Against the Promise of Infrastructure: Watery Intimacy and Vietnamese Speculative Cinema | Ding-Liang Chen

by Critical Asia

by Ding-Liang Chen, June 2022】

Taking Vietnamese director Phạm Ngọc Lân’s 2020 short film The Unseen River (Giòng Sông Không Nhìn Thấy) as a point of departure, this essay aims to foreground the theoretical and aesthetic potential of Southeast Asian cinema in engaging with environmental crises. The Unseen River is part of a recent collaborative project titled Mekong 2030 where filmmakers working across the Mekong basin came together to reimagine alternative futures of the Mekong River, the third longest trans-boundary river whose ecological prosperity has become endangered due to changing weather patterns, infrastructural constructions (mainly the hydroelectric dams), among other social and natural challenges. Reading the cinematic speculation of The Unseen River against the intellectual backdrop of environmental humanities, this essay hopes to articulate that while biologists, engineers, and planetary scientists have been considered indispensable actors in tackling environmental problems, cinematic renderings of ecologies, landscapes, and local communities at different scales indeed proffer necessary and fundamental reconsiderations of ecological relationalities, infrastructural temporalities, and nonhuman intimacies that are equally informative when fostering a more livable future that is yet to come.

Situating Environmental Humanities in Southeast Asia

The rise of postcolonial environmental humanities in recent decades has nurtured a critical intellectual agenda to examine the ways in which global ecosystems and natural resources have been grounded in the long durée of colonial expansion, violence, and legacies. While “[t]he concept of ecology is barely one hundred years old, and has been mobilized in multiple ways over time to serve the shifting needs of colonial authority,” Elizabeth DeLoughrey, Jill Didur, and Anthony Carrigan suggest in their introduction to Global Ecologies and the Environmental Humanities, “postcolonial approaches to the environmental humanities help complicate and clarify the historical power relations that underpin global ecologies” (15; 7). To argue against this specific capitalist and imperialist ideology of extractivism and gesture toward restorative multi-species relationalities with the environment, the collective endeavors of the postcolonial environmental humanities, for instance, have foregrounded indigenous material practices, cultural techniques, and ecological knowledges as alternative forms of world-making.

In tracing the development of environmental humanities as a field of inquiry, however, Karen Thornber reminds us to pay close attention to the politics and positionality of knowledge production. “[T]he field of ecocriticism (environmental criticism, literature and environment studies), which to date has focused disproportionately on Western examples,” Thornber argues, should “open itself more fully to a broader range of languages and cultures” (990). Responding to Thornber’s call for expanding the scope of the environmental humanities through an updated methodology centering on “transnational and trans-genre” intervention, John Charles Ryan further reveals the fact that transnationalism often relies on English as a linguistic and cultural medium for global circulation. In the introduction to Southeast Asian Ecocriticism: Theories, Practices, Prospects, Ryan discusses how “a transnational practice is contingent on the availability of texts in English and raises concerns regarding reliance on a single translation—rather than multiple interpretations—of a work” (22). To prevent the environmental humanities from “becoming a specialist domain catering to a limited audience and constrained by a narrow purview” (23), Ryan encourages researchers to engage with “environmental creativity” that could not only bridge the conversation between Southeast Asian ecologies and the Anglophone academia but build up theoretical thinks through urgent crises and provincial practices in alternative contexts.

Against the Promise of Infrastructure

Initiated at the 2019 Luang Prabang Film Festival and officially released in the following year, Mekong 2030 is a collective cinematic endeavor across Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam to speculate the ecological future of the Mekong River in the face of worsening capitalist exploitation, interstate conflict, and climate emergency. The economic development of the Mekong River, especially in relation to the construction of hydropower planning, can be traced back to the last decade of the twentieth century when the Asian Development Bank launched the Greater Mekong Subregion Program (Middleton 252). According to the statistics released by the Mekong River Commission for Sustainable Growth in 2019, there are 89 hydropower projects in the lower Mekong basin scattering across Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, which “see economic gains from full hydropower development of more than $160 billion by 2040” (Mekong River Commission n.p.).

