Miho Osada, France Morin