The Price of Peace: A Review of Nguyen Phan Quang Binh’s ‘The Floating Lives’ by Tini Ngatini

Tini Review

I recently came across a Vietnamese film, The Floating Lives (Canh Dong Bat Tan), which was released in 2010 by Nguyen Phan Quang Binh. Although this film is a few years old, the issues that the director addresses still feel fresh and progressive from my perspective as an Indonesian woman who teaches courses on women, gender, sexuality and religion.

The plot follows the life of man referred to as Mr. Vo, a severely broken-hearted man whose wife has left him for reasons the film does not reveal. Fate has left him a single parent and a duck farmer. By the end of the film, Vo’s son is killed and his daughter is raped by a rival group of duck farmers. The events of Vo’s life take place against a rural backdrop of equally tragic social issues: poverty, illiteracy, and violence against women and children. While the frank portrayal of these issues is common in Western films, they may still shock a Vietnamese  audience who are unaccustomed to either seeing such issues depicted onscreen or even hearing them mentioned in open discussion.

What I find intriguing and disturbing, however, are the lines that come at the very end of this film, as they seem to contradict the film’s message up till that point. These pivotal lines are spoken by Vo’s daughter: raped and now pregnant,

Nowadays, Dad and I have stopped wandering, we have quit being duck-farmers and settled down in a small village. Everyday, dad can bring kids to schools by boat and I can see him smile. I will name this child Thuong [her own future baby]. He is fatherless, but surely he will go to school. He will be joyful all his life and be taught by his mother that children must know how to forgive the mistakes that adults make.

The closing statement: “Children must know how to forgive the mistakes that adults make,” seems to negate the film’s earlier advocation of the rights of women and children by asserting that victims of adults’ mistakes (in this case, like in many other real-life cases, the mistakes in question concern those of patriarchal violence) are morally obliged to grant exemption to their oppressors, with little emphasis on the moral obligations that face the perpetrators of such crimes.

This narrative of martyr-like “forgiveness” is problematic because it seems to suggest that victims of such life-altering acts of cruelty are to simply bear their grief and pain with silent dignity, instead of using their experience as a motivation to call for societal change that could prevent similar outrages befalling Nuong’s own progeny Thuong in the future (or perhaps more disturbingly, being enacted by him).

How are we to make sense of this apparent contradiction? Are we to read this line as an adult’s voice projected into the child character Nuong? If this is the case, then the film’s earlier advocacy of liberation from patriarchal violence is overshadowed by its recognition of the insurmountable problems preventing achievement of this goal.

The event of forgiveness in this example – the fictional character Nuong, lead me to think about the conditional forgiveness Jankelevitch discussed in Forgiveness. This kind of forgiveness requires the conditions remorse and/or a request for forgiveness on the part of the wrongdoer, as well as the promise from the wrongdoer that similar events will not happen again. In order for victims to effectively move on from a trauma, it may be necessary for additional forms of compensation such as counseling, healing programs, sanctuary or work training; to be provided by wider society. What the case shows us is the absence of expressions of remorse and follow-up actions on the part of the wrongdoer to mitigate the destructive affects of the past wrongdoing.

In this case, expressions of remorse will serve to acknowledge that what the character Nuong experienced is “normal,” rather than an attempt to expose, humiliate and/or criminalize the wrongdoer. The term “normal” here ; far from being used to play-down the seriousness of the events in question, merely means that these events, whilst horrific, are not rare or bizarre and that Nuong is not the only one to undergo such trauma.  However, such an absence of acknowledgment results in these experiences  remaining confined to the private space, unvoiced. That unvoiced status of such an experience also restricts policy makers within public and social spaces to make necessary steps such as counseling or child protection, either to mitigate the negative effects of the events on the victims or to protect other citizens from experiencing  similar trauma. In extreme cases, the absence of such acknowledgment could lead one to suppress the memory, which  to a certain degree, obstructs them from looking back into the memory itself and addressing the issue. Perhaps consequently,  the horrific experiences will continue to hover over one’s present life, conditioning their idea of relationships in general.

Jankelevitch’s idea of forgiveness could indeed be tricky because either it may remain a political performance with debatable value or, if the wronged party is indeed able to perform genuine forgiveness, an attestation to the political force of the ruling class. If, as this scene in the film indicates, forgiveness is unilateral, it further underlines the under-privileged status of groups such as women and children who are subtly forced to sacrifice their rights, including the right to remember.

Contrary to what most of us might think, inherent in the nature of political forgiveness is what actually protects that right to remember.

In order for society to properly utilize forgiveness in the case of traumatic events, I think the key is to find balance between helping the wronged party to find ways to continue with their life and giving public education to parents about topics such as domestic violence, healthy parenting and sexual abuse. That way peace can be restored without the need to sacrifice the right of the wronged party’s remembrance of their past which is, to a large degree, necessary for future life.

