I'm grateful for movies like The White Silk Dress because they offer insight into a country and culture that I don't otherwise have much contact with. This film, Vietnam's submission for the foreign-language category at the Oscars, wades through some 20 years of the country's turbulent political and social history, as seen through the eyes of a peasant family. The story is epic-length, if not quite epic in scope; it's also sometimes beautiful in its depiction of its sad, noble characters.
We begin in 1954, where two servants with cruel masters fall in love. The woman is Dan (Truong Ngoc Anh); her beloved is Gu (Khanh Quoc Nguyen), a kind, slightly hunchbacked man. With no money to give her a real wedding gift, Gu presents Dan with the white dress he was wrapped in when he was abandoned on someone's doorstep as a baby. They escape to the southern part of the country and start their life together.
We skip ahead into the mid-1960s, with Gu and Dan now the parents of four girls. The family is incredibly poor, and Dan has had to sacrifice the dress to make ends meet. Here Western viewers like myself start to learn the significance of the white silk dress (or áo dai) in Vietnamese culture. Dan's daughters must wear such a dress to attend school, and Dan goes to extraordinary, humiliating lengths to earn the money necessary to obtain one -- just one, which the two school-age daughters must take turns wearing.