The Bridge to Dakao
The Bridge to Dakao

The plot of The Quiet American could have unfolded in any country in Asia or Latin America, where the United States was fighting the spread of communism. Greene chose Vietnam to write his anti-imperialist masterpiece, a murder mystery, centered on a love triangle, set in a world where nothing was what it seemed — suffused with opium, intrigue and betrayal.

Since reading it, and, over the years, during numerous visits to Saigon, I’ve made sure I have a copy close at hand. Since it feels good to frame Vietnam through Greene-tinted spectacles. For as with so many other of Greene’s books, the place looms as large as the people. While reading it, I think not of Fowler or Pyle or even Phuong, but of Saigon during the 50’s, 60’s, when I believe it was at it’s most stylish, beguiling and wicked!

When I first arrived in 1990, there were still fragments of the ‘old Saigon’ that had enchanted Greene! In so many ways the city had stood still since the end of the war. It was then still the domain of áo dài, cyklos and pickpockets. The streets were eerily devoid of motorized traffic. It was a gloriously disheveled and dodgy place. By the time I returned to live in Saigon in 2008, the streets had become rivers of scooters. Saigon was morphing into a different place. A ‘modern’ city!

Before I get to the reason for making this short film, I must first mention the obvious. Saigon is a Vietnamese city. It’s theirs to do what they want with it. Modernity is a much coveted thing here. Who can blame them for wanting cars and motorbikes, shopping malls and fancy new apartments.

In crowded Asia, space is money. I understand that. But I’ve heard the refrain many times too, ‘old is bad, new is good’. Some would argue that splendid colonial architecture alludes to periods of humiliation, shame and embarrassment. Then tear it down? But what happens then? Does not the city begin to resemble all other ‘magnificent’ Asian cities? All high rise. Concrete. Glass and mirrors.

Demolished is the famed Givral cafe once situated along Dong Khoi to make way for the faux grande Vincom shopping arcade! This street, the Rue Catinat as it was called in the 1950’s, once regarded as the Champs Elyses of Saigon, of Asia, a street so eloquently described by Graham Greene, today is losing it’s charm and fast becoming just another row of tacky shops and bars. And the buildings that made this street so appealing are disappearing too. The L’Usine cafe and Art Arcade are the next it seems on the list to be bulldozed. The former La Surete is hidden behind billboards. The Cathedral is covered in scaffolding. It’s all part of the gentrification process I guess.

So much of the ‘old Saigon’ has gone. And is going. Buildings with ornate details, built by artisans with skills that people don’t possess anymore, bulldozed. Places that could whisper amazing stories to anyone prepared to listen, flattened. Even the grand hotels, the Majestic, Continental, The Rex and Caravelle, are today to my mind, merely spruced up tacky versions of their former selves. ‘Modernization’ will never end. And for the Vietnamese, that is a good thing.

What follows is a short film shot on an old iPhone 6 (excuse the grainy low light footage and flicker) comprised of random vignettes spliced together to relay notions of personal nostalgia. Push a certain sentimentality, my sentiment, which indirectly I suppose is based on a Western one, borne out of Western literature. But don’t take this as a reason not to watch this. You see as student of motion, I want to share a few things with you about its concept and methodology.

Firstly. I took a walk for a night. It could have been for a week, a month of shooting. I decided one evening was sufficient to capture enough footage to condense all of my memories of decades of visiting this ‘wickedly wicked’ city. That was the challenge I set myself. I said to myself. “Let me do this in one night. It’s a short film after all! “

Secondly, while my route was random, it was also planned. I walked in the general direction of Bui Vien District one, to Cau Saigon, District 2. The places and locations in the film don’t appear in geographical sequence however. I didn’t think that was important.

Thirdly. I have put this film together in the faith that the soundtrack, austere music, will surely enhance the footage. This is as much about sound design for me as it is about movement and color.

Finally, I wanted to include the ‘bridge to Dakao’ which appears on a number of occasions in Greene’s novel. And the place where Payle meets his end. Under the bridge to Dakao. Death by rusty bayonet. Dakao then was Viet Minh territory. It’s previous history of danger and menace therefore set my frame of mind for how I would ultimately shoot and edit this film. I wanted it to be dark and edgy. Laced with unease. I have a gloomy nature. Hence my camera seeks out the shadows.

I’d like to call it nostalgic film noir.

Richard Mark Dobson
Saigon. December 2021.

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