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Vietnam filmmakers sense openings, but global presence a distant dream

By Ngoc Dinh   May 7, 2019 | 07:57 pm PT
Vietnamese films have tasted initial success abroad this year, but a stable foreign audience is long way away.
A scene in Furie, a Vietnamese action film which raked in $600,000 over the first two weeks in the U.S. Photo acquired by VnExpress

An action scene in Furie, a rare Vietnamese success abroad. The film raked in $600,000 in over two weeks after its commercial release in the U.S. Photo acquired by VnExpress

In March this year, Vietnamese action movie Furie (Hai Phuong in Vietnamese) was released in the U.S. and achieved the rare distinction of earning $600,000 in over the first tw Vietnamese action flick Furie 27th in US box office o weeks, according to Box Office Mojo.

The relative success of a Vietnamese commercial movie is being seen as an opening, according to industry insiders.

Following Furie, director Ly Hai’s horror film Face Off: The Walking Guests will be released in the U.S. on May 10 and in Australia five days later.

These moves indicate the potential for Vietnamese films to do well abroad; that they can be shown in foreign cinemas and earn profits.

Film director Nguyen Huu Phan said the recent developments show attempts being made by young filmmakers to exploit new potentials.

Action movies and horror movies have the best potential to be exported and compete in foreign cinemas, said Hang Trinh, film producer at Skyline Media Co., Ltd.

Director Ly Hai agreed, saying these two film genres have their "own enticing elements." He said "besides the appealing, entertaining content, one characteristic that can touch foreign audiences is sophisticated scenes featuring exotic Vietnamese images."

"I have tried to find out materials and to highlight Vietnamese cultural elements, like the festival of flower lanterns and fairs in highland areas, in the most lively and emotional way possible," Hai added. 

Filmmakers also said showing Vietnamese films in foreign markets was an opportunity to showcase Vietnamese culture to a worldwide audience.

"... film is the most effective channel to promote Vietnamese culture and people," Phan told local media.

Film producer and actress Ngo Thanh Van, who played the lead role in Furie, said that Vietnamese traditional culture, cuisine and people are great elements to be introduced to the world through films.

She said Vietnamese traditions can actually be a selling point for Vietnamese films, making them unique and competitive in demanding markets.

Explaining the commercial success of Furie, whose revenue ranked 25th in U.S. box office two weeks after its release, Van said the depiction of Vietnamese images was factor. "Hai Phuong (Furie) illustrated exotic Vietnamese elements in the characters’ appearance and settings," Van said.

Ly Hai also said "exotic Vietnamese elements" should be used by films to attract audience, the director told local media.

Difficult task

While new movies are enjoying initial success abroad, few of their predecessors have made a mark.

In 2007, Dong Mau Anh Hung (The Rebel) was bought by The Weinstein Company to distribute its DVD version in North America and five English speaking territories.

Other films that have been released outside Vietnam include Bay Rong (Clash), Toi Thay Hoa Vang Tren Co Xanh (Yellow Flower On The Grass) and Lua Phat (Once Upon A Time In Vietnam). Most of these did not attract a large audience and failed to earn a profit.

A scene in Yellow Flowers On Green Grass, which was screened in several international film festivals without commercial success abroad. Photo acquired by VnExpress

A scene from Yellow Flowers on Green Grass, which was screened at several international film festivals but did not achieve much commercial success abroad. Photo acquired by VnExpress

Even after they win acclaim in international film festivals, they don’t make much headway later.

Yellow Flowers on Green Grass, for instance, was screened at the Fukuoka International Film Festival and London International Film Festival in 2016 and won 2016 Best Feature Film category of the Young People's Jury Award - part of the annual TIFF Kids International Film Festival in Toronto. But it did not get much commercial success abroad later.

Cha Va Con (Mekong Stories) directed by Phan Dang Di, was screened in over 50 international film festivals including the Berlin International Film Festival and Festival of the 3 Continents, Nantes. The film was commercially distributed in France by Memento Films, a big French art-house film distributor, in 2016. The film stayed in the cinemas for two months and sold 50,000 tickets, a decent showing for an Asian film, its director said. However, the fact remains that, despite all the exposure, this film too did not make a commercial splash.

"Most Vietnamese movies released in the U.S. were only [shown] on a small scale, serving the Vietnamese people overseas, but there were few viewers, so the revenue was small and sometimes not sufficient to cover promotion fee," director Khoa Nguyen told Thanh Nien.

One of these movies was Giac Mo My (American Dream) which was released in the U.S. in 2017. But it was only shown in a few small cinemas in the country. The film’s producer and co-director Mai Thu Huyen said the film was only distributed in areas with sizeable Vietnamese community resided, so it was difficult to earn much profit.

Another factor is the lack of quality of Vietnamese films shown abroad.

Van said she had difficulties persuading distributors in the U.S. to release Furie in the U.S. "It is not easy, they (film distributors) don’t know much about Vietnamese films, so they doubt their quality," Van said.

Apart from the lack of quality, many Vietnamese films fail to deliver a universal message that touches foreign viewers, said Nguyen Thi Bich Thuy, director of the Sena Film Company.

"Vietnamese commercial films mostly follow trends, and even art movies do not go far enough in impressing foreign audiences," she said.

Vietnamese films also had technical shortcomings. Despite improvements in cinematography and film editing, Vietnamese films are not at the same level as those of developed film industries, Thuy said.

Film producer Ly Quoc Oai said another limiting factor in the success of Vietnamese films abroad is low popularity of the cast.

Director Huyen referred to low financing as a main problem. "Vietnamese movies with a low budget and without high quality cannot compete with foreign films in scale and special effects," she said.

Showing Vietnamese movies in foreign cinemas also involves a lot of money, said Ngo Thi Bich Hien, representative of BHD, one of the leading companies in taking Vietnamese films abroad.

"We have to go to many film festivals and fairs to introduce films by putting up posters and buying booths there," Hien said at a recent conference. As the cost may exceed revenue, many Vietnamese films are released abroad in DVD versions or shown on TV. Only few movies can make it to the commercial cinemas.

Hien said: "For now we do not prioritize profit when releasing Vietnamese films abroad; to open new markets for Vietnamese movies, we need to be patient and make long-term investments."

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