Caprice, opaqueness mark Vietnam movie censorship

By An Nguyen   November 1, 2019 | 01:27 am PT
Caprice, opaqueness mark Vietnam movie censorship
A still from "Rom".
Vietnamese producers often struggle to release their movies due to the arbitrary and capricious nature of the National Film Evaluation Council.

Recently murder flick "That Son Tam Linh" (Kumanthong) was released after months of delay to finish the cuts demanded by the censors.

It revolves around a sudden upheaval in a countryside area where a doctor from outside gains the trust and affection of locals before women start to mysteriously disappear. The council deemed it violent and superstitious and also ordered the deletion of references to ghosts.

But after the changes were made, the movie became incoherent. Yet, especially considering it finally got an 18+ rating, it is not as violent as some Hollywood movies released recently such as "Annabelle Comes Home" and "It: Chapter Two", which were allowed to be screened in Vietnam.

Nguyen Cao Tung, the producer of "Kumathong", said: "There are scenes which might be allowed in foreign movies but cut in Vietnamese movies. We just want to be treated fairly."

Six years ago, "Bui Doi Cho Lon" (China Town) was banned apparently because it was violent, might incite violence and wrongly reflected HCMC society. But people who saw it online said "China Town" was not as violent as many foreign movies screened in Vietnam.

These opaque censorship standards have made it difficult for filmmakers to understand them and comply.

According to director Nguyen Quang Dung, many movies have been warned for violating public decency. "But they seemed to be personal feelings and points of view. After years of making movies, I am still in the dark."

Phan Dang Di, director of "Bi, Dung So" (Bi, Don’t Be Afraid) said comments from the National Film Evaluation Council are never clear or consistent, and it does not say explicitly which parts of a movie it finds offensive.

"We have to second-guess [the council’s] opinions, which affects our creativity. In some cases, movies have been warned for something we never expected and despite there being no precedents for them or written regulations."

"Rom", a film directed by Tran Dung Thanh Huy, recently won the New Currents Award at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea, but has been refused certification for being too dark, having a sad ending and failing to reflect the Vietnamese people, their culture and its beauty.

But the council has not given detailed explanations.

The same thing happened to "Kumathong". The censors never explained why it had to make all those though the script had been approved before filmmaking began.

Huge workload

The movie evaluation process is completely dependent on the whims of a small group of officials, and there is never any discussion during the certification of a film with its producer or director.

A still in China Town. Photo by Chanh Phuong.

A still in "China Town".

All the movies released in Vietnam -- around 200 foreign and 40 Vietnamese annually -- are assessed by this 11-member council, which makes for a huge workload.

Thus, "Abominable", an animated movie made by DreamWorks and a Chinese studio was screened without authorities being aware it shows a map with the nine-dash line representing China’s fraudulent East Sea claim in flagrant violation of Vietnamese sovereignty over it waters.

The line is a demarcation that claims 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer East Sea, known internationally as South China Sea, which has been met with strong opposition from the international community. It overlaps with claims by Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines, apart from violating Vietnam’s sovereignty.

It was screened for 10 days before being pulled out.

Trinh Thanh Nha, a screenwriter with five years’ experience who sits in the council, said sometimes members have to watch two films in a day. "The censors have to watch and listen to every detail because any carelessness could cause them to miss something vital."

The ministry has said it will strengthen the council and set up launch a new support organization for it.

Film distributor Nguyen Phong Viet suggested setting up a certification council in the south since studios, most of which are in HCMC, have to go to Hanoi whenever they want to get a movie censored.

Di said that the council should share some of its responsibilities with movie distributors. "Gathering all movies in one place to review them is not suitable anymore. I think the Cinema Department can send their guidelines to distributors so that they can evaluate movies themselves. They are the first to watch a movie."

Besides, the council should hold open discussions to give producers a chance to explain their point of view.

Luong Dinh Dung, director of "Cha Cong Con" (Father And Son), concurred with the idea of holding discussions between film producers and the evaluation council to get clarity on censorship procedures.

This in fact is what many people in the movie industry are waiting for.

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