Stranger than fiction: How a portrait of Soong Mei-ling gets a Vietnamese film in trouble

By Tam Ky   April 2, 2017 | 08:30 pm PT
Uproar as moviegoers notice a picture of Madame Chiang Kai-shek on the altar.

"This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental." That's a disclaimer a new Vietnamese movie cannot use confidently.

When "Da Co Hoai Lang," a drama about two old Vietnamese men living with nostalgia in New York, hit local theaters in late March, it immediately created a lot of online chatter, but for the wrong reason.

A few moviegoers were quick to point out that the film featured a portrait of Soong Mei-ling, the wife of the late Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, for a dead Vietnamese character. The portrait appeared several times in the film.

Soong, arguably the most famous Asian woman in modern history, played a prominent role in the politics of the Republic of China, rallying her people against the Japanese invasion during the second Sino-Japanese War that started in 1937 and conducting a speaking tour in the U.S. to gain support in 1942. She was the only Chinese woman ever named as "Person of the Year" by Time.

Her photo in the Vietnamese film had apparently been photoshopped with a few features changed, notably the smile.


The portrait of Soong Mei-Ling (L) and the altar photo of a Vietnamese character in "Da co hoai lang."

Many Vietnamese strongly criticized Nguyen Quang Dung, the director, and his team, describing the use of the portrait as disrespectful.

Dung has owned up to the “mistake,” confirming that his production design team tried to look for a photo of a beautiful woman on the internet and discovered the picture. They altered it without learning about the person in the photo, the director said in his public apology.

He described the portrait-gate "a big lesson" in his decades-long career.

The strong backlash forced the director to bring the film back to the edit room and digitally replace the altar portrait.

A source said the team was “extremely careful” this time to make sure it didn't get into any trouble.

The new version of the film, adapted from a play, is now playing, with English subtitles. The film itself got mixed reviews, with some critics saying the tearjerker plays out like a stage production and lacks cinematic visuals.

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