Acclaimed Vietnamese Films And Vietnamese, French-Vietnamese And Vietnamese-American Filmmakers
VIETNAMESE FILM DIRECTORS
Dang Nhat Minh is one of Vietnam’s most renowned directors. Born in 1959 and fluent in French, Russian and Mandarin, he has spent little tine in Vietnam. His films include When the 10th Month Comes (1984), The Girl of the River (1987), The Return (1994) , Nostalgia for the Homeland (1995) and Hanoi-Winter 1946 (1997)
Le Hoang is known in Vietnam for war films such as Luoi Dao (The Knife), Chiec Khoa Vang (The Golden Key) and Ai Xuoi Van Ly (Going Along Vietnam). In 2003, he had a big success with “Gai Nhay” (Bar Girls), about drug-injecting prostitutes. See Below.
Lam Le’s first feature film “Poussière d’empire” was the first international film allowed to be shot on location in Vietnam after the end of the Vietnam War. Lam Le was born in 1948 in Haiphong, Vietnam. A member of jury at La Femis (Paris), his works include: 1) Công Binh, la longue nuit indochinoise (Documentary, 2013); 2) 20 nuits et un jour de pluie (as Lam Lê, 2006); 3) Lola et quelques autres (TV Series) (episodes 3 to 6, 1991); 4) Poussière d’empire (1983) and Rencontre des nuages et du dragon (a short, 1981).
Tran Anh Hung
French-Vietnamese Tran Anh Hung is Vietnam’s most acclaimed contemporary film maker. He won the best first feature award at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1993 for “The Scent of Green Papaya” and later won the best film award at the Venice International Film Festival in 1995 for his second feature “Cyclo”. The son of tailors, Hung moved from Vietnam to Paris with his family in 1975 at the age of 12. Although he knew no French when he arrived he persevered and studied hard and won a place at the Sorbonne, where he studied philosphy. He decided to become a film maker when he saw the film Dust of an Empire by the French-Vietnamese director Lam Le. After that he won a place in the prestigious Ecole Lumiere School for cinematographers.
Tran Anh’s big break came in 1990 when he hooked up with the French production company Lazennec Productions which financed some short films and produced The Scent of Green Papaya . He had originally hoped to make the film in Vietnam but inexperience and problems and delays there drove him back to France, where pre-war Saigon was recreated on a French sound stage.
Jon Herskovitz of Reuters wrote: “Tran helped put Vietnamese cinema on the world map but he feels a victim of success. He quickly dismisses any claims that he is the flag holder for Vietnamese film. “It bothers me a lot to be labeled as the main representative of Vietnamese cinema. It is not possible for me to play that role because people will then have the idea that I will show all of Vietnam, and of course, that is not possible,” Tran said. “If people want to know about Vietnam, they should go read a book,” he added. But Tran changed perceptions about Vietnam with his movie ”Scent of Green Papaya,” that was fraught with sensuality and not stuffed with the horrors of the typical movie about the country focused on the Vietnam War. …He is a native French speaker who feels deep ties to the culture of France, but even deeper ones to his native Vietnam.”I feel like I belonged in Vietnam, It is something that is deeply anchored in myself,” Tran said. Tran said that he strives to create a mood in his movies and is glad when his film’s titles do not make sense to the audience.
Tranh Anh’s Films
Tran Anh Hung’s Scent of Green Papaya won the Camera d’or Award for best first film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993 and was the first Vietnamese film ever to be nominated for an Academy Award. It is a slow, poignant and beautifully-shot film following the story of young peasant girl who works as a servant for rich families.
In 1995, Tran Ahn returned to Vietnam at the age of 33 to write and direct a film called Cyclo (The Rickshaw Boy), which won Lion d’Or at the 1995 Venice Film festival. Influenced by Vitorio de Sica’s 1948 masterpiece The Bicycle Thief , it is the story of a cyclo driver whose whole world is shattered when his cyclo is stolen and he seeks the help on unscrupulous madam and her son. Cyclohas some violent scenes and authorities in Vietnam didn’t like it.
Each of Tran Anh Hung’s films is very different from the others. Hal Hinson of the Washington Post said he makes “interesting, occasionally powerful, but ultimately uneven films that promise more than they deliver.” He planned to adapt the book “Night Dogs” by Kent Anderson. The book is about a policeman who served as a soldier in Vietnam. But that didn’t happen.
Tran told Reuters he would like to shoot the movie in the United States, but he knows that many directors have seen their movie dreams shattered by the reality of Hollywood’s production machinery. “Obviously the Vietnam War is something that is important to me because you could say that the 20th century for Vietnam has been the century of war,” he said. Tran said that he usually takes a roundabout way to get to where he wants to go, and at some point he would like to return to Vietnam to shoot a movie about the war. “I do owe Vietnam a film on the war.”
Film of Norwegian Wood
The film version of Norwegian Wood by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami was directed by Vietnamese director Anh Hung Tran. For many this was a surprise because Murakami has said before the only director he would let handle his works were Woody Allen and David Lynch.
