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Wound Culture in Film

Wounds inflame as visceral, multi-layered metaphors in Srdjan Dragojević’s The Wounds (1998, think a Serbian Trainspotting) and Tran Anh Hùng’s Cyclo (1995, think a Vietnamese The Bicycle Thief).

Wounds stand as testaments and evidence of trauma, scarring and violence. Wound culture as described by critic Igor Krstic refers to cultures in which senseless killing and violence now belong to an ethnic, religious or other cohesive group’s sense of identification. Wound cultures thrive in warring and postwar societies such as the bruising worlds of post-war ex-Yuogoslavia and south Vietnam. But before discussing some of these wound metaphors it is worth mentioning how authenticity is integral to their power.

Both The Wounds and Cyclo are culturally authentic fictional representations within their unique socio-historical worlds. The films were appropriately photographed on location with their significant auteurs and film crews mostly also belonging, to varying degrees, to the societies depicted. Srdjan Dragojević worked and lived in Belgrade, Serbia, until after releasing The Wounds, when he moved to the United States temporarily. The Serbian film industry partially funded the USD $800,000 budget for The Wounds, although the government was dissatisfied with the final product and attempted to limit its exposure.

Similarly, Tran Anh Hùng lived in war-torn Đà Nẵng, in (the then) Republic of Vietnam but immigrated to France after the fall of war-torn Saigon in 1975. Cyclo was French-funded and provoked the Vietnamese government, who censored it for painting a purportedly intentionally damaging depiction of what communism had done to the country. Tran Anh Hùng subsequently mended his reputation in Vietnam but there were permanent repercussions for Cyclo – it is still officially banned in Vietnam for being anti-Socialist.

To further their claims of cultural authenticity both directors cast actors from within the respective societies in leading and peripheral roles. When The Wounds Director Dragojević first met Milan Marić, who plays Kraut, he was still bleeding from a fight he had on the way to the audition. This is brutally legitimate casting for a film about a culture Dragojević describes as being infested with “poverty, criminality and cowardice”. Similarly Tran Anh Hùng cast Le Van Loc, a Vietnamese national, as the cyclo rider in Cyclo.

Therefore, Cyclo and The Wounds as representations of traumatised culture can be considered apart from the typical post-colonial discourse surrounding the representation of foreign cultures by individuals outside of the societies in question. The backlash of those in power against the exposure of oppression reflects the valid, heartfelt criticisms being voiced by those affected. These people’s cuts are bleeding genuine blood, and are not detached images concocted by an Othering, external spectator. Their representations deserve to be received as earnest, authentic expressions.

Stemming the flow of blood caused in wound cultures is not a straightforward or quick process from within or outside. For those of us protected by peace, watching movies can at least help in furthering our understanding of the causes behind what we consider irregular behaviour in our home society. Of prime example is the 2009 case of Sadik Sljivo, a Bosnian refugee shot twice in the Balkans before immigrating to Australia. He locked his two sons inside their Melbourne home and set fire to it explaining that “he snapped because he could not deal with marital problems”. Representations such as The Wounds assist viewers in furthering a practical, social understanding of how people like Sljivo can “snap” in this way and in doing so may assist in collaboratively easing the psychological injuries associated with trauma.

In light of this example, the family dynamics of Cyclo and The Wounds are indicative of wound culture. In both films, the disintegration of family unity stands for the higher dynamic of a traumatised culture destroying itself through violence. Trauma disintegrates both families but the two cinematic depictions differ in resolution, a fact that subtly affects the cultural metaphors by reflecting upon the possibilities for healing.

Tran Anh Hùng says that “dealing with family is an inherent mechanism in Asian society … In Asia the individual is blended in a group, and the family is primary.” This helps to explain Cyclo’s focus on the family as the soul of harmonious society. The film begins with a voice-over of the cyclo rider’s late father’s advice, where he philosophically reflects on the profession of cyclo riding. He concludes by saying “If you can, try and find some more dignified job,” clueing the audience to the rider’s latent ambition.

This ambition materialises when the rider’s cyclo is stolen, prompting his descent into violence and disconnection – he doesn’t share his gangster earnings or see his family as he is confined to an apartment, with walls that electrocute indiscriminately. Simultaneously, the sister’s journey into prostitution takes her away from her traditional family role and is detrimental to her chances of marriage in Vietnamese society. The younger family member’s digressions from the family circle are prefigured by the moral discussion over the scales early in the film; “The scales were sent to us by mistake – why don’t you use them on the street? It’s easier work”. Cyclo does not overstate this deterioration of the family, but the inclusion of the grandfather and younger sister provide potential victims and a sense of cohesion that promptly disappears, causing the audience to reflect on how the family’s disjuncture is symptomatic of greater violence and disintegration.

