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Vietnam sees reel life thuggery spill over into real life

By Long Nguyen   March 9, 2021 | 05:24 pm PT
Vietnam sees reel life thuggery spill over into real life
A still from "Chi Muoi Ba" (Sister Thirteen). Photo courtesy of the movie.
'My nine-year-old son fought his classmates and told me he was willing to die to eliminate those who are mean or trying to hurt his friends.'

Tran Thuy Chi, a shocked mother in Hanoi’s Long Bien District, had just woken up to the impact of web dramas about violent gangsters on young minds.

The rising popularity of such dramas, which some real-life villains are using to romanticize and glorify their activities, is negatively affecting impressionable minds in Vietnam, experts warn.

In a shopping mall, two groups of men fight against each other over invasion of their "business territory."

"Bastard... You have to die under my rules," one of them shouts.

This is a scene in the first episode of "Bi Long Dai Ca" (Big Brother Bi Long), a web drama depicting the lives of gangsters in Vietnam.

After two months of hitting YouTube, the video has garnered more than 14 million views, with a lot of positive comments. Many of its episodes have been on the list of trending videos on the streaming platform.

"Bi Long Dai Ca" is among dozens of Vietnamese web dramas about thug life that have hit streaming platforms over the last few years, and their popularity among children and other young netizens is worrying many people.

Films about gangsters have become a hot trend for at least three years now. "Thap Tam Muoi" (Sister Thirteen), "Thieu Nien Ra Giang Ho" (Teenager to Gangster), "Ong Trum" (Big Boss), "Tho San Giang Ho" (Gangster Hunter), and "Trat Tu Moi" (New Order) and others have attracted millions of views and comments from online audiences.

"Sister Thirteen" became such a big hit that a cinematic version was produced later.

The web dramas are typically saturated with lots of violence, purges, stories of betrayal and murder among gangs that frequently use guns and knives. Their protagonists are mostly gangsters who overcome challenges and beat enemies to protect their groups and become "heroes."

Some real gangsters have stepped into this milieu with their own films.

In 2020, Nguyen Xuan Duong (known as Duong Nhue) played roles in "Cham Mat Giang Ho" (Facing Gangsters) and "Luat Le Giang Ho" (Thug Life’s Rules). In the dramas, Duong is portrayed as a hero who has earned the respect and admiration of many people.

But in real life, the gangster was arrested last April over several allegations related to violence.

Phu Le, another gangster, plays a generous man who always makes sacrifices for his parents and friends.

With many people glued to the internet these days, these web dramas offer entertainment, but with netizens able to watch them without age restrictions, their impact on the youth, in particular, can be insidious, as Chi, the mother in Hanoi, found out.

Other parents and educators have expressed concern about the negative influence of such easily accessibly violent content.

Le Tuyet Anh, former dean of the faculty of education at the HCMC University of Social Sciences and Humanities, said that while young people often gravitate toward lurid content, they are not mature enough to understand its psychological effects.

Actress Tuyet Thu also warned that artists and true hoodlums making violent web dramas are doing a disservice to society, with young people tending to copy what they see.

With the rising prominence of YouTube, public curiosity and demand for videos and online entertainment with new content and stories are huge.

A 2019 report by the streaming platform found Vietnam amongst the five most dedicated YouTube markets in the world.

In order to attract young people looking for different content, YouTubers are willing to create new videos that are easy to watch or have shocking content, said Hanoi-based writer Pham Ngoc Tien.

Thug dramas, typically a combination of violence and comedy, are a perfect combination for luring young netizens, who give them an abundance of views on YouTube as well as other platforms.

According to an experienced YouTuber, the CPM (cost per 1,000 impressions) in Vietnam is $0.30, meaning video creators can earn at least $30,000 if they have 100 million views.

A still from Ba Trum Cho Moi (Cho Moi Big Sister). Photo courtesy of the movie.

A still from "Ba Trum Cho Moi" (Cho Moi's Big Sister). Photo courtesy of the movie.

Tough to censor

Some people have noted that censoring online films is not a simple task, especially when YouTube is not strict about filtering violent content.

"They are strict with copyright violations, but not with violent stories related to young people," said Bich Lien, owner of domestic cinema chain Mega GS.

Under Vietnamese law, content that incites violence and encourages social ills can be fined by up to VND40 million ($1,730), but controlling these videos is challenging as producers choose YouTube, an international platform, to premiere their creations.

"There is a huge gap between censoring movies or TV series and the web dramas... Online filmmakers create whatever they like without any control or censor," director Nguyen Phuong Dien told local media.

Cinema and culture experts have said that young viewers should have the faculty of critical thinking to differentiate between right and wrong, good and bad.

People should have their own filters when it comes to cyberspace, said Vi Kien Thanh, director of the Cinema Department under the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism.

Artists should also join their hands to make cyberspace better instead of making movies or web dramas just for online viewership and money, he said.

"When we do not have a final solution for this problem, we should talk about artists’ responsibility when they make online films," said film producer Truong Ngoc Anh.

She said filmmakers should focus on spreading positivity among the audience by limiting violent content that negatively affects young minds.

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