“The 2010 film Norwegian Wood was the first film adaptation of one of the most famous works by Murakami,” Kumi Matsumaru wrote in the Daily Yomiuri. “The 1987 novel starts with the Beatles song “Norwegian Wood” triggering memories in 37-year-old Watanabe of his youth. The film, however, follows him as a 19-year-old university student.” [Source: Kumi Matsumaru, Daily Yomiuri, December 10, 2010]
“In the late 1960s, Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama, Death Note, Kamui Gaiden ) leaves his hometown for Tokyo in the wake of the suicide of his close friend Kizuki (Kengo Kora). Though his classmates are becoming politically active, Watanabe is directionless. That is, until he is reunited with Kizuki’s old girlfriend, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi, Babel ).
“The three had been inseparable in high school. Watanabe begins to regularly visit Naoko, who has yet to recover from Kizuki’s abrupt death. They console each other, and as a result, grow closer. As their relationship develops, however, Naoko becomes more confused and more aware of her loss, and subsequently decides to check herself into a sanatorium in the mountains of Kyoto for a while. The story proceeds with an intense emotion that clashes with the beautiful, often quiet scenery and equally subdued conversations. The story is told with a detached tone, catching viewers off-guard with the enormous feelings of loss and emptiness.”
“Vietnamese Director Tran Anh Hung skillfully portrays the quiet and complex feelings of the characters. They include that of Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), who is attracted to Watanabe, who in turn constantly struggles with Watanabe’s feelings for Naoko. Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama), who is senior to Watanabe, is an arrogant and distant womanizer, but seems to be falling apart.”
“Though the film was said to have been shot entirely in Japan, parts of it appear as if they had actually been shot abroad….The film certainly would have lost some of its charm if the three main actors were perfect looking. Each of them, however, is average, be it through reality or makeup. In fact, it is this ordinariness that helps to create the film’s depth and sense of reality.” Tran said it would have been inconceivable to film the movie outside of Japan with non-Japanese actors: “What I liked the most about the novel was Japan’s culture and the presence of the characters.”
“While this film is portrayed as a sad story of youth finding their way in life, it is actually a film about suicide and how people are affected by it. John Lennon’s titular song accordingly was stuck in my head for days after seeing it. But the more I reflected on the story and its tale of a man with little direction in life, another, perhaps better-fitting Beatles song came to mind” Nowhere Man.
Tran Anh Hung’s Vertical Ray of the Sun
Tran Anh Hung’s film Ala Verticale d l’Ete (“Vertical Ray of the Sun,” 2000) was also highly praised. It is languid film about a dreamy affair in modern Hanoi. It was less controversial than Cyclo and was shown in Vietnam.
Jon Herskovitz of Reuters wrote: “Hanoi is where the heart is for Tran Anh Hung. For Tran, Hanoi is a village grown large that has kept a sentimental and sensual intimacy which he has tried to capture in his new movie “The Vertical Ray of the Sun.” “The city of Hanoi possesses a sweetness, slowness and sensuality that is particular to itself,” Tran said in an interview on Monday. “People in Hanoi, for me, have a much stronger physical and sexual presence than in other places.” “The Vertical Ray of the Sun,” which will be released in New York and Los Angeles on July 6 and then followed by a national run, is a delicate tale centered on three sisters and their families and loves. The pace is slow, the colors are rich and the emotional tensions swirl furiously in the movie.
“The Vertical Ray of the Sun” stars Tran’s wife Tran Nu Yen Khe and was shot in present-day Hanoi. The story hinges on infidelity, passion and staying true to family. “This is a film that is fraught with problems,” Tran said. “There are problems of couples’ infidelity and desire. And at the same time I wanted the public to appreciate this kind of culture where there is a kind of harmony that floats through the whole thing,” he added. Tran said that after the chaos of making “Cyclo” in Saigon, he came up with the idea of making a film in the calm of Hanoi and he felt he owed that city a film.
Tony Bui and Timothy Linh Bui
Timothy Linh Bui (pronounced buoy) directed the film. “The Green Dragon.” His brother Tony Bui directed “Three Seasons” and produced “Green Dragon.” The Bui boys grew up in Sunnyvale and San Jose, California.Bruce Newman wrote in The Mercury News: “The brothers wrote the screenplay together as a valentine to their adopted country. When Tim Bui was 5 and Tony was 2 (and their first names were still Linh and Vu), their family fled Saigon, less than two weeks before it fell. Their father, who served in the South Vietnamese air force, would have been arrested and tried if they had stayed, so they left their home and most of their belongings for a future in America that most of them couldn’t even imagine.
“In that way, the story told in “Green Dragon” is their own, even if they can’t remember a lot of it. “I remember waiting on a runway to board a U.S. cargo plane to fly out,” Tim says, “but I didn’t know it was because of a war.” Refugees were scattered among hastily erected encampments at U.S. military bases and then moved to homes of their own when sponsors could be found to help smooth their transition. “When they’re in these camps, they’re standing on a bridge with one foot in Vietnam and one foot in America,” Tim says. “When they heard that Saigon fell, what happened in the past didn’t matter. All they could do was look ahead.”