Cyclo also creates a character that is both a poet and gang leader, conveying the theme of loss of innocence. The poet is shown as the victim of domestic violence by his father, violence that is inflicted as retribution for his violent lifestyle, but the film suggests that this treatment itself has ironically influenced the poet’s lifestyle. This is a multi-layered metaphor, blaming the poet’s loss of innocence on his father, and by allusion, Vietnam’s loss of innocence on its patriarchal colonisers, France. By direct historical connection, it can be argued that France’s actions in and withdrawal from Vietnam set in motion the increasingly fragmented culture that was to come. The concept of “letting the father down” runs through the rider and poet’s narratives and is also shared by Pinki in The Wounds.

In a much more spectacular family disintegration, Pinki’s refusal to commit to his father’s ideal of a respectable career (“A trade is worth its weight in gold”) and his idolisation of Dickie at first only mildly hurts his family. Similarly to the poet in Cyclo this is initially met with domestic violence; “Stay away from that riffraff! You want to be a criminal?”. However, as Pinki grows older and amplifies his reprehensible conduct his father’s financial and social stress and misery provides a conduit for intra-family wounds to strike him at his core. His suicide signals the end of the family for Pinki, who subsequently seems to spend more time with Kraut and his grandmother than with his only remaining relative, his mother. Eventually when Pinki dies all of the men are dead, leaving only the mother to continue banging on her pots. The Wounds displays a complete and total family breakdown in hyperbolic fashion – but the shame is that the hyperbole is real. This is representation as complete condemnation.

Such condemnation stands in contrast to Cyclo, which concludes with a healed family looking forward to the future. Instead of the rider cycling alone, as at the beginning of the film, the conclusion shows him carrying the entire family, assuming the paternal role, with the voice-over, “Yesterday the cat came back. We’d thought it was dead. It looked more beautiful than before, so beautiful, no one thought it was our cat”. This hopeful, complex panning shot begins on a statue of Tran Hung Đao, a Vietnamese hero who historically repelled the Mongol invasions, and among other things assists Tran Anh Hùng in infusing a hopeful element into Cyclo; a claim for healing Vietnam’s wound culture through healing the family. It must be noted, however, that family metaphors in The Wounds and Cyclo are not limited to the realm of the biological family; they litter other social networks as well.

Of prime example are the wound metaphors attached to the adopted family and friendships in the films. In The Wounds Pinki constantly refers to Kraut as his brother, beginning with the opening line of the film, portending a dialogue rich in evocative wound metaphor, highlighting Pinki’s (youth’s) instinct to externalise his (their) wounds. “My wounds opened again,” Pinki states, as the confronting close-up pans over his many bandages, “like they were eating through the bandages, trying to get out”. This first depiction of wounds aurally and visually prefigures the film’s obsessive, multi-layered exploration of wound culture and metaphor. Pinki’s bullet-ridden body, violently inflicted by Kraut, his best friend, is the first representation of a wounded people that keep on wounding themselves: wounds eating through their bandages, violence begetting violence.

Further, the “games in the graveyard” framing device between the three central teenagers in The Wounds serves to narratively highlight metaphorical wounding in the adopted family. Pinki and Kraut light-heartedly tease Dijabola as they decide on teams for a rock-throwing game, but a malicious intent immediately emerges; this teasing perverts any resemblance to friendly banter, it is blatant ethnic discrimination. The scene’s first tracking shot shows all three characters in the frame as friends in juxtaposition with the final shots of the wounded Dijabola, excluded, dominated and alone in the frame – opposite Pinki and Kraut who are cinematically depicted as a firm unit. This is further enhanced by their consequential exclusion and departure to attend a nationalist parade they consider ethnically restrictive. Kraut’s parting denigration, “Serbs don’t cry like pussies … we’re going to fuck you guys up!”, is a merciless allusion to the second half of this framing device, when the rocks become real.

