If asked to describe a typical Vietnamese movie, it is all too easy to imagine a film full of beautiful scenery, poorly-shot war scenes and lots of crying. A film that’s big on morals and bigger on beards. A film where, really, not very much happens for long stretches of time.
For years the Vietnamese film industry has struggled to achieve success; the number of films released each year was small, profits were uninspiring and critical acclaim was muted. Audiences, it seemed, just weren’t that interested. Meanwhile, American and Korean blockbusters grew in popularity. But after a year where profits are swelling and more locally produced films than ever before are reaching cinemas, things may finally be starting to change.
But first, a little history.
Despite being officially launched in the early 1950s, the Vietnamese film industry had to wait until the end of the war in 1975 to make much of an impression. At this time, a series of films conveying authorities-approved messages began being released to the masses. Most efforts were glorious accounts of victories in the war, or historical biopics about scholars and mandarins made to reflect traditional values of loyalty, determination and the pursuit of knowledge.
However, while these films — with titles such as Nostalgia for the Countryside, and A Former Student from Gia Dinh — may have been worthy, they struggled to find a wide audience. By the time the first bootlegged videos of Hollywood movies began to reach Vietnamese shores, these old films became increasingly dated. Now, explosions and car chases rather than farming and studying were what audiences expected from a visit to the cinema.
In the 1990s the country began its much vaunted ‘opening up period’ as it started to embrace the free market. For the first time Vietnamese movies began to receive funding from private investors. 20 years on and much has changed. While today filmmakers seemingly have more independence and a better environment to work in, they remain divided on the challenges they still contend with and the likelihood of experiencing real success.
Hanoian director Bui Thac Chuyen, who has helmed the well-received films Awake and Living in Fear, is realistic about the problems he faces.
“Because it is still a young film industry, there is a lot of catch-up to do,” he says. “Vietnamese directors don’t have access to the best equipment, there are few studios to shoot in and they cannot produce good enough special effects. Most of the actors are untrained and low paid and funding is hard to find, so budgets are low. The biggest investment in Vietnam is about VND17 billion, but it is normally closer to VND6 billion.”
Chuyen says that filmmakers are also being held back by restrictions on what they can and can’t include in their films, despite the approval body becoming more lenient in recent years. Currently cinematic regulations are quite open to interpretation, with a decree forbidding the use in film of any ‘image, sound, dialogue or script which is obscene, depraved, incestuous or contrary to national fine customs and traditions’.
Locally Made and Produced
Despite these challenges, more domestic films are being made. The Cinema Department wants them to account for at least 30 percent of the films screened at multiplexes. This means on your next trip to Megastar, you’re likely to see Vietnamese movies advertised alongside posters for the latest idiotic Gerard Butler rom-com or the latest idiotic Gerard Butler action thriller.
“I think the industry is in a critical stage of development right now,” says Victor Vu, the critically acclaimed Vietnamese American director of Inferno and Scandal, a thriller which proved a hit with audiences last year.
He adds: “More local films are being produced, more multiplex theatres are being built, and more people are going to the movies than ever before. In fact there just aren’t enough screens to fully accommodate the increasing number of films released — both local and from Hollywood. This means films may have a small window of exhibition, even if they are still doing well at the box office. They have to make room for other films waiting in line, which means some fall short of their full box office potential. And for local films, it’s this potential that ultimately determines how much money producers are willing to spend on the film. The rising popularity is a positive sign, though.”
So doom and gloom or reason to be cheerful?
The Director of Vietnam’s Cinema Department, Ngo Phuong Lan, is cautiously optimistic.
“I have worked in the industry for 20 years and it has changed a lot,” she says. “When I started, the renovation process had begun. This was a positive step. Films today are better-made and there is a wider variety than before. However, now directors rely on private funding for their films. They do not have as much support from the government as before and sometimes they struggle.”
Money Don’t Buy Art
This battle for investment remains a source of worry for filmmakers, who instead of carefully controlled central supervision now have to deal with profit-obsessed moneymen wanting their say in creative decisions.
Chuyen acknowledges that this can be frustrating. “When I have an idea, I have to raise funds from domestic sources and the international filming fund. But they want you to make compromises. For example, most films have to have a bankable Vietnamese star, like a model, even if they can’t act!”
While this approach to casting may not guarantee artistic success, it can certainly lead to gold at the box office. This year, Nguyen Quang Dung’s blockbuster My Nhan Ke (Lady Assassins) earned a staggering VND60 billion in February alone. Heavily promoted across the country, it stars several models and provides fans with 90 minutes of swords, sex, blood, swords, martial arts, swords, fighting and blood — all in 3D, a first for Vietnam.
“The acting was pretty bad, but it doesn’t matter,” says film fan Hoang Nguyen. “That’s not the main point of the film. The locations and cast are beautiful, the action is exciting and there is some comedy. Sometimes that is what people want to see — they don’t have to think too much, they just want to enjoy themselves. People were happy to see a Vietnamese film that wasn’t made to teach them anything. It’s just fun!”
Vu agrees about this trend among cinemagoers: “One thing is for sure, Vietnamese audiences are very supportive of [locally made] films. That’s important. In the last few years, some of the highest grossing films have been locally produced. They have been able to achieve box office success, even outside the Tet season which is traditionally when Vietnamese movies do well.”
Lan sees this success as a positive sign for the industry as a whole. “When a film performs that strongly it means that the profits can be channelled back into things like equipment, making the next film even better and generating more profits again.”
She adds: “That means we can produce more of our own blockbusters. We can learn from the American style of filming — high production values, exciting set pieces — but we have to make sure that the story is suitable to our audiences. If we learn only to imitate Hollywood then we lose our identity, and a major part of the audience will reject those films. We should not rely on stereotypes.”
“Vietnamese audiences still demand films that reflect their own stories and lives,” agrees Vu. “But because now they are exposed to different genres and films from all over the world, their expectations and tastes are changing. There was a time when most locally-produced films were comedies. Now all genres are being explored — from action, to horror, to thrillers.”
A new generation of aspiring directors more familiar with these types of film is now emerging. While according to Lan their best option is still to study abroad, there is a mounting number of training opportunities in Vietnam. The annual Hanoi International Film Festival welcomes entries from domestic filmmakers and organises workshops and screenings for them, while the Cinema Department is preparing to launch two long-term projects that will bring international directors to the country to lead teaching sessions. “We are doing all we can to support [them], but the industry must climb the ladder by itself. It has to find a way to connect with audiences.”
And this is the one thing that members of the domestic film industry all seem to agree on. While money, equipment and bankable actors are essential, nothing is more important than coming up with a plot that engages. If directors can combine high production values with a good story, then the industry can continue to thrive.
“At the end of the day, I think the Vietnamese audience is no different from any other audience in any other part of the world,” says Vu. “They’re looking for a good story, told well. That, I think, is the key.”