“In one way, however, the past and present remained tied together by families that had been torn apart. The Buis’ mother, Susie, left her brothers and sisters and their parents in Vietnam. Her story was typical, and it is told in the film through the eyes of a young boy named Minh Pham (Trung Nguyen) who is searching for his mother. “That was the most common story,” says Tim, 32. “Every single day my mom would go to the Red Cross in hopes of finding news they had made it out alive. I think every refugee during that time was looking for someone.” Their mother eventually learned that her family was alive, but she didn’t see them again until the 1980s.
“The Buis had landed first at Fort Chaffey in Arkansas, where the brothers got their introduction to American movies. “Every night, to keep the Vietnamese entertained, they would show American films on the outdoor screen,” Tim recalls. “They’d play a lot of cartoons and B-films.” All of it was in English, of course, the first step in their forced assimilation. Many of the Vietnamese refugees were afraid they simply would be dumped on the streets of America and so, as “Green Dragon” shows, some were not eager to leave the camps. The Buis were sponsored by a church group in Chico. “When we got off the plane, the press was there to greet us because we were the first Vietnamese ever in that area,” Tim says. “They helped set us up and got my dad a job.” The boys attended elementary and junior high school in Sunnyvale but they had no Vietnamese friends there. They speak Vietnamese now only because their parents spoke it at home and they were forced to speak the language when they were in the house. “There was no community at all,” Tim recalls. “I don’t remember another Vietnamese kid growing up in Sunnyvale.”
“But their interest in movies had been sparked, and when their parents built their video store into a chain of five stores called U.S. Home Video, the Bui brothers were in business too. “We’d wake up and find like 5,000 films stored in the garage,” remembers Tony, 29. “I don’t remember exactly when the moment occurred that I switched from being a film viewer to thinking that I could actually do it, but somewhere along the line I started to feel moved by watching films.”
“As their attachment to American popular culture grew, their connection to Southeast Asia vanished. “Growing up here in the ’80s, I never thought I would be able to go back to Vietnam,” says Tony. The brothers had seen Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and Oliver Stone’s films about the Vietnam War and had taken to heart the images of Vietnamese people running through the jungle with guns, selling themselves to soldiers in Saigon bars. “They were films made from one perspective, and growing up we thought that was the only one,” says Tim. “Then as we got older we began to question what we saw. When we returned to Vietnam, we realized there was this other perspective.”
Three Seasons: Tony Bui’s Vietnam Film
Tony Bui’s Three Seasons (1999) was the first American film to be shot in Vietnam after the Vietnam War. Directed by Tony Bui, a Vietnamese who has lived in California since he arrived there from Vietnam wen he was two, it was shot in Vietnam with a budget of $2 million. With the exception of Harvey Kietel, who helped produce the film and get it off the ground, all the actors were Vietnamese or Vietnamese-American. It is about a cyclo driver who befriends a prostitute; a monk who casts a spell on a lotus picker; and two street children who keep each other going. It won the two top awatds at the Sundance Film Festival but some critics didn’t like it. See Tony Bui and The Green Dragon.
Tony Bui went back Vietnam during breaks from film school at Loyola Marymount. Bruce Newman wrote in The Mercury News: ” by the time he attended the Sundance Filmmakers and Screenwriters Lab in 1996, one of his goals was to shoot a movie entirely in Vietnam. “Three Seasons,” a luminous film based on his experiences in Ho Chi Minh City, won both the top audience and jury awards at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999. With that film, Tony became the first American director to secure a completion bond on a production shot entirely on location in Vietnam (most of the war movies were shot in Thailand and the Philippines) “I could never have made `Three Seasons’ if it was my third or fourth film,” Tony says. “But when it’s your first film, you’re young enough, you don’t care, you sacrifice everything. We were trying to establish our identity and figure out who we are.” .
The Far Eastern Economic Review reported: In 1999, “a film by a 26-year-old Vietnamese-American, Tony Bui, took the independent film world by storm. His feature, Three Seasons, won the top award, the Grand Jury Prize, at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. It was a surprising choice. Sundance is known for its tough, edgy tastes, but Bui’s film is a lyrical, if bittersweet, look at modern Vietnamese life, told through four stories that have the romanticized quality of fables. Also surprising was the fact that the film received the audience award as well–thus, it won over both critics and audiences. Certainly, Three Seasons gives us a completely fresh take on a country so tragically riven by war: It portrays a society in which individuals search not only for economic survival, but also for love, connections, and grace. For them the war is a faint, diminishing echo, heard far more loudly by Americans than Vietnamese. “The entire country is about moving forward and progressing,” Bui says, “and I think they’re more at peace with the past conflict than we are, we Americans. We still have a lot of guilt about it, a lot of frustrations.” [Source: Far Eastern Economic Review, August 12, 1999]
Making Three Seasons
The Far Eastern Economic Review reported: Bui “was encouraged by his mother to go back to his native land. His first visit was not a success: He was 19 and couldn’t stand it–the heat, the congestion, the pollution. But then he went back again, and again, and began to discover his roots. As a student studying film at Loyola Marymount University, Bui’s sojourns in Vietnam were eked out on a shoestring budget. He stayed in private homes and spent a lot of time “hanging around on the streets,” talking with cyclo (trishaw) drivers and watching poor people trying to make ends meet. He also began to form the ideas that would eventually become his films.
