Indie film spirit clashes with laws in eventful year

By Linh Do   December 17, 2019 | 08:31 pm PT
2019 saw some independent Vietnamese films winning international plaudits but running afoul of censors, sparking debates on how to reconcile art and politics.   

For fans of Vietnamese movies, 2019 has been a good year. A bunch of independent filmmakers won recognition at international film festivals, reaping the fruits of seeds sown in the local film industry 10 years ago or more. 

A still from the movie Blessed Land. Photo courtesy of Pham Ngoc Lan.

A still from the movie "Blessed Land". Photo courtesy of Pham Ngoc Lan.

Some notable honors were the New Currents Award, an equivalent of best feature film award, at the Busan International Film Festival for Tran Dung Thanh Huy’s "Rom"; the Youth Jury Prize for best short film at the Singapore International Film Festival for Duong Dieu Linh’s "Ngot, Man" (Sweet, Salty); top prizes at the Montreal New Cinema Festival and Vienna Shorts Festival for Pham Ngoc Lan’s "Mot Khu Dat Tot" (Blessed Land); Director’s Fortnight section award at Cannes for Pham Thien An’s short "Hay Thuc Tinh Va San Sang" (Stay Awake, Be Ready); and numerous foreign prizes for Nguyen Phuong Anh’s controversial movie "Người Vo Ba" (The Third Wife)

"The Third Wife" was pulled out of Vietnamese cinemas in May due to its use of a 13-year-old actress in sex scenes.    

In recent years, these independent films and others produced with financial support from cultural institutions and funds as well as private studios have added valuable diversity and depth to a still developing film market that churns out around 40 movies a year. 

Mostly made in popular genres like comedy, romance, action, and horror, they garner box-office revenues but have little artistic value.

Alternative film projects have been nurtured by a variety of film activities such as short film competitions like the 48 Hour Film Project, the now-defunct Yxine Film Fest, HTV Short Film Awards, and CJ Short Film Making Project.             

Though, like elsewhere in the world, indie films don’t often attract many viewers or generate profits, there is agreement that they are essential to Vietnamese cinema. 

However, when it comes to the idiosyncrasies of indie films, a thorny issue has raised its head time and again: censorship. 

This year "Rom" and "The Third Wife" in particular have ignited fierce debates about whether a younger generation of filmmakers is being hamstrung by conservative Vietnamese censors with unreasonable restrictions.

Are censors too hard? 

"Rom", a full-length movie made from Tran Dung Thanh Huy’s earlier critically acclaimed short film titled "16:30", is about homeless boys who sell lottery tickets to earn a living on Saigon streets. 

Starring the director’s own younger brother Tran Minh Khoa, "Rom" was praised by the Busan judges for its  "use of real, live locations" and "very satisfying" ending. 

"Rom" was screened at the Busan festival despite its producer HK Film’s earlier request to withdraw it because it was yet to be approved and certified for public screening. 

After "Rom" jointly won for best film in Busan with a Iraq-Qatar entry, Vietnamese culture authorities imposed a VND40 million ($1,724) fine on HK Film and demanded that it should destroy the copy of the movie submitted to Busan.  

A still from the movie Rom. Photo courtesy of Tran Dung Thanh Huy.

A still from the movie "Rom". Photo courtesy of Tran Dung Thanh Huy.

While ostensibly invoking rules, the real cause of the Vietnam Cinema Department’s coldness toward "Rom" is its dark, pessimistic portrayal of social ills that reflects badly on Vietnam. 

According to director People’s Artist Pham Nhue Giang, Vietnamese censors tend to treat with too much caution movies that they fear may reflect negatively on the country. Giang recalls being forced to cut a scene in her 2013 movie "Lac Loi" (Aimless) in which a farmer kisses his wife’s underwear out of a longing for her after she leaves him. 

She says that as an artist she considered this scene "original" because it reflects a farmer’s earthy way of expressing love, but the censors found it vulgar and contrary to Vietnamese "customs and habits."  

The censors, who are often their 70s, take it upon themselves to be the "gatekeepers," she says. "But one work of art cannot represent a whole country. It just reflects a particular viewpoint on a particular issue." 

Her take on "Rom" is that the movie does reflect the dark reality of underclass people who work in street markets, play lotteries, incur debts, and suffer at the hands of loan sharks. 

In Vietnam, Tran Dung Thanh Huy’s short film "16:30" won the best short film award at the Vietnam Cinema Association’s 2012 Golden Kite Awards for its rich realism in which the director shoots in a documentary style without much interference with the settings or acting.

Giang says this realistic style is common among renowned filmmakers such as Belgium’s Dardenne and Dardenne brothers, who often portray people living in the bottom rungs of society. 

The guidelines should spell out clearly what is permissible and what is not, what is pornography, what is disloyalty to one’s country, and so on, she says. The current blanket criticisms such as "undermining customs and habits" are too vague. 

For instance, the laws can specify how much a movie can show sexual organs, what can be shown and for how long, and discipline violators, Giang points out. 

The Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry wants the government to withdraw from directly censoring movies altogether and license others to do the job. 

A good model is the publishing industry in which as many as 60 publishers are allowed to self-censor their contents and thus are able to publish a huge number of books every year, including 32,000 last year. 

With the current 11-member censorship board and even with the establishment of additional provincial boards, it estimates they can only handle 2,160 films a year at most, which limits the potential for the growth of the movie industry and public access to foreign films. 

Vietnam seems to be quite far from reaching such a capacity though. Last year, the censors only had to work with a total number of 271 Vietnamese and foreign films. 

Another common suggestion by Vietnamese filmmakers is that once a movie is rated, it should not be cut because this means double censorship. 

Giang says cutting portions or scenes affects the artistic integrity of a work but is in the end ineffective because full versions can still be distributed illegally on the Internet. 

"Cinema is like life, which has many angles for one to look at. We can’t sit and use one average standard to measure everything." 

In "16:30", which is available on YouTube, Huy’s portrait of Vietnam does not look too dark. The short film provides an ultimately hopeful vision in which, after initially being rivals, the boys learn to support each other during hardship. 

The same cannot be said about "The Third Wife", a movie about child marriage and concubinage in 19th century Vietnam with a pessimistic ending and plenty of female sexual objectification.  

A still from the movie The Third Wife. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Phuong Anh.

A still from the movie "The Third Wife". Photo courtesy of Nguyen Phuong Anh.

In this case though, it was not the censors but viewers as well as some media outlets who reacted angrily because the movie seemed to use a child in sex scenes. 

Though Anh used the teenaged actress Nguyen Phuong Tra My in such scenes with the latter’s mother’s consent and supervision, many viewers were livid a double was not used and My had minimal cover-ups.  

Authorities did not say if "The Third Wife" flouted any laws but the culture ministry did say that it went against Vietnamese morals, customs and habits. 

Citing another procedural violation, the film’s producer Rainbow Colour Media Company used an unauthorized version for public screening, the ministry fined it VND50 million ($2,155). Under public pressure, the producer also withdrew the movie from theaters. 

Among other titles, "The Third Wife" won the NETPAC Award at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, TVE-Another Look award at the 2018 San Sebastian Film Festival and Best Film at the 2018 Kolkata International Film Festival.

The glamor and travails of Vietnamese indie films in the past year thus point to the need to not become carried away by international badges on the one hand and to test a film’s artistic merit against an unavoidable sense of propriety on the other hand. 

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