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Playback: Mike Rubbo's 'Sad Song of Yellow Skin'

By Tina DiFeliciantonio

From Mike Rubbo's 'Sad Song of Yellow Skin'

I was an undergraduate when I saw Mike Rubbo's Sad Song of Yellow Skin and decided to become a documentary filmmaker. I felt as if a truck had blindsided me. After class, I could hardly catch my breath.

Twenty years later, I watched Sad Song of Yellow Skin for the second time. I didn't know if I was going to be disappointed because I didn't specifically recall what had moved me about the film. And that is exactly what captivates me now as a filmmaker: How can we take viewers on a nuanced journey of discovery and move audiences through texture and subtlety?

While I remembered Rubbo's film as a personal documentary, oddly enough, I did not recall so much narration. Conceptually, the idea of a middle-class white man commenting on a war-torn foreign land is a turn-off; the reality of its execution is a different matter. The quality of Rubbo's voice, combined with his exquisite writing, generates an intimacy between filmmaker, subject and viewer that is specific to the poetic "voice" of this film. As Rubbo verbally guides us through the sad chaos of Vietnam, it becomes clear that the visuals are the dominant storytelling element. Shot in 16mm film, the colors and textures have a vibrancy that celebrates the beauty of Vietnam, while mourning what it has become.

There is something about Sad Song of Yellow Skin that touches the soul and allows the viewer to feel the struggle of a people trying to survive the dehumanizing degradation of war. Exploring the consequences of America's participation in the Vietnam War, Rubbo visits with the people who live on the fringe of battle in Saigon, a place swollen with refugees and orphans. Rubbo weaves together a rich tapestry of characters: the shoeshine kids-young orphaned boys who do what it takes to survive; the seven "bar" girls who don't consider themselves Vietnamese, since they "belong" to foreigners; an opium-addicted mother who dies leaving two young children behind; and the "Coconut Monk," a Ghandi-like figure living on an island in the Mekong delta, who employs rituals to bring peace to his divided country. 

Rubbo cuts in shots of American GIs looking for a "good time" on the streets of Saigon and television images of President Nixon. While potentially didactic and heavy-handed, the film somehow works in Rubbo's sure hands. Toward the end of the film a writer from Dispatch, the underground news agency that broke the story of the My Lai Massacre, admits to merely being able to skim the surface of Vietnam. Rubbo uses this, ever so subtly, as an opportunity to confess the limitations of his own film. It is Rubbo's honesty and self-awareness as a filmmaker that makes Sad Song of Yellow Skin such a moving commemoration of the people of Vietnam.

Sad Song of Yellow Skin won Britain's prestigious Flaherty Award. Popular with the anti-war movement during the 1970s, the film was projected onto the outer wall of the 1972 Republican Convention in Miami as Nixon was being chosen to lead the Republicans to the presidency.


Tina DiFeliciantonio graduated from Stanford University (Rubbo's alma mater) with the Emmy Award-winning Living With AIDS (1986), her master's thesis film. She went on to direct and produce a number of character-driven social issue docs with her partner Jane C. Wagner, including the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning film Girls Like Us, which also won a National Emmy. Having just completed a documentary special for the Sci Fi Channel, she is in production with a film for the Sundance Channel and in development on a new project for HBO.