Viet Boys: whose crisis?

Clara Tran on The Viet Boys from Down Under

For better or worse, meat pies, football and throwing the odd shrimp on the barbie have become synonymous with all things ‘Aussie’. However, in a cultural melting pot as deliciously varied as ours, the search for a collective identity is neither useful nor relevant unless it begins with difference. The Viet Boys from Down Under is a play which explores the alienation and frustration that comes with not fitting into the fair-dinkum-jolly-swagman stereotype, or being wholly comfortable with one’s Asian heritage. It asks the perennial question: What does it mean to be Australian?

Having never been conflicted because I am part of two worlds—and not knowing many Vietnamese-Australians who are confused over issues of identity—I found The Viet Boys’ heavy reliance on cultural stereotypes in its search for answers somewhat uninspiring and cliched. Rather than challenge archaic notions of what it means to belong to eastern and western cultures, the play inadvertently perpetuates the very same attitudes it so obviously has problems with. Bong’s initial reluctance to become romantically involved with Brad because he is a ‘half-caste’ and not suitable for dating Vietnamese girls is truly cringe-worthy. Renditions of the theme song to Burke’s Backyard and the Vietnamese nursery rhyme Kia Con Buom Vang (The Yellow Butterfly), no doubt serve as easily recognisable pop culture signposts to a racially diverse audience and good for a chuckle, but fail to offer any meaningful discourse.

What saves this Vietnamese Youth Media project from becoming yet another tale of identity crisis turned up to ten is its strong and clever use of humour. Whether perversely ticklish and black, such as when Smithy hires a prostitute to act as his surrogate mother, or light and daggy, as in the case of a karaoke performance of Jason and Kylie’s forgettable classic 'Especially For You', there’s sure to be comic relief around the corner. The play mitigates the serious side of self-futility and depression with its ability to make us laugh, and in the process, manages to capture feelings that are both intensely subjective and universal. Before The Viet Boys, I never imagined that an Elvis Presley impersonator singing 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?' had the power to simultaneously hit me in the guts and rub my funny bone with equal force.

With a budding romance, a story of both broken and realised dreams, martial arts scenes and corny karaoke thrown in for good measure, The Viet Boys is nothing if not a colourful array of musical and multimedia delights. Pre-recorded video images are used as an extra narrational device in the telling of the characters’ individual stories, often times running concurrently with the live performances. Ray Rudd gives a solid performance as the aspiring kung-fu film star, while Hai Ha La shows she is comfortable alternating between her 3 contrasting roles.

Go see The Viet Boys for its entertainment value. Although it doesn’t push any boundaries or delve into unchartered cultural territory, the play does offer a perspective on what it’s like for some Vietnamese youth living in Australia. You might not come away feeling any more enlightened, but you will be uplifted. That’s a promise.

The Viet Boys from Down Under, co-writer/director Huu Tran, co-writers/performers Dominic Hong Duc Golding, Rad Rudd, performers Khanh Nguyen, Hai Ha La, Christie Walton; Vietnamese Youth Media, Footscray Community Arts Centre & La Mama; La Mama Theatre, Carlton, Melbourne; 2002 Next Wave; May 15-26.

RealTime-NextWave is part of the 2002 Next Wave Festival.

RealTime issue #49 June-July 2002 pg. 4

© Clara Tran; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2002