By the end of the film’s narrative the young men have turned into warriors. Dijabola confronts Pinki and Kraut in the graveyard over the murder of his mother, and again the camera plays with ethnic oppositions, framing Kraut and Pinki callously laughing behind a gravestone, in contrast to Dijabola’s vulnerable solitary position on screen. “Together, like the old days,” Kraut exclaims, before the two hurt Serbs stand, tracksuit-clad and leering to fight. The subsequent massacre is framed as mass-suicide, as totalising violence engenders violence, and through Pinki’s closing comments in death (“If you want to be cool, I got to be your hero”) we are asked to contemplate how this final, dramatically broken ending acts a metaphor for how a whole generation was robbed of a future and the terrible impact of modern-day Serbian politics.

Although Pinki and Kraut are grouped by ethnicity in the above example, their brotherly love is not only based on wounding others, but themselves and each other as well, fracturing any resemblance of peaceful social cohesion. A prominent example in the narrative is the climactic assault of Kraut shooting Pinki five times, hospitalising him for allegedly sleeping with his femme fatale girlfriend, Lidija. This episode is filmed from a first person point of view, in slow-motion but with an incongruous Turbofolk accompaniment. The editing rotates manically between Kraut shooting to Pinki being shot, powerfully grounding the lacerations; “It’s no joke man, she’s mine”. This is followed in the narrative by the consequential murdering of Lidija by Kraut “out of respect” – adding an external element to the violent cycle of wounding, which does not complete until Pinki shoots Kraut in the same locations he was shot in; forming a traditional brotherly bond, ironically morbid in its violent image, bringing to light the horrors of a culture where friendships are defined by bullets and sacrifice.

In both The Wounds and Cyclo masculinity is the primary mode of violence and the social relationships they take place in are firmly patriarchal. In The Wounds, all the female characters are peripheral victims, a result perhaps of the gender/power system that underlaid Yugoslav Communism. As violated survivors the only woman with any real power is Lidija, but her lack of will to accede to violence ultimately renders her impotent in the violent, phallic culture she inhabits, and she thus ceases to survive. Similarly, the death of Kraut’s grandmother, another survivor, is framed by her intense fear of the power to give action to her thoughts: “First time she voted against Milosevic. She went to bed and died. Got scared”.

Cyclo compounds this point in its depiction of the sister’s friendship group. The group of women prostituting for the pimping poet is usually pacifist and nurturing, but when violence is inevitably done against the sister (by a man) they lament, “Why weren’t we told she was a virgin?”. This grief attempts to submit to the masculine, violent outlet it would deserve, but a male gang member overpowers the lamentation, preventing a physical confrontation and asserting the gendered power structure inherent to these representations of wound culture. Cyclo’s female characters are ineffectual victims just as in The Wounds, and all are wounded in terms of their sexuality. The unresolved exception here is the madam in Cyclo – she is represented in a position of power, and her pain is maternal.

The rider’s experiences with the gang in Cyclo clearly shows the film differentiating between its masculine and feminine social representations. At first intoxicated by opportunity, the cyclo rider joins the gang with ambition, meets Mr. Lullabye and collaboratively enacts violence upon others, gaining praise in the process. But violence interpenetrates the fellowship, as the rider suffers the consequences of clemency at the hands of the gang when they forcibly brutalise his throat with petrol. The rider ultimately severs his tendentious link to the group through a degenerative, drug-induced spiral of near-fatal self-harm, and is spared his due by the madam, a further correspondence of woman with nurture, man with violence, and a merciful conclusion to this group’s narrative.

The rider’s close shave with self-harm draws attention to the language of violence and its psychological implications for the individual. If characters communicate through violence, self-wounding becomes tantamount not just to self-loathing (i.e. the sister’s attempt at suicide after the loss of her virginity in Cyclo), but to a form of performance as well. This is best displayed by Kraut’s actions on Puls Asfalta in The Wounds. “Have you ever been wounded?” asks Lidija, shaming the televised Kraut and Pinki. This shame is given live execution by Kraut, who promptly shoots himself in the leg. Rendered absurdly, this scene is instrumental in metaphorically linking screams of protest to violence against the self – the body is political.

Films such as Cyclo and The Wounds are controversial but necessary representations. Amongst other cinematic techniques, they employ metaphor to explore the causes and possibilities for healing in traumatised cultures – as films they allow endless violence to breed in an attempt to end it. An emphasis on deterioration of family and social networks is the preeminent language, with a secondary focus on excessive masculinity. These films with their paradigmatic metaphors also play a practical role in the assimilation of migrants escaping brutalised lives by assisting the privileged to understand them and the wounds they bear.