 

References

Jankélévitch, Vladimir. Forgiveness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

 

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Manifestos: A Prose Poem by Wes Bishop

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“Who runs the world?” I ask because I have complaints. The little man tells me the box for such things is down the hall. I stumble, clutching my manifestos. If only the masses would read these typed blueprints for utopia then the world would work, because I am a mechanic for reality!

I get to the box, but it is closed. The sign reads—

UNDER CONSTRUCTION.

SEE WEBSITE FOR DETAILS.

 

So, I tweet.

I post.

I comment

and I yelp.

 

I set my phone to vibrate text alert so if anyone comments their digital voice will trip the invisible wire I have set.

Ding– 1 Comment,

Finally, comrades!

Ding— 2 Comments,

YES! They can join—

Ding, Ding, Ding— 3 Comments

— MY REVOLUTION!

I open the comments like a child tearing at wrapping paper…

“Who voted for this asshole!!!,” one comment reads. “BITCH PLEASSSSSSSEEEEEE! Sit yo fucking-turtle-looking ass down somewhere!,” another retorts. “You is lame!!! #SuckIt MOTHER FUCKER!!!” another says.

I chase those comments with my words. Chase in futility the vulgarity of worldwide mass expression. The little man behind the desk laughs. “What’s so funny?!” I shout. “Nothing, our complaint box is just finally working.” I look. There I am, reduced to a wooden statue taking complaints and handing out smoke.

 

And In That Republic by Wes Bishop

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Image by Elisabeth Fredriksson

And in that republic, they

built a machine,

a machine of a million names,

but one purpose,

cruelty.

Inflicting pain

was a virtue of nettles on bare skin,

leaving kindness’s soothing balm

treason.

It is why I stopped searching this world for guidance,

instead pilgriming to myself to find

the capitol of compassion.

 

But the old men raged.

Respect was a price they could not afford

and even if they paid their dues nothing would change,

they claimed.

So, we were told to accept the world they had birthed.

 

In aborted flooded canals we swam,

slow swarms watching as one by one we drowned.

How many could have been saved

in those days of historic possibility?

No one knows

and fewer venture to guess

the hypothesis being a hippopotamus

not sitting on caving chests

but swimming,

deadly swimming,

between our vulnerable bodies.

I etched markings along the wall

four marks

then a single slash through.

Four marks.

Slash.

Each friend and fellow who died became reduced to that singular tally.

 

And those city lights on the horizon,

like a municipal gathering of fallen stars,

promised endless

sleepless

shattering dialectics.

Dialogues with the past emerging,

ghosts ushering in futurescapes.

 

Ash to flame,

dust to diamond glory.

 

But no one told me the story

in full

and those dull distinctions matter.

So many points of light nothing more than traffic lights.

Yellow.

Pulsing.

Like wounded suns

struggling to breathe

telling interstellar cartographers,

“Slow down,

this is the town,”

but doing it in suggestive blaring neon verbs

Cyber Pamphleteer: Imagined Stations, A Poem by Wes Bishop


 

They insert their hands in my mouth,

these passerby pedestrians in the in-between

electric places that simultaneously

exist but do not exist,

(much like a deceased living cat in a physics experiment),

and with errant fingers feel my tongue

reading my words like braille

chiseled on electric, hovering

boards of keys.

These strangers, bathed in

blue white light,

wade next to me

in pools of infinite connectivity.

 

And they like me,

and they share me,

and they give me plenitudes of hearts, thumbs, and

winking yellow faces,

never before seen in other realms

but the face of us now.

These are the coins

they flip casually into my digitally open

case, begging for money,

so as to receive art and wisdom.

 

Another cyber pamphleteer asks

if I think this is the end?

What, with our digital apocalypse

reigning down?

What about HUMAN CONNECTION!

He asks me, as we stand in those imagined stations,

What about THE COFFEE HOUSES!

What about THE PUBLIC SPHERE!

Where people used to,

supposedly it was supposed,

sit and

talk?

I reply that such a place had never existed,

or at least

did not exist in the existentialist crises

he now describes in

derision to the denizens of this digital

imaginative landscape.

 

 

No. We were still connected.

Children still laughed

Lovers still loved

Enemies…

 

Oh, you get the idea.

I turn back to my audience, the

busy people in busy businesses bustling by at

speeds that are achieved only via

advanced telephone technology stuff.

I’m not really sure how it works.

Like the newspaper

boys or pamphleteer

rabble rousers

of other centuries previous

who could not tell you the

first thing about Gutenberg

yet nonetheless screamed and yelled

at a world on fire with activity.

I am no different.

