Taking small but steady steps, contemporary Vietnamese movies exude aplomb

By Thuy Linh   November 12, 2016 | 11:00 am PT
If the batch of new features presented at the recent Hanoi Film Festival is any indication, the future of Vietnamese cinema looks alright.

Nineteen Vietnamese movies, including two competing in the Best Feature category with foreign entries, were screened at the Hanoi International Film Festival, a biennial event that began in 2010.

Both of the two movies in competition brought home some honors: Victor Vu’s Toi thay hoa vang tren co xanh (Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass) won the Special Jury Award For Feature Film while Dustin Nguyen’s Trung so (Jackpot) picked up the People’s Choice Award for Competing Feature Film.

While Yellow Flowers has generally been overrated, Jackpot is a simple, though not too remarkable film that deserves its win. Dustin Nguyen’s movie about the struggling life and the luck of a lottery seller was named Best Feature Film at the Vietnam Cinema Association’s Golden Kite Awards held earlier this year. It was submitted as the Vietnamese entry to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Oscars last year, but didn’t make the cut.

The image of lottery sellers in hardship -- and of ordinary working people praying for some wondrous stroke of luck in life -- has been recycled by Vietnamese filmmakers in recent years. Luu Huynh’s Lay chong nguoi ta (In the Name of Love), for instance, features an angry, violent character who tries to earn a living by selling lottery tickets. Tran Dung Thanh Huy’s short 16:30 also deals with homeless children selling lottery results. But it’s not until Jackpot that lottery sellers have been given the relief that they sorely need.

Actress Truong Ngoc Anh and the crew of Truy Sat (Tracer) arrive before the screening of the movie at August Theater during the 4th Hanoi International Film Festival. Tracer was screened as part of the Contemporary Vietnamese Films section of the festival. Photo by VnExpress/Xavier Bourgois

Actress Truong Ngoc Anh and the crew of Truy Sat (Tracer) strut on the red carpet during the Hanoi International Film Festival. Tracer was screened as part of the Contemporary Vietnamese Films section of the festival. Photo by VnExpress/Xavier Bourgois

Yet, the true delight and surprise of Vietnamese cinema at the festival wasn’t Jackpot, or the trivial and almost silly road trip comedy Taxi, em ten gi? (Taxi, What’s Your Name?), which stars rising comedian Truong Giang and has won the People’s Choice Award for Contemporary Vietnamese Film.

The most interesting revelations were actually the more or less “serious” movies, particularly films bankrolled by the culture ministry such as Dinh Thai Thuy’s My nhan (Beautiful Woman) and Dinh Tuan Vu’s Cuoc doi cua Yen (Yen’s Life), or the BDH production Quyen (Farewell, Berlin Wall) by Nguyen Phan Quang Binh.

What’s fascinating about these movies is good visuals (the camerawork in Vietnamese movies in particular has become more eye-catching and confident with plenty panoramic scenery shots) and what’s more important, solid social settings and characters.

These settings and characters provide some sense to counteract the mindless images of expensive clothes, cars and houses and sexy, unrealistically perfect male and female bodies that are common in the so-called “commercial movies” today. Though they aren’t perfect, Dinh Thai Thuy’s period drama Beautiful Woman set in the 17th century, and Nguyen Phan Quang Binh’s Farewell, Berlin Wall about the Vietnamese community living in Germany in the late 1980s are rich, fertile texts, especially from a woman’s perspective.

Patriarchal psychology at work

For those unfamiliar with Vietnamese history, Beautiful Woman is an informative work. The movie sketches a portrait of Nguyen Phuc Tan, the fourth ruler of the Nguyen Lords, who reigned over southern Vietnam for over two turbulent centuries while the puppet Le Dynasty and the Trinh Lords ruled the north. In history, Nguyen Phuc Tan is viewed as a good king and a military talent who defeated the Dutch East India Company, which came to attack southern Vietnam, and who helped expand Vietnam’s territory further to the south.

The real drama of the movie, however, isn’t his military triumphs and general wisdom. It lies in his relationship with a beautiful concubine whom he loves but his courtiers disdains. They beg him to get rid of her because his infatuation makes him negligent in handling national affairs.

Nguyen Phuc Tan’s difficult final decision here brings to mind a similar case in Woody Allen’s great psychological thriller Match Point. In both instances, there is a man who has to choose between his sexual passion for a woman and his non-sexual interests.

[WARNING: The following two paragraphs contain spoilers about the movies]

In both instances, the man decides to exterminate the woman. The Vietnamese man however is much less selfish, because what he has to think about isn’t just his own petty material concerns. Woody Allen’s anti-hero has to kill his girlfriend because she may jeopardize his marriage with a wealthy wife. Nguyen Phuc Tan, by contrast, is already a powerful ruler who is responsible for the welfare of his subjects.

