A few quality hits set Vietnamese cinema on track

By Linh Do    January 7, 2020 | 08:16 pm PT
Though the Vietnamese film industry is still small, it has churned out some high-grossing but also good movies in recent years, which bodes well.  

Of the 44 Vietnamese movies released in 2019, several have been huge hits while also being good films, a combination to die for. These include "Cua Lai Vo Bau" (Win Back My Pregnant Wife), "Hai Phuong" (Furie), "Bac Kim Thang" (Home Sweet Home), and "Mat Biec" (Dreamy Eyes). 

A promotional banner of Cua Lai Vo Bau. Photo courtesy of Galaxy Studio.

A promotional banner of "Cua Lai Vo Bau". Photo courtesy of Galaxy Studio.

‘The king of the box office’ Victor Vu’s latest movie "Dreamy Eyes" has raked in a record VND50 billion ($216,000) within three days. It benefited from an effective marketing campaign and positive reviews, and is expected to profit at the box office.

"Dreamy Eyes", based on popular writer Nguyen Nhat Anh’s novel of the same name, has received mostly positive ratings from 4,000 viewers writing into VnExpress

Nhat Trung’s rom com "Win Back My Pregnant Wife", which shared a Silver Lotus for second best feature film at the 2019 Vietnam Film Festival, has become the highest-grossing Vietnamese movie of all time in the country, raking in over VND190 billion ($8.2 million) over a two-month run. 

Le Van Kiet’s action flick "Furie", another 2019 Silver Lotus winner and which will represent Vietnam at the upcoming Oscars for best foreign feature, is the overall highest-grossing Vietnamese movie of all time, earning VND200 billion ($8.6 million) in Vietnam and the U.S.   

In terms of quality, however, contemporary Vietnamese cinema still has plenty of room for improvement. Of the 20 top-grossing movies since 2013, for instance, just a handful can be considered good by international standards, according to some experts.

For instance, as many as 14 of these movies belong to the comedy genre, which is perhaps the only one that can be reliably predicted to perform well at the Vietnamese box office. 

Yet, when it comes to contemporary Vietnamese comedies, the idea that people cry for similar reasons but laugh for different ones rings very true, said the experts.

A still from Hai Phuong. Photo courtesy of Studio 68.

A still from "Hai Phuong". Photo courtesy of Studio 68.

What seems to make Vietnamese audiences laugh – tropes, usually stereotypical, of gays, transgender people, women in such hits as Charlie Nguyen’s "Teo Em" (Little Teo) and "De Mai Tinh 2" (Let Hoi Decide) -- is offensive humor. 

Vietnamese movies did well at the beginning and end of the year. About a dozen of films released around summer, considered the season of Hollywood blockbusters, suffered losses. 

A literal game of chance 

A study of the success of native films in small countries as they compete against foreign giants such as Hollywood and Mumbai, by Professor Robin MacPherson, a former board member of Creative Scotland, the Scottish government’s body in charge of the arts and creative industries, found that an individual film’s success is completely unpredictable. 

The reason that major studios in Hollywood can turn this "apparent game of chance into a reasonably reliable business model" is because they produce films in great numbers. 

MacPherson thus suggested that small movie industries in places like Singapore, Scotland, Ireland, and Denmark must produce more films to grab a bigger share of domestic box-office hits.

Though Vietnamese cinema has made great strides in the 13 years since the government passed the Cinema Law, it is not prolific. 

According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, in 2007 Vietnam produced 17 feature films, six of them by private studios. In 2018 this number increased to 37, all of them made by the latter. 

In the same decade box office revenues increased from VND302 billion ($13 million) with 18 percent coming from Vietnamese movies, to VND3.25 trillion ($140 million), with 23 percent coming from local films. 

Sim Joon Beom, CEO of South Korean-owned cinema chain CJ CGV, which owns almost two thirds of all theaters in Vietnam, said the 40 or so movies made every year are not enough to meet audiences’ demand.

MacPherson’s insight was shared by Sim, who added quality to the list of requirements for developing the Vietnamese film industry.   

He said the key to attracting audiences is making quality films while building more cinemas. 

At the moment Vietnamese films attract around 60 million viewers per year, or 0.5 ticket/person/year. In South Korea, this figure is 4.3 while in some other developed film industries it ranges from 2 to 2.5. 

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