A direct descendant of writers who wrote

in a way that was never quite right

yelling, hollering, raising a ruckus

in places in-between there

and here

hoping to attract a small enough audience

to gain some noble notoriety.

An ideas salesman,

tacky clothed, going door to door,

into the minds of some stranger

knocking on their skull, and asking

if I could sit in their brains, beside

memories of loved ones,

and fears of untold horrible deeds.

 

Could, I? Trouble, them? Please?

 

And some did, momentarily,

allow my words to assimilate to their thoughts

changing them in chain link emails

with “!” points to get my “!” across.

 

A regular customer of my pamphlets

walks by in this digital place in-between

and I say hello,

and I see me

walking around in their heads

and quickly I begin to work.

I snip a part of my soul and graft

it onto a digital set

of information that begins

to bounce about in

electric excitement. HELLO!

My severed piece of soul says to me.

HELLO, I respond.

I stare at me and it stares back,

this marvelous technology of

writing inhabiting nothing

more than

free floating electricity.

WHAT NOW? My soul shard asks.

I explain. It is no longer me,

but a reflection of me.

Assuming it is not erased or

destroyed, as pamphlets often sometimes are, it will live on after I am dead.

WHOA… my soul shard says.

WHAT IF I AM ASKED QUESTIONS?

I tell it that I have tried to anticipate that,

but unfortunately it

will eventually be asked something

it cannot answer.

At which point it is to say,

politely of course,

WE DO NOT HAVE THE INFORMATION TO THAT.

They are a just a soul shard,

after all,

really only a verbally written hologram

of an organic being that will soon be dead.

They are a technology I have infused myself into.

DOES THAT MAKE SENSE? I ask.

YES, the soul shard responds, BUT ONLY BECAUSE YOU WROTE IT.

I reason their reason is reasonable,

and before the soul shard can share

another thought I hit “SEND”

and off it goes.

Living but dead,

a zombie cyborg.

And it burrows into the heads

of those passerby pedestrians

and I see it light up certain skulls,

like XMAS lights or NEON sale signs.

Some readers quickly throw the pamphlet away.

Others mull it over

for a moment and play with my soul.

A few tuck it away into the archives of their being.

Me, a member of their ontology,

adding a layer of new to their growing

archaeological phenomena

in our shared carbon conscious silicon existence.

 

 

 

On Dreaming Escape by Michelle M. Campbell

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When I was a young child, I would lay awake at night and travel. I had read one of those late 80s magazines about everything supernatural and, along with a young adult novel whose title I forgot long ago, I was summarily convinced that I should, at the very least, give astral projection a try.

This is not a piece about how astral projection works.

What I discovered then, though, was that if I focused enough during the day–many religions and practices call it mindfulness or extended concentration–I could recreate my environs before falling asleep every night. I could recreate not only sights, but also smells, textures, sounds, tastes. I could approximate reality, and I could direct it. Often, my visualizations led to me experiencing an area utterly alone, unaccompanied by an adult.

I can still feel the metal pole with flaking maroon paint that led up the awkwardly spaced stairs to my elementary school.

I can still smell the musty freshness of my narrow bunk in our camper–a space where I learned that sometimes close can be comforting.

I can still see the small sand castles the worms created with their waste, only visible when consistently eye level with the ground looking through the grass blade forests.

I grew up on dreaming escape.

But now, I dream escape to places both real and imagined, except I can make my imagined placed real. When I desperately yearned to be out of college apartment housing, I walked my dream house hundreds of times. I knew the bedroom carpet, the corner in the garage where the spiders held their congress, the under-performing garden in the back. I harvested my doubtful bounty.

Lately I’ve been dreaming of land. As I approach it from the road access point, I can see tall scrub brush at the foot of towering pines. There are some low lying areas not too far to the right, behind the first gathering of trees; we’ll want to proceed cautiously because we’ve had a few days of rain. A squirrel chatters aggressively at my intrusion, and I obliquely apologize. I want to build a life here, a house, perhaps. Welcome anarchist scholars from around the world to visit my library barn that will be just over there on that rise to think and talk and learn. I can smell the fresh cut wood, see the shelves and shelves of books I will ship in, run my hands along their spines. The dark head of an eminent scholar over there, looking up from his reading to consider and sip good, dark coffee.

But so much detail is tiring. It’s tiring to build such a perfect life in lifetime, let alone in an hour as day turns to night.

And it’s tiring to return to a world where I can’t really escape. My dreams all revolve around isolation, a carousel of single horses with a haunting tinny tune. I’ve come to the realization lately that not only can I not separate myself from the world to live my life, if I would do so,  it would not be my life. I’m in too deep. I can’t quit now; organizing and political analysis has seeped into my bones. It has made them strong, yet fragile. I can’t live without new injections every so often.