“In 1995 he completed a short film called Yellow Lotus, starring his uncle Don Duong, a well-known actor in Vietnam who also features in his current film. Bui calls Yellow Lotus “an earlier incarnation of Three Seasons–a peasant comes to the city, a man trying to find his place amid this change.” The earlier film was shown at the Telluride and Sundance Film Festivals and won several awards. In 1996 he was accepted into Sundance’s Writer’s and Director’s Labs, and the result was the script for Three Seasons. Its $2 million production cost was funded by Good Machine, a New York production company that has backed some of Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s films.
“The film’s title comes from the idea that south Vietnam, where the film was shot, has two seasons, the dry and the wet. For Bui, the third season is the one of growth – “the season of hope, the season of life and poetry and music.” Each story within the film is set in a different season: The story of the cyclo driver is set in the hot, dry season and is full of the warmth of yellows and oranges; the little boy vendor is set in the wet season of blues and greys; and the growth season is the backdrop for the story of Teacher Dao and the young woman who becomes his temporary confidante. The story of James Hager, the ex-GI, takes place across the time-frame of the others.
“From the start Bui insisted that the film be made in Vietnamese and in Vietnam–a tough battle due to the traditional prejudice American audiences have against foreign-language films, as well as the logistical complications of shooting in Vietnam. But Bui, backed by his producers, got his way. Three Seasons was thus the first American film to be made in Vietnam since the fall of Saigon in 1975. When he took his American crew there for filming, some were fearful of possible resentment and reprisals. After all, didn’t the Vietnamese hate the Americans for the years of fighting, for bombing their country? But that was one problem that didn’t materialize, Bui says. “They’re so past that–they had 1,000 years of war. Before the Americans they fought so many people, after the Americans they fought people–the Chinese, the Cambodians.” With his fresh, open face and small ponytail, Bui is the very picture of Californian health. He talks quickly, his words slurring over each other as if his thoughts cannot get out fast enough. “The American conflict was one war in their lives, and they’ve moved on.”
He did run into numerous other difficulties, though. The Ministry of Culture had to approve the script, and Bui had innumerable meetings over it -as well as being obliged to show the rough cuts of each day’s shooting to officials. “They’re very respectful and kind, but they’re tough, to the point they read way too much into everything,” Bui recalls. “I understood where they were coming from–ultimately they want a film to portray the country in a decent way.” In 1995 the authorities had been infuriated by the release of French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung’s Cyclo, which turned out to be extremely violent, and they wanted to avoid a repeat.
“Not surprisingly, Bui’s desire to detail the extreme poverty and the prostitution in Ho Chi Minh City was a source of conflict. Fortunately, he points out, “they didn’t mind my making a film about the lowest level of society as long as it was moving towards something that was a redemption, some sort of peace, some sort of life. They don’t mind so much the darkness as long as it’s balanced out by the light.”
“The characters in Three Seasons are composites of people Bui has met over the years. “These were the people I knew, they were my friends,” he says. As seen through the film, they are rather poignant individuals striving for a better life with whatever modest means at hand–whether it’s peddling a flashlight, a cyclo ride, or their bodies. Critic Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called this “a movie for any and all seasons, [which] gazes with a sense of beauty and compassion at hard realities without glossing them over.” Bui’s focus on the downtrodden and the indigent was deliberate. “I wanted to make a film about those most affected [by change],” the director says. “I wanted to give them a voice. The things they were telling me were so interesting, so different from the way I perceived it growing up in America.” Some critics have found Three Seasons overly pretty and sentimentalized, but for Bui, Vietnam is a country of hope.
“Since much of film-making is done in a cocoon, opening at Sundance was “very scary and very gratifying,” he says. Scary because hardly anyone had seen it before, gratifying because it received a standing ovation. “As the week went by, there was so much buzz about the film that I knew I was accomplishing one of the important parts of the process for me,” Bui says, “which was to make a film about some people’s lives and to capture the spirit in a way that would be universal.” Bui had lived up to what Geoffrey Gilmore, a Sundance official, wrote about the film for the festival catalogue: “With sweeping directorial vision and a powerful poetic narrative, Tony Bui has created an enormously impressive feature debut about the ‘new’ Vietnam.” This spring the film opened in the United States to equally laudatory reviews. It also drew $2 million at the box office, considered exemplary for a foreign-language film.”
The Green Dragon: Film on the First Wave of U.S. Vietnamese
The Honolulu Star Bulletin reported: “The film “The Green Dragon” tells about the first wave of Vietnamese refugees who came to America in 1975. Camps were set up across the southwestern deserts to house more than 100,000 Vietnamese immigrants before and immediately after the fall of Saigon.A child, played by Trung Nguyen, searches daily for his mother at sprawling Camp Pendleton, Calif., encountering characters that embody ambition, hope, tragedy, false expectation and lost identity. An American volunteer cook named Addie (Forest Whitaker) befriends the child, Minh. Without verbally understanding each other, they have an unusual bond through drawings, Batman comics and music, and the common loss of a mother.
