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​For Vietnamese filmmakers, scripting a remake is easier said than written

By Long Nguyen   November 19, 2020 | 08:03 pm PT
Remakes of foreign films have become a pronounced trend in Vietnam, but this is a process fraught with risk.

On November 11, "Tiec Trang Mau" (Blood Moon Party) became the first Vietnamese movie to top the box office for four weeks in a row, earning VND155 billion ($6.7 million).

Critics say that apart from an excellent performance by the cast, a main factor in the film’s success is that it was a remake of Italian blockbuster "Perfetti Sconosciuti" (Perfect Strangers), which has been listed in the "Guinness World Records" as the most remade movie in the history of cinema.

In fact, "Blood Moon Party" is a remake of a remake. The film mostly draws from the highly successful South Korean film "Intimate Stranger" (2018) that is based on the Italian original’s plot.

Copycat movies and TV serials have become par for the course in Vietnam. One of the most successful remakes in the country has been "Em La Ba Noi Cua Anh" (official English name: Sweet 20), a remake of the South Korean film "Miss Granny" that broke Vietnam’s box office record for the highest-grossing local film in 2015.

The trend is so entrenched that in the last five years, there have been 14 Vietnamese movies remade from Thai, South Korean, Italian and Filipino originals. These include "Sac Dep Ngan Can" (200 Pound Beauty), "Ong Ngoai Tuoi 30" (Scandal Makers) and "Anh Trai Yeu Quai" (My Annoying Brother). Then there are dozens of TV series, including a remake of the renowned American musical drama "Glee."

However, despite the preponderance, the remake of previously successful content is not a guarantee for success. The risk of moviegoers being disappointed and/or angry with old stories and inadequate localization makes remakes a double-edged sword.

A still cut from Tiec Trang Mau.

A still cut from "Blood Moon Party." Photo courtesy of "Blood Moon Party."

While "Sweet 20" and the remakes by Nguyen Quang Dung - "Thang Nam Ruc Ro" (Go-go Sisters) and "Blood Moon Party" were huge hits, other remakes like "Scandal Makers" and "My Annoying Brother" failed to fire, with box office earnings of around VND40 ($1.7) billion each.

"200 Pound Beauty" and "Yeu Em Bat Chap" (My Sassy Girl) also failed to click, earning considerably less than many other original Vietnamese counterparts. In 2017, "200 Pound Beauty" made VND26 billion ($1.1 million) at the box office.

What does not work

The failure to modify successful foreign movie scripts and make the Vietnamese version sync with local culture and tastes can result in a film bombing at the box office.

In "200 Pound Beauty," Vietnamese audiences could not relate to many scenes and the lifestyles it depicted.

"Watching the movie and I did not feel that it was Saigon. The streets, clothes and food looked like they were in Seoul," one filmgoer commented.

On the small screen, "Glee Vietnam" also earned viewers’ disapproval in 2017, with many complaining that the dialogues sounded like they were translated directly from English without any effort at making them Vietnamese. American-style sex talk and lifestyle of high school students shown in the series also did not jell with the Vietnamese audience.

Recycling scripts written many years earlier can also fail to establish connection with a new generation of viewers.

This happened with "200 Pound Beauty," which has an overweight singer undergoing plastic surgery to become more beautiful and famous. Such plastic surgeries by celebrities had attracted controversy and publicity in 2006, when the original version hit South Korean cinemas. But in 2017, plastic surgery was neither a novelty nor controversial.

Other factors in remakes failing to make it include bad acting and visual effects; and it can also happen that the success of the original version is so huge that it cannot be matched. The "Hau Due Mat Troi" (Descendants Of The Sun) TV series, remade from a South Korean original, is an example.

"Nothing is certain when we choose to remake a foreign movie," said director Nguyen Quang Dung who has several successful remakes to his credit including "Blood Moon Party."

A still cut from Sac Dep Ngan Can, which failed to attract Vietnamese audiences in 2017 due to its outdated story.

A still from "200 Pound Beauty," which failed to attract Vietnamese audiences in 2017 because the story was outdated. Photo courtesy of "200 Pound Beauty."

Hobson’s choice

Several industry insiders say that making a remake is a Hobson’s choice of sorts, because it happens in the context of a lack of good domestic scripts.

"Remaking is not what we encourage, but we still have these productions every year because the Vietnamese cinema industry is in a crisis of lacking good scripts, while public demand is getting more diverse," Ngo Phuong Lan, former head of the Cinema Department under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, told local media. "Remaking becomes a safer choice."

With only two schools teaching professional screenwriting, the University of Theater and Performing Arts in Hanoi and HCMC, the number of screenwriters has been falling every year.

People attending these courses are getting younger and their relative lack of life experiences and interactions directly affect their creativity, said screenwriter Dang Thu Ha, lecturer at the University of Theater and Performing Arts in Hanoi.

In this situation, without paying for a team to start from scratch, filmmakers opt for remakes, which are known entities, since they already have built-in audiences and reputation that can capture public attention right away.

"Remaking movies is attractive because their stories are already known globally," said director Dung.

His "Blood Moon Party" sticks close to the South Korean film’s script, making only minor modifications, because the story of people having secrets in their cell phones is a contemporary topic most people can relate to.

However, many experts say the trend to "recycle" international scripts must stop if the Vietnamese movie industry is to make real progress. Original scripts from local screenwriters should drive the industry’s development, they add.

Dung was candid: "Remaking is only a response compensating for a rapidly growing market that cannot be satisfied by local (cinema) training and human resources."

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