The symptoms of withdrawal include anger, followed by depression, some crying, and staring at the ceiling. Soon, a sense of purposelessness, desperation, and hopelessness replace each strong cell in my body. Retreating within myself is exactly what I cannot do if I want to remain.

I dream of escape not because I’m not capable of leaving, but because I know I won’t survive if I attempt it.

 

 

 

On Being Little by Michelle M. Campbell

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I’m only five foot tall, but most people would tell you they’d never know it. I might be small, but I’m loud. I’ve got a high-pitched Disney princess voice that carries as far and wide and James Earl Jones’ soothing baritone. I’m the friend you have to hush in the library, the next booth over in the restaurant, the one who speaks just a little too loud, a little too much, a little too often. The one who doesn’t need a microphone at a protest or a rally.

But sometimes, when someone uses that voice with me, I shut up. I shut down. I’m out. You know that voice, the one your father, or your mother, or maybe your teacher used with you. The one that mockingly tells you that you’re stupid, that you’ve done something so incredibly offensive that you don’t deserve to be here. You don’t deserve to be you.

I’m an intelligent, educated, radical, loving, and loud woman, and that voice cuts me down every single time. It stops me in my tracks. It makes me feel as small as I am, smaller than I am. Smaller than a human can possibly be.

“We can’t be doing that.”

“I’m glad everyone’s being so quiet right now.”

“Why would you even think that was okay to do?”

“What were you thinking?”

I was not thinking, clearly, as you do. I was not expecting the talons of your hatred to come ripping me apart from this, your aerial position of trust.

I tell myself that that voice comes from a position of smallness itself. In its sarcastic, hateful mockery, it works to bring me down to its level. It is literally a voice of belittling, to make little, because little is not loud, little does not take up space, and little is never in the way of power or authority. Little is accommodating and nice and sugar and spice. Little is there to help, to be told what to do, to live vicariously through and just for you. Little gets shut up, put away, put out in the trash. Little gets left behind.

So, you see, that voice wants you and me to be little because if we’re not little, we’re big. If we’re big, we fill up the space that it can otherwise fill with hate. We’re in the way, we’re defiant and definite. We matter because we are matter, and if we get purposefully madder and madder and madder we can’t be little by being belittled.

Yet, no matter what I tell myself, what I know to be true, I can’t help feel the heat of my shame well up behind my eyeballs that are diverting their gaze to the floor. I can’t help but feel the lump of my self-hatred expand in my throat as it constricts to stop, to prevent, my voice. I can’t help but feel the aftershocks, the hot flashes of embarrassment that show up as rosy pink splotches on my face and neck hours, days after when I’m alone and stumble, accidentally, into my mind working through my most private of my most public of humiliations.

I am the loudest woman I know, but that voice is still too much for me.

 

 

 

Horror Paradise by Adam MacHose

Collective intelligence currently exists in the form of mobile devices, search engines, democratized content, and social media. A move from this current state to one where we are connected via implant would represent a dramatic shift in human condition, a grand unification into one unimaginably powerful cybernetic creature.

This affects aesthetics in the medical sense. Would an implant network act like a sixth sense or utilize the usual five? Would these implants create a new connection between our mind and the outside world, or simply augment what we are seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, and smelling?

I’ll pause here to acknowledge that there is reason to be skeptical. After all, who really wants an implant connected to their brain?

However, necessity is the mother of invention. Someone with a neurological disorder would likely be willing to try anything, including attaching an electronic device to their mind, if it means survival. After that, what’s next? Weight loss implant? Viagra implant? How long until implants become normalized?

I understand this is rather wacky, but there doesn’t seem to be any scientific reason we couldn’t become effectively psychic. If we are able to send and receive messages using only our thoughts, are we not telepathic?

Regardless of whether or not fantastical powers become a reality, I want to introduce a concept I call the “horror paradise” to describe the challenge of being tapped into the full spectrum of human experience at all times via technology. As devices make the population more connected, each individual faces the practical and ethical question of what to tune into.

What is a responsible amount of time to spend informing oneself of the horrors of Syria? The gruesome information is available for anyone who is interested, and it is important for the world’s population to know what is going on there: hell on earth. So how often, and for how long, is a responsible amount of time for an American to pay attention to that?

Most people spend some time not thinking about horror, whether it be Syria or the macabre meat industry or mass shootings or people being crushed daily using our transit system. But suppressing thoughts and focusing on the more hopeful and prosperous aspects of civilization gives rise to an intense cognitive dissonance. The result is more pain.

To tune out means to risk these problems spreading or not being fixed. But how does one compartmentalize all of these extremes? Can a contemporarily educated informed citizen feel joy? Will we in our lifetimes be liberated of horror? Probably not. So adults worldwide need to find ways to address it and deal with their cognitive dissonance in productive ways. The alternatives: ignorance or madness.