“In another of the stories that merge, Minh’s uncle Tai, played by Don Duong, is asked by Sgt. Jim Lance (Patrick Swayze) to be a camp manager. The war has ended, yet each has an internal battle in need of peace. Lance’s brother died in the war and left behind a letter describing the only woman he ever loved, a Vietnamese nurse who cared for him when he was wounded. Lance’s journey of understanding, through both the letter and the woman, help assuage a guilt that has plagued him for years. Tai also is at war with his own guilt and, with Lance’s help, finds the strength to look forward without forgetting the past.
“For both of us,” says Tim, “the next natural step before we went on to tell any other stories was to tell a story about our family, the journey of the first wave of refugees.” They have finished writing three scripts, none of which has anything directly to do with Vietnam. They have moved on, and by doing so have become part of the success story of the resettlement camps. “I think the success of the program can be seen in the success of Vietnamese who went through it,” Tim says, “and who now own businesses and have careers and got on with their lives and became American.”
“Green Dragon is written by Vietnamese writer Qui Duc Nguyen, a friend of Timothy Bui. Nguyen came to America in 1975 and in 1979 began setting up radio programs for the Vietnamese communities in California and Texas. He’s also worked in international television in New York and with a multi-lingual Internet company in Los Angeles. For several years, he was a regular commentator for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” and was awarded A Citation for Excellence by the Overseas Press Club of America in 1989 for his NPR documentary on Vietnam. He has traveled extensively in Asia and Europe.
Nguyen currently hosts “Pacific Time,” KQED public radio’s national program focusing on Asia and its connections to the United States. He is author of “Where the Ashes Are, The Odyssey of a Vietnamese Family,” (Addison-Wesley, 1994), co-editor of “Vietnam, A Traveler’s Literary Companion” (Whereabouts Press, 1995), and “Once Upon A Dream, The Vietnamese-American Experience” (Andrews and McMell, 1995).
Tsui Hark (pronounced Choy Hock) is another highly regarded Hong Kong director Sometimes called Hong Kong’s Spielberg, he was born in China, raised in Vietnam and Hong Kong and educated in New York City and the University of Texas. Time magazine’s Corliss, praised his “breathlessly virtuistic style,” using “slow motion, rapid cuts and neck-swiveling pans.” The New York Times film critic J. Hoberman called him a a “comic Eisenstein.”
Tsui Hark was described by Shelly Kraicer as the “mercurial, ever-surprising, and (most recently) ever-disappointing anarchic genius of Hong Kong cinema” and “a covert avant-garde filmmaker who thrives inside mainstream commercial genres.” He was a technological leader in the 1990s and now no longer is. His last masterpiece was The Blade(Dao, 1995). His films are known for their delirious speed and ramshackle energy. In recent years Kraicer wrote “Tsui has in fits and starts been attempting to remake himself as a mainland Chinese director, or something interestingly hybrid, a HK-cum-PRC filmmaker.”
Shelly Kraicer wrote in Chinese Cinema Digest: “Tsui’s manic energy makes him irrepressible. New ideas keep bubbling up, and he’s never afraid to experiment with a commercial fiction film by injecting it with a surfeit of technological, narrative, and genre-twisting gambits. Too often recently, the result has been much less than the sum of its parts.” In the 1980s and early 1990s though the “integrative genius that Tsui incarnated…made his films resonate.”
Tsui is not always easy to get along with. He fired the great authors: King Hu and Yim Ho from his projects. John Woo walked out in him after Tsui produced and re-edited three of his films, including The Killer .
Tsui Hark Films
In 1977 Tsui Hark returned to Hong Kong to work in television and make films. Not long afterwards he was producing fast-paced action classics like Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain and Once Upon a Time in China, starring Jet Li. In the mid 1990s he made two Jean-Claude Van Damme films. His masterpieces include Peking Opera Blues, Once Upon a Time in China I and II, Swordsman, Butterfly Lovers, Chinese Ghost Story trilogy(with Ching Siu-tung), Green Snake, The Lovers and Time and Tide.
The all-girl action comedy Peking Opera Blues (1986) is set in 1912 in Hong Kong, two years after the fall of the last emperor. Time described as “the most entertaining congestion of politics, stunts and willful women Hong Kong has ever produced.” Hoberman wrote: “Peking Opera Blues lures you in with its pounding, crazy beat, The very first image is a close-up of an elaborately made-up Chinese opera performer staring down the camera and howling with laughter…As the title suggest, theater rules: Hark’s cubistic backstage is a cortex of entertainment, greed and intrigue where in three attractive heroines—a comic gold digger, a would-be actress, and a general’s daughter, who for no particular reason (and not every convincingly) disguises herself as a boy—join forces to pursue their separate agendas.”
