In Vietnamese, chết directly refers to “death”. A more euphemistic word is đi, which literally means “gone”. Kim Quy Bui’s MIỀN KÝ ỨC (Memoryland) poetically addresses the semantic contours of this term in the context of sociological, spiritual, and even memorial upheavals in contemporary Vietnam.
Three Doctrines’ tradition
This fiction plays often like a documentary, depicting the step-by-step processes of funerals—from the altar and coffin preparation to the collection of prayers, as well as mourning rituals conveyed to save souls in their journey to the afterlife. The Vietnamese religious heritage we see in the film is to a large extent inspired by the synthetic set of the Tam Giáo (“Three Doctrines”), itself drawn from Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. These teachings and their set of rituals must be considered, in the Sino-Vietnamese context, not as disjointed traditions but as one and the same practice, resulting from several fluid interconnections that have evolved together over centuries.
This fiction plays often like a documentary, depicting the step-by-step processes of funerals—from the altar and coffin preparation to the collection of prayers, as well as mourning rituals conveyed to save souls in their journey to the afterlife.
The Vietnamese deathscape shown in MIỀN KÝ ỨC is aligned most immediately with the theological, symbolic, material, and ritual background prescribed by these religious teachings. According to the text, and as conceived by Vietnamese people, death “inhabits” a set of imaginaries, emotions, and practices in the passage from life to death, as well as in the act of remembrance.
In popular Vietnamese religious representation, it is said that humans have three rational souls (hồn) and a certain number of sensitive souls (phách or vía)—seven for men and nine for women to be exact. The phách enter the body at conception but do not survive death, while the hồn enter the body at birth and experiences the journey to the afterlife.
Buddhist reincarnation and funeral rites
According to Buddhism, all living beings migrate from one state to another. This is known as the doctrine of transmigration, with the passage informed by actions or karma that have been committed during that creature’s successive existences. In this manner, every action carries a fruit, in the form of reward or punishment, that can only mature to some extent in the next life. Rites and prayers performed during funerals thus place specific importance on the process of transformation, with its implication of karmic causality and eventually a reincarnation for the dead who have not yet reached enlightenment and Nirvana.
The ritual process can be sophisticated, supported by a fixed (and expensive) compendium of texts, chants, music, and costumes.
The ritual process can be sophisticated, supported by a fixed (and expensive) compendium of texts, chants, music, and costumes. In return for a fee, a “Master of offerings’ (thầy cúng), with the help of assistants, ensures that these rules are correctly observed. The most minimalist version of this ritual, which occurs several times in the film, consists of an official text read out mechanically and coldly, with Buddhist painting and vocabulary in the background of the ritual.
In the case funerals are not performed in respect of the canonical ritual rules, the spirit of the dead or “ghosts” (ma) are said to haunt the neighbourhood and life of descendants, at times remaining a while and persisting in certain habits of life. Such beliefs have given birth to a plethora of so-called “ghost stories”. Traditional Buddhist funeral rites flourished in Vietnamese culture with highly codified but esoteric observances that bring together geomantic knowledge, talismans, and protective amulets against “evil spirits” who can “oppose free passage” in the Hereafter. Many amulets are thus placed in the coffin and in the clothes of the dead, as we see in MIỀN KÝ ỨC.
According to canonical Confucian texts, like the "Classic of Filial Piety", relatives should display visible grief while mourning parents or spouses. The specific period prescribed for mourners still persists in Vietnam today, although it has been simplified. When a death is officially declared, the preparation of the coffin requires specific attention, in as much as the relatives set up an altar to display the sacrificial offerings around the memorial tablet and, eventually, an image of the deceased’s face. The memorial tablet itself symbolizes the dead person by way of a vertically-laid paper that details relevant civil and religious information, including their age, birthday, birthplace and civil name, as well as their time and place of death. This offering table for the dead will be later placed on the mourning altar, typically a designated location in a home or a temple, permitting the relatives to comply with their responsibility of filial piety.
Once the body is buried or cremated, the extended mourning ritual can begin, with the process marked by the observance of periodic stages and rituals. According to their relationship with the dead the relatives wear different mourning garments, with such codes determined by Buddhist and Confucian rules. The usage of the colour white is reserved for funeral clothes as a sign of loss and mourning, for instance.
Meat offerings and the use of votive papers are religious habits still deeply ingrained in Vietnamese Buddhism and other popular religious practices. The alter dedicated to this popular form of worship can be seen in the MIỀN KÝ ỨC sequence in which the son and his wife search advices to a fortuneteller. Votive papers assure the deceased a comfortable material condition in the hereafter by addressing them with a paper of wealth, which the offering by fire is supposed to transform into a reality in the Other world. This is something that can be tragically seen in the film’s sequence in which the old artist is walking at the middle of the offerings transferred in the afterlife.
A Journey in the yin world
Formally, the structure of the film is divided into three parts—đưa tiễn (to send off, to accompany, with also the meaning of funerals), âm gian (the unseen nether world, the yin), and dương gian (our visible world, the yang)—which explicitly sets the narrative within a Taoist interpretative framework. Indeed, following a Taoist cosmology, the âm (or yin) principle of the dead is characterized by the hidden, the invisible, the ether, the female; the complementary dương (or yang) principle is characterized by living beings, the, visible, the material, the male. Significantly, most of the film is dedicated to the âm gian, the unseen, and the mourning period conducted by a young widow. The film’s structure is borrowed from this duality, which informs Vietnamese funerals and the various rites of passage from life to death, from yang to yin realms (and vice-versa).
Significantly, most of the film is dedicated to the âm gian, the unseen, and the mourning period conducted by a young widow.
Burial or cremation?
The decision to choose a cemetery versus a crematorium for the dead body largely depends on the population density in the affected area, as well as on the financial situation of the family. This is one sociological issue that MIỀN KÝ ỨC addresses with equal parts delicacy and dread. Indeed, the focus of the narrative is neither on Vietnam’s period of war nor colonisation, but rather informed by the phenomenon of rural exodus that the country has been experiencing since the economic reform of the mid-1980s. In the film the young generations have migrated from the countryside to the cities, from maisonettes to flats, from the traditions that would honour the memory of their ancestors to others that risk abandoning them to oblivion.
Jérémy Jammes is Professor of Anthropology and Southeast Asian Studies at Sciences Po Lyon, and research fellow at the Lyon Institute of East Asian Studies (IAO).