The Archaic and “Masculine” Beauty: A Review of the Film ‘White Silk Dress’ (Áo lụa Hà Đông)

Image of Vietnamese schoolgirls wearing white áo dài from a postcard

“My mother said a white silk dress is a symbol of Vietnamese women’s immense suffering as well as their generosity. Through traumatic hardship, through horrific destruction caused by countless wars, the Vietnamese white silk dress still maintains its beauty. The beauty of a Vietnamese woman cannot be characterized by white skin, rosy cheeks and red lips; but by the elegant laps of a white silk dress.”

 

Embedded in the above closing statement from the film White Silk Dress  (Áo lụa Hà Đông) is an illustration of how sacrifice, which Keenan said in the Question of Sacrifice, is understood in our society as necessary passage to, in this particular case, beauty and a new life in general. While it alludes to the popular idea of beauty which rest its criterion on physical appearance, the idea of beauty the film tries to convey is the one I call archaic and masculine, which we tend to forget for one reason or another.

The White Silk Dress (2006)

Set against a backdrop of poverty, the film offers a demeaning portrayal of female education, women’s rights and woman in general. Although the film is set in during the late French colonial rule of Viet Nam, such issues continue to persist during the film maker’s time and nowadays, and doubtless spurred Director Luu Huynh; a Vietnamese-American who is known to advocate the rights women and other disadvantaged groups, to make this film. In this film he clearly urges the public to be mindful of the plight of the under-privileged groups, while at the same time rejecting a narrative of  inescapable victimhood by reminding those groups that they are; despite their societal disadvantages, capable of changing the course of their life histories.

The film focuses on three women: Mrs. Dan and her two daughters, Anh and Flood; and much of the narrative portrays their struggles to maintain the precious áo dài, a white silk Vietnamese national dress. The dress is precious for several reasons. Firstly, it is an historical embodiment of Vietnamese values, especially modesty, which is often signified in some religious traditions through the form of dress code. Secondly, in the case of the film, the dress was a gift for Mrs. Dan from her boyfriend Gu, a fellow servant who asked her to marry him in front of a Buddha statue. It was on that unconsecrated wedding night that Gu gave Mrs Dan the white silk dress. Not long after their unofficial marriage, Gu’s master was assassinated by anti-French mobs. Worried for their lives, they fled to the South of Vietnam and resided in the city of Hoi An, where they raised their daughters. At this point, the dress now constitutes the only precious property of the family.

The journey to keep the dress began with Anh and Flood’s teacher who asked them to wear silk dress to school just like other students. Not having money to buy the dress material, Mrs. Dan tried to borrow money from a wealthy lady in their neighborhood. Instead her request was rejected and Mrs. Dan was insulted for her poverty. She then received and accepted an offer to breastfeed a very wealthy elderly man. This plan did not work either; her husband found out and deplored it as a “whore-like” act. Finally, Mrs. Dan sacrificed her only white silk dress, cutting it up to make a new one for her daughters.

The challenges, however, did not stop there. The family needed to risk their lives twice to save the dress from fire when American troops bombed the city. They lost her daughter Anh in the war and later Mrs. Dan drowned  when the river where they look for snails to sell flooded.

The film ends with the end of the war, with Flood wearing the dress and uttering her experience of living the philosophy behind her mother’s remark that their countless hardships and horrific experiences resulted in the maintenance of the beauty of that dress. Through traumatic hardship, through horrific destruction caused by countless wars, the Vietnamese white silk dress still maintains its beauty.

Struggle is what make these women beautiful, even in the absence of the ability to whiten their skin or to redden cheeks and lips, which remains the popular trend in South East Asia to this day. The beauty of a Vietnamese woman cannot be characterized by white skin, rosy cheeks and red lips. But to Mrs. Dan, beauty is not only defined by such external qualities. Instead, her idea of beauty is rather Hegelian; in that it is understood as the ability to engage with life’s difficult moments and yet find oneself stronger at the end. Thus, it comes as no surprise that she sees the dress as a tangible symbol of Vietnamese women’s immense suffering as well as their generosity, which resulted in the elegant laps of a white silk dress. This vision of beauty through suffering, and an unwavering belief that toil and hardship can, or should produce something of beautiful is optimistically applied to her children, who she believes could attain a better social situation if only they can strive to gain an education.

This idea of beauty through cathartic struggle is implied in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In the preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel alluded that life [or beauty] emerges as a result of “looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it.” The negative can loosely be understood as things which potentially refrain us from achieving our ultimate goals, ranging from concerns as seemingly trivial as procrastination to other more significant obstacles to happiness. Tarrying with it, then, means defeating such stumbling blocks, or simply sacrificing short term goals for the sake of long term one. Thus, once we have defeated this negative, we can expect a glow that emanates from us as the result of being-ness, or life that has manifested itself in us, as Hegel would say. In this light, we can see that beauty, as it is presented to our eyes is actually a result of a herculean battle against those things [the negative] which prevent “beauty” from entering into our lives. Even for the most delicate flower, its beauty [or life] comes from its wrestling with the fear of pain inherent in blossoming, as Anais Nin puts it. At this point, it’s safe to say that Hegelian beauty is very much characterized by struggle or “tarrying with the negative”; indeed, Hegelian beauty is predicated upon, and cannot be achieved without this painful exertion of effort and will.