Tsui’s films in the late 1990s and 2000s vary in quality from flawed but interesting experiments—with the best including the unjustly underrated Legend of Zu (Shushan chuan, 2001 and the energetic Time and Tide (Shun liu ni liu, 2000) to just plain flawed and puzzling, such as Missing (Shenhai shun ren, 2008) and All About Women (Nüren bu huai, 2008). Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010). Seven Swords opened the Venice Film Festival in 2004.
Vietnamese Films Featured at International Film Festivals
In 2006, for the first time, a movie produced by a private production company in Vietnam won a prize at an international film festival. “Ha Dong Silk Dress”, a joint product of Phuoc Sang, Vietnamese Film, and Anh Viet production companies, won the audience’s prize at the Pusan International Film Festival (The Republic of Korea).
The 20th Namur International French-language Film Festival in Belgium in September 2005 screened the Vietnamese-made French film Thoi Xa Vang (A Distant Past) directed by Ho Quang Minh. Director Nguyen Vinh Son from the Giai Phong (Liberation) film studio is to introduce the film La Lune dans le Fond du Puits (Moon’s Reflection in the Water Well).
Vietnam’s film “Mua Oi” (Guava Season) directed by Nguyen Nhat Minh was highlighted the Nantes Three Continental Film Festival in 2002. Also shown were “Thuong Nho Dong Que” (Nostalgia for Native Village) by Dang Nhat Minh and “Ai Xuoi Van Ly” (Long Journey) by Le Hoang. Furthermore, two Vietnamese short films “Cuoc Xe Dem” (A Cyclo Night Ride) and “Mua Mua Ha” (Summer Rain) have been selected to the Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival; “Chi Nam Khung” (Mrs Nam Khung) and “Cao Nguyen Da” (Stony Central Highlands) have been chosen for the Marseille Film Festival. The Vesseoul Asia Film Festival, held in February 2002, featured Vietnam’s short films and documentaries through a round called “A Look at Vietnam’s cinematography”. “Thung Lung Hoang Vang” (Deserted Valley) by Phan Nhue Giang was selected to be shown at the Women’s Film Festival in Bordeaux and the Nantes Three Continental Film Festival.
Vietnamese films in 2001 that received critical praise included ‘Guava Season’ by Dang Nhat Minh, ‘Widows’ Wharf’ by Luu Trong Ninh, ‘Golden Key’ by Le Hoang, ‘Go Down Southwards, Go Up Northwards’ by Phi Tien Son and ‘Deserted Valley’ by Nhue Giang. Nhân Dân reported: ” Film makers have focused not only on the theme of the war and post-war but also on contemporary issues. Typical are ‘Deserted Valley,’ ‘Rocky Plateau’ and ‘Countryside.’ The film makers have reflected innermost feelings and aspirations of ordinary people in simple ways.
Gritty “Bar Girls” Big Success in Vietnam
Reporting from Ho Chi Minh City in 2003, Tran Dinh Thanh Lam of Inter Press Service wrote: “A film that has shaken audiences with its potent combination of sex, drugs and HIV/AIDS, set against a stark portrayal of the lives of young prostitutes, is just as effectively forcing Vietnam’s film industry to take a long, hard look at itself. Moviegoers watching director Le Hoang’s Gai Nhay (Bar Girls) gape at such graphic scenes as a gang-rape and a tight close-up of a young girl injecting heroin into a pale arm, and the film’s grim urban setting – a startling departure from the usual conservative cinematic themes – is striking the right note with young audiences. “I have never seen such dark scenes in a Vietnamese movie,” said student Le Thu, 23, which is just the reaction that Le Hoang and members of his young crew, including 34-year-old cameraman Pham Hoang Nam, wanted from their audiences. “We have to change our approach towards producing movies,” said Pham. “The only answer to the problem is to show films that audiences want to see.”
“The film hits all the right spots by dwelling on the most pressing but exciting aspects in our society,” said Le Duc Tien, director of the state-run Liberation Film Co, which produced Bar Girls. “Films that deal with realistic drama of everyday life are much more appealing than those focusing on war.” Overworked cash registers at the box office are proof that his assessment right on target. The film has grossed more than US$300,000 in the three months since its release, a huge achievement for a locally made film, and has knocked aside such foreign imports as South Korean soap operas and Hong Kong thrillers in the rankings. “The film has attracted such a large, young audience because it deals with social issues that they see around them every day,” said Tran Van Hien, director of the Thang Long cinema whose seats filled up for four weeks when Bar Girls was screened. For Tran, the numbers were unprecedented – shows rarely attract more than two or three dozen young viewers who usually prefer watching video compact discs (VCDs) and digital video discs (DVDs) of Hollywood productions. Yet the success of Bar Girls is due as much to Hoang’s talent as it is to the new thinking at the Ministry of Culture and Information.
“Inevitably, Bar Girls has come in for its share of criticism. It has for example been compared to Hoang’s earlier work and found wanting, and the idea of films for entertainment as a solution that will help shore up Vietnam’s film industry has been questioned by some. “To solve our problems, we need to look at longer term solutions,” said the director of the Vietnam Film Co, Nguyen Van Nam. “We need to pay attention to serious movies to attract audiences rather than blindly follow their temporary tastes.” The company is famous for its quality films that have won awards at international film festivals – such as last year’s Season of Guavas and this year’s Me Thao. International awards, however, have not whetted a young audience’s appetite for entertainment at home, and when these films are screened in Vietnam, the empty seats far outnumber those occupied. It is a lesson not lost on Hoang, who said, “We can’t fully develop the film industry without producing hit movies.” And a hit is what Bar Girls undoubtedly is.