Still, the cruel act done toward the female seductress in both movies is the same. It reveals the ultimately similar patriarchal psychology at work: Woman is held as a sexual object which, after satiating man’s desire, will be eliminated if it threatens his higher, or more important, callings.


A man’s movie

A scene from the BDH production Quyen (Farewell, Berlin Wall) by Nguyen Phan Quang Binh.

A scene from the BDH production Quyen (Farewell, Berlin Wall) by Nguyen Phan Quang Binh.

The idea of women as passive sexual victims finds its fitting cinematic expression in Nguyen Phan Quang Binh’s Farewell, Berlin Wall.

Like his previous film Canh dong bat tan (Floating Lives), Farewell, Berlin Wall also features some great camerawork that showcases the breathtaking grandeur of snowy mountains and forests in Europe. And against this backdrop, lost is the woman.

Like many other Vietnamese in the 1980s, the movie’s protagonist Quyen follows her husband from Vietnam to Russia and to Germany to search for a better life as the Berlin Wall dividing East from West is falling down. As they illegally cross the border, Quyen is snatched away from her husband by the guide, a Vietnamese gangster who desires her. The gangster, Hung, rapes her, makes her pregnant, then upon her entreaty, returns her to her husband. Yet things can never be the same again. When the husband, Dung, finds his wife now a dishonored woman, he kicks her out of the house. Desperate, Quyen attempts suicide but is saved by a kind-hearted German man named Hans.

In Binh’s movie, Quyen is a beautiful, quiet and helpless chess piece moved around between the three men. The opening sequence in particular pitches the vulnerable woman against the overwhelming nature, part of which is Hung’s forceful nature of a rapist. He allows Quyen to escape him if she can. But though she tries, Quyen alone can’t find her way out of the snowy mountains.

This movie sounds like a boast of gritty masculinity. Hung, Dung, and to a lesser extent Hans, are engaged in a tragic but epic battle of men in their efforts to survive in nature and society. The woman is the victim and the reward. She plays an essentially minor and passive part, ranging from the beautiful, helpless object of man’s rape to the forgiving, nurturing and untouchable mother of man’s child.

Better ideas about woman that sell

After watching Beautiful Woman and Farewell, Berlin Wall, which are set in older times, and understandably, reflect the gender values of traditional societies that don’t give women any sense of agency, it is a breath of fresh air to watch movies portraying contemporary women who are strong and active and to a considerable extent, do run the show.

Though it is based on the Thai movie The Love of Siam about gay men rather than a home-grown idea, Viet Max’s Yeu (Love) about lesbians flips the gender switch and gives the long overdue stage to female characters here in Vietnam. It is especially interesting to see how men are portrayed in the movie, how they are rejected by the gay women.

Though Love doesn’t have the complexity and depth of the original Thai version, it is nonetheless a creative remake which has to come up with new male characters to help portray the lesbian relationship. The pictures of those male characters aren’t far from reality and quite convincing. One can understand why the girls would still reject them even if they weren’t homosexual. One guy in particular, who comes from a rich family, leads such a boyish, clueless and wasteful life that any smart girl could hardly be able to put up with.

Another remake about strong women is Phan Gia Nhat Linh’s Sweet 20, a close copy of the Korean box-office hit Miss Granny. With total box-office takings of $4.76 million, the Vietnamese version has also become the biggest hit of Vietnamese cinema ever. Though some criticize the film for its lack of originality, the original Korean premise is certainly a brilliant one that deserves attention.

A scene from Phan Gia Nhat Linhs Sweet 20, a remake from a popular South Korean movie.

A scene from Phan Gia Nhat Linh’s Sweet 20, a remake from a popular South Korean movie.

Miss Granny is about an old woman who has a magical chance to be young and 20 again. Now she can do what in the past she couldn’t or what she can’t now in an aging body: be strong and healthy, sing on stage and have a nice romance with a desirable bachelor. Yet, despite the temptation, the woman chooses to return to the reality of aging.

The fear of aging and death and the desire for youth may be common feelings to both men and women. But it is appropriate to let a female character handle this challenging existential issue since woman has traditionally been associated with nature, biology and the body.

The female body has also been subject to greater scrutiny and control than the male body. It is to the credit of global popular culture that movies like Miss Granny let a woman be the main character and let her affirm the value and beauty of aging.

And yet popular culture is still part of the patriarchal landscape. Instead of watching a more serious movie about an old woman and her true-to-self statement, we watch instead Miss Granny, an entertaining, easy movie about an old woman being fantastically given the chance to be young. Though we love the old woman, we are also deeply attracted by the youthful, beautiful looks of her young version.

Deep down, we are still driven by our baser emotions. We want beauty, fantasy, laughter and entertainment. Popular culture both creates this and caters to it in an endless circle. Would you see a more realistic movie about old women aging?

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