This “tarrying with the negative” as the precondition of existence is also what our ancestors believed to be the way to freedom from the private life of the household & family, as discussed in Arendt’s The Human Condition. According to Arendt, the ancients thought emancipating oneself from private life is important because this private realm is ruled by bodily needs, essential for individual maintenance and survival of the species. Accordingly, everybody within this realm is constantly enslaved by labor, either to meet others’ need, or their own. Also, to achieve these corporeal ends, the use of violence and force is acceptable. Thus, the ancients advised people to move on to the political life of public sphere which is reserved for equal and free folks. This move is also characterized by Hegel’s tarrying with the negative.

To the ancients this “tarrying with the negative” means making sure that one has mastered their own bodily needs already, so that they might be capable of ascending to higher planes of consciousness and being. For those who have the means to meet their bodily needs without labor or toil, as in the case of those born within propertied family or people who receive external financial support this end is of course more readily attainable.

Nowadays of course, as my sounding board friend Fitzpatrick reminded me, many people have escaped the tyranny of those bodily pressures of “private life” described by Arendt (the need for food, clothing and shelter) by getting a job and surrendering much their free time to corporate wage slavery. To him, this modern alternative offers for most of us; in addition to protection from starvation and death from exposure, a shallow (albeit demeaning) imitation of “public life”, in so far as we are able to work hard and potentially move up within the capitalist system towards a role that entails a decision-making capacity. However, he added, this piecemeal form of “mastery” creates new problems that mirror those that faced our ancestors in surprising ways. For example, a skilled subsistence farmer could be in control of their own destiny, only to have their designs scuppered by drought or flood; similarly, an obedient wage slave may find that the fickle winds of the market, or other economic fluctuations have left them homeless and hungry. Even when capitalism has consistently provided one with the means to live comfortably, consumerism in turn provides us with a galaxy of seductive products to literally consume the fruits of one’s labor, which might otherwise allow one the time to focus on things, other than bodily needs, such as self-realization through art or education, which supposedly benefits the doer and other people.

Unfortunately, as we have seen, the mastery task has never been easy – especially in our days. Therefore, it’s no surprise that character Mrs. Dan in this film did not fully escape from private life herself.

Yet, I see it as no reason to dismiss Mrs. Dan’s achievement as not fitting the category of Hegelian beauty, although my former professor argued otherwise. I assert that Hegel would have agreed with calling it Hegelian beauty; as he himself stated that the course of spirit [being/life] to itself is not a straightforward matter; it is instead a gradual process. In each stage of development, one does achieve something meaningful [or beautiful].

Yet, Hegel warned, one must expose that transitional achievement to constant examination and revision so as to keep moving. Only by doing so, we can get closer to the final goal: full self-manifestation. If we ponder on our own journey to become somebody we desire to be, we could see this gradual nature of this process. Before we can complete each transition, for instance, in the case of physical beauty and self-development, we must ensure that we have managed to address all physical beauty flaws and psychological baggage we have been carrying. Yet, as we grow, we keep examining what else to work on; what cosmetic beauty could we use to address, for example, our wrinkles; what psychological technique might help with newly discovered issue. Another example of the often difficult struggle for self-development come from the figures of Jain women, as anthropologist Whitney Kelting documented in Heroic Wives Rituals, Stories and the Virtues of Jain Wifehood. They are similar to the character Mrs. Dan in that they occupied and attempted to be free from private life. Yet, they did not make it. Nonetheless, their fellow Jains see [Hegelian] beauty in their existing achievement and, in turn, built temple as remembrance of their attempts and achievements. They worship these women for those achievements, and now these women serve as a reminder for others that the struggle towards self-manifestation and the attainment of spiritual beauty is a never-ending one.

Improved social status, or even having temples built in ones honor (like those Saint women of Jainism) and other more humble forms of life comfort were indeed sometimes the reward one could gain for the herculean struggle of renouncing private life, which required “courage” and, was thus considered a “political virtue” back then. In the past, supposedly most of them who were able to make it to escape private life and move into public realm were men and, thus, the life [or beauty] that comes out of it is often characterized by traits of masculinity. In addition, as my professor reminded me, patriarchy invariably defined women’s social roles “as enslaved, and thus defined female beauty, and for that matter courage, as submission to and acceptance of that enslavement.”

Nonetheless, the thought that beauty is closely tied to pain is far from new, because even the beauty defined by outer appearances is built on hidden foundations of pain and sacrifice. This includes the pain inherent in waxing, manicures, pedicures and other beauty care today, including exercise and body sculpting or wearing foot-numbing spike heels. Furthermore, as my professor recalled, in the past feminine beauty has required such practices as foot-binding, tight-laced corsets, and poisonous cosmetics. Supposedly one cannot fully escape from the economic idea that everything has its price; and more generally one must be willing to sacrifice short-term gains for any kind of long term or final progress we desire to attain in the course of our lives.

In White Silk Dress (Áo lụa Hà Đông), we see the character Mrs. Dan willing to put herself through difficult situations: giving up her desire for her own material beauty, accepting the humiliation of breastfeeding an elderly man, and ultimately sacrificing her precious dress. This is because she sees being educated as one of beauty’s essential features, something that can potentially change her family’s life in future.  Of course, her conception of beauty is subjective, much influenced by her life circumstances. Yet, the fact that beauty requires elements of sacrifice is pervasive; and this moral of “No pain, no gain”, in whatever capacity, is doubtless applicable to our own individual journeys towards self-manifestation and “beauty.”

 

 

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