Buffalo Boy: Lovely Film About Rural Life in Vietnam
Bruce Newman wrote in the San Jose Mercury News, “Water is everywhere in writer-director Minh Nguyen-Vo’s “Buffalo Boy” (“Mua Len Trau”), a coming-of-age story that depends as much upon the flooded Vietnamese countryside as the humans who seem to float just above it to reveal its secrets. Based on the classic short story collection “Scent of the Ca-Mau Forest” by the celebrated Vietnamese author Son Nam, the film employs the waters that perennially flood the country as “a mixed metaphor for life and death,” according to a statement by Nguyen-Vo.
“There is plenty of both in “Buffalo Boy,” which reveals its beauty in vast, glistening panoramas that should be more evocative on the big screen than in the 2004 DVD version. If you have ever wondered what the life of a Vietnamese peasant was like in the 1940s, it seems unlikely there will be a lovelier evocation of it than “Buffalo Boy,” which opens today for a two-week stay at the Camera 12 Cinemas. The director will be on hand for question-and-answer sessions following the evening shows today and Saturday and for the matinees Sunday.
“To anyone unfamiliar with life in rural Vietnam during the French colonial period, the opening scenes of “Buffalo Boy,” which made the rounds at film festivals in 2004, might seem almost comical, with all the earnest discussions between father and son about the health and well-being of the family’s two water buffaloes. But they’re not kidding. Not only do the buffaloes account for most of their livelihood as draught animals in a subsistence economy, it’s also easy to see that Kim (Le The Lu) loves them as if they were pets. During Kim’s journey, he sleeps on the back of one of the buffaloes, and after talking to him about his plans for the next day, he hugs the animal’s giant head.
“In this film, buffaloes often get more respect than humans do. Director Nguyen-Vo lingers lovingly on a shot of buffaloes watching the clouds as they graze on the floodplain. In the evening, husbands and wives discuss the beauty of the great buffalo herds they have seen. You never heard such a lot of buffalo talk! But if the specifics of a Vietnamese trail drive differ noticeably from those of their Hollywood western counterparts, the rustlin’ and fightin’ among frontier varmints appear to be the same everywhere.
“Kim’s search for grass that his buffaloes can fatten themselves on has brought him to the brink of ruin, when he awakens to find a herd going past. But his offer to indenture himself to the leader of what the herders refer to as their “gang” is at first spurned, and the brutality of this world — in which man and beast sometimes simply are left for dead — is powerfully evoked. Even strength in numbers doesn’t always prove decisive in such a harsh landscape; after Kim is allowed into the gang that had rejected him, his buffaloes go hungry when a rival gang lets its herd devour all the grass on a hill to which Kim had looked for salvation.
Determined to keep his story stripped down, Nguyen-Vo never shows us the French masters who rule these peasants’ lives, just the emissaries who come roaring up on a boat in the middle of the trail drive to collect a tax for letting the herd through. The herdsmen dull the pain of the day by smoking a joint around the campfire, but even this brief recreation is interrupted by a murderous monsoon of violence. Kim eventually goes home disillusioned, and finds himself betrayed even there. Some of the intricacies of the plot — particularly the dynamics of his relationship with his family — remain murky to me, but I doubt that an audience more familiar with Vietnamese culture would have any difficulty understanding the subtler nuances of the film.
The boy’s passage into manhood is even more tumultuous than his trek across Vietnam’s watery plains. He falls in love — or lust anyway — with a woman who belongs to someone else, and like everything else in this movie, she comes into his life and goes out of it again in a rush of water. I’m not sure if the acting is best described as naturalistic, or if Le is even trained in the dramatic arts. He is not, in any case, given to unnecessary theatrics, which seems unlikely to land him the now-vacant lead role in the next “Mission: Impossible” picture, but seems just right for the simplicity of this story.
“Sand Life” Chosen Best Film at Asia-Pacific Festival
“Doi Cat” (Sand Life) by Vietnamese director Nguyen Thanh Van took the best feature film award at the 45th Asia-Pacific Film festival awards ceremony in Hanoi in 2000. The film, about the bitter life of a middle-aged woman living in a coastal village who spent 20 years waiting for her boyfriend’s return from the warfront, also won the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress awards.
The Vietnam news Agency reported: “The Best Actress award went to Mai Hoa, and the Best Subordinate Actress to Hong Anh. Directed by Nguyen Thanh Van, the movie portrays a post-war love triangle and reveals how far-reaching and unexpected the effects of war can be. It tells the story of a husband and wife who are separated by the escalating war, but the conflict’s end brings them no peace. Viet Nam also won the best short film prize. This year, the honour went to film “Chi Nam Khung” (Mrs. Nam) by Director Lai Van Sinh, which praises Mrs. Nam Hong, a combat nurse, who spent 13 years finding the remains of fallen combatants -her team-mates. This is the third consecutive time Viet Nam has won the best short film prize at Asia-Pacific Films Festivals. Vietnam entered five feature films, three documentaries and two animations.
