112_box_348x490In one of the visual gags in Playtime, Tati puts the viewer in a voyeuristic role, framing the scene from the outside of an apartment building.  Inside, two families face each other, ostensibly watching a boxing match on the in-set televisions mounted on their respective side of the shared wall.  But from the outside, the families seemingly react as if they are observing each other.  For instance, as the father on one side begins to disrobe, the father on the other side shoos his daughter away, as if he does not want her to look upon the other man’s nakedness.

I visited Bác Thu Dang’s apartment once, with my parents.  We were on our way someplace else, I think, because I can’t think of any reason why I should have been there.  I was eight or nine at the time.  His apartment was a one-bedroom, and the whole place was cluttered, as if there was no way a whole life could have fit into that space.  We sat around a kitchen table, and, on the chair next to me, was a stack of newspapers that was almost as tall as I was,  The appliances were lumbering, 70s avocado-green beasts, covered in a thin, opaque film of grease.  My parents and Bác Thu Dang spoke in animated tones, but I couldn’t understand what they said.  Bored to distraction, I began looking through the stack:  newspapers in English, newspapers in Vietnamese, unopened mail.

But then, near the bottom, there it was.  A porno mag.  It wasn’t the first I’d ever seen, of course; I knew the location of every dirty magazine at home.  I had also become quite adept at sniffing them out at the houses of other relatives too:  underneath mattresses, at the back of closets, in child-accessible storage spaces.  It was as if, by discovering where others had hidden their sexual secrets, I could learn how to hide my own better.

But this magazine was different.  Up to then, everything I’d seen, despite promises of SHOCKING and UNCENSORED, was pretty much softcore.  What the couple (white man, Asian woman) did in this magazine, the others had only suggested.  I was enthralled, even as I tried to appear nonchalant.  The thrill of the forbidden, of discovery—but when I reached its end, I was confused.  All that white foamy stuff?  That’s a lot of spit, I thought, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized that I had seen my first cumshot.

I thought differently about Bác Thu Dang after that. Afterwards, whenever I encountered him, I thought I could detect, underneath his unflagging joviality, sadness, loneliness. As he moved, I thought I could see him carrying squalor and poverty and pornography around like a phantom limb. I didn’t suspect that these would one day be as much a part of my life as they were of his. The voyeur never considers his own position.  He presses his nose up against the glass of another person’s life. He pretends to know what’s going on inside. He pretends that what he sees is a joke. He never considers that he is also being watched.

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