Although the hydroelectric infrastructures in the Mekong basin have promised “improved productivity, food security, and poverty alleviation,” these developmentalist and progressive discourses have been challenged and resisted in recent years (Francois Molle, Tira Foran, and Philippe Floch 12). In interpreting the first year of key data collected by the Mekong Dam Monitor, the Stimson Center has indicated that exacerbated wet season droughts have been one of the most severe outcomes resulted from the dam operation in the Mekong River (Brian Eyler et al. n.p.). With the rapidly changing climatic conditions, sand mining, soil salinization, and geopolitical confrontation, the livelihoods, social stability, and biocultural diversity of the Mekong basin have been exposed to environmental vulnerability and degradation (Welle n.p.; Pearce n.p.; Strangio n.p.). In this sense, hydroelectric dams functioning as material infrastructures, as Nikhil Anand, Akhil Gupta, and Hannah Appel indicate in their introduction to The Promise of Infrastructure, “are critical both to differentiated experiences of everyday life and to expectations of the future” and “have long promised modernity, development, progress, and freedom to people all over the world” (3). This linear temporality, however, might also function as a coercive ideology that regulates, dictates, and even forecloses “new ways of thinking about the temporality and spatiality of infrastructure” (17).

Watery Intimacy

Among all the cinematic works produced in the Mekong 2030 project, The Unseen River stands out for its critique of the linear and progressive temporality that the material infrastructures of hydroelectric dams promise. Although the title of The Unseen River seems to indicate the visual absence of the Mekong River, the river and its basin in fact serve as core narrative and cinematic apparatuses that structure and facilitate the main characters’ journey throughout the film. While Thuc and his girlfriend follow the streams of the Mekong River to reach a Buddhist temple in quest of cure for his insomnia, Mrs. Nguyen encounters her former lover at a hydroelectric plant which she previously worked for. Instead of replicating the economic and modernist prospect of hydroelectric construction, The Unseen River highlights how Vietnamese local communities cultivate their intimate relationalities with the Mekong basin. Responding to Thuc’s question regarding how to maintain a sound sleep at night, an elderly monk at the temple compares the act of sleeping to the act of bathing in a river. “Sinking into a deep sleep,” the monk continues, “is like surrendering yourself to the current.” The monk’s philosophical interpretation of sleeping succinctly reveals that the journey of restoring inner peace with oneself is less about rebuilding a more consolidated sense of subjectivity than testing out and coexisting with the changing boundaries between one’s corporeal body and the surrounding aquatic environment. This specific form of watery intimacy with the Mekong River is not used in the film to romanticize a harmonious ecological community. As another monk briefly mentions how he and his family members were torn apart during the flood season, this slice of personal memory has indicated how the Mekong River as a nonhuman environment has been present as a cinematic device to show that human existence is implicated in ecological transformation.

Among all Vietnamese terms that could be used to depict the critical conception of river, the director Phạm Ngọc Lân intentionally chooses giòng sông because this specific phrase, on the one hand, could yield more profound feelings and leave lingering affective influence for Vietnamese communities, and could urge the audience to appreciate the film in a slower manner, on the other. When Mrs. Nguyen recalls the memories regarding her former lover leaving Vietnam for overseas studies during the inauguration day of the hydroelectric dam, the man alludes to an understanding of intimacy in an ecological sense: “Sometimes we take years to realize that some things are more connected to us than we can understand. Just look. These are the marks this river has left on me. They are inked into my flesh, just as they are into my heart.” From the retrospective life stories inserted with unrushed kinetic camera movements that guide the audience to focus on the flow of the Mekong River to the sense of slowness mediated through the pronunciation of the Vietnamese title of the film, The Unseen River constantly draws our attention to other forms of temporality and ways of relating oneself with the environment. Situating “the human body’s proximity with other human bodies, animals, plants, organic and inorganic matter as intimate, based on affectivity, new affinities,” as Wibke Straube writes when theorizing posthuman ecological intimacy, “is anchored in the knowledge that nature is our place, our only home” (74).

In trying to tease out the myriad forms of watery intimacy in a Vietnamese speculative cinema that calls for alternative futures for the Mekong basin, this essay hopes to call into question the hidden ideology of exploitation and environmental degradation that the promise of infrastructure often disguises. As Thornber cogently claims, the environmental humanities are not simply about publicizing social and scientific research, but “promoting actual cultural and ecological change by helping us develop deeper, more nuanced understandings of the fluid relationships between peoples and environments in specific places and moments, as well as over time and across space” (999). Read together, Mekong 2030 and other bourgeoning literary, cultural, and artistic productions in Southeast Asian ecological contexts have called for an ongoing and collective engagement with the growing scholarship on environmental humanities with provincialized historical and political specificity.

Ding-Liang Chen, Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation, Taiwan


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