Success for Vietnamese Documentaries and Short Films
In 2000, the Voice of Vietnam reported: “A Vietnamese production won third prize in the short film category at the recent Cannes Film Festival in France. The film, Cuoc Xe Dem (the Night Cyclo Trip), beat nearly 151 short films to make the final Cannes shortlist of 12 films; The Night Cyclo Trip tells the story of a young rural man who leaves his home village to work as a cyclo driver in the city. One quiet night, he is hired to carry a corpse across the city, beginning a series of strange events. The night trip is used by the film maker to lead his audience into Hanoi’s small lanes at night to see the lives and destiny of laboring people who are struggling to earn a living.
“The Night Cyclo Trip was already seen in Hanoi with eight other short films before the Cannes Festival took place. It was highly appreciated for its shooting technique, selected images, effective sound effects, psychological development of the main character, concise dialogue, and focus viewpoint. This short film is directed by 32-year-old Bui Thac Chuyen. Chuyen graduated from the University of Stage Art and Cinematography in 1990 in Hanoi, and the Night Cyclo Trip is his first cinema release after making a series of TV films. The film has only one main character and lasts just 19 minutes. But it took the director two years for preparation and 17 days for shooting. It is the same length of time it usually takes him to shoot a 240-minute TV film. Chuyen did not think of sending his film to the Cannes Festival. He simply told us that something urged him to make the film. Chuyen attended a director special training workshop included in the Ministry of Culture and Information program on rehabilitating the national film industry.
It was coincidental that when Chuyen went to the Cannes Festival with his first work, the Vietnam Cinematography Department launched a short film contest for Vietnamese film makers nationwide. Tran The Dan, Deputy Director of the Department told VOV News, “On May 22, the Vietnam Cinematography Department launched a short film contest to encourage the participation of film makers from different sectors nation-wide. It does not take a large sum of money to make a short film, so Vietnamese film makers can afford it. However, it is difficult to produce a short film. The talent, qualification and thinking of film makers can be seen clearly in short films as the short film is very condensed but must be informative and impressive. Talent is often detected through the production of short films.”
“According to Chuyen, during the production process, he received much assistance from his colleagues and feature film companies. After an initial shoot in Hanoi, “The Night Cyclo Trip” was highly appraised and funded by the Audio-Visual Division of the French Embassy in Hanoi. The final stages of the film were completed in France. Chuyen went to France and worked together with his French colleagues for two months and a half to complete the film. Chuyen also feels happy that his script won the support and interest of the whole team, particularly Vietnamese main actor Nguyen Thanh Hung and cameraman Ly Thai Dzung and the French technicians. Chuyen said that each second of the film is as he had imagined and calculated it would be. Chuyen was accompanied by his wife to the Cannes Festival. It is often said that a short film is the name card of young film directors to the producers, donors and interested people. The Night Cyclo Trip is an excellent name card for Bui Thac Chuyen.
Phan Thanh Phong wrote in Nhân Dân, “The documentaries of Vietnam have made a great impression, deserving the highest awards at Asia-Pacific Film Festivals. They include ‘Return to Ngu Thuy’ directed by Le Manh Thich, ‘The Sound of the Violin in My Lai’ directed by Tran Van Thuy, ‘Ms Nam’ directed by Lai Van Sinh and ‘Countryside’ directed by Nguyen Si Chung. In addition, the ‘Where the War has Passed’ documentary directed by Vu Le My won two first prizes at environment film festivals, one in Germany and another in Tokyo. The ‘For the Peaceful Life’ documentary also by Vu Le My was awarded the first prize in the Brazilian film festival.
Johnny Tri Nguyen, Vietnamese-American Actor
CNN reported: “Johnny Tri Nguyen was recently in Hanoi choreographing the fight scenes for a film about the founding of Hanoi (this year marks the 1,000-year anniversary of the capital). Often referred to as the country’s own Brad Pitt, Vietnamese-American actor Johnny Tri Nguyen is Vietnam’s hottest rising star. Nguyen left Vietnam aged nine, settling in Orange County with his family. He began studying martial arts before that, aged six. “First I learned the family martial art created by my grandfather, then a few years later aikido, kung fu, wushu — I was a competitor on the U.S. national team. I trained in tae kwon do after I stated doing stunts. When I came back to Vietnam l learned the Vietnam stuff and then later on some muay Thai.”
Nguyen’s successful career as a stuntman has included films like “Spiderman (1 & 2)” and “Jarhead”. “My first acting break was a small part in ‘Cradle 2 the Grave’ with Jet Li.” He later received international attention as a villain in Thai film “Tom Yum Goong” (released in the United States as “The Protector”) with Tony Jaa. After re-settling in Vietnam in 2005, Nguyen released six films, frequently co-starring with singer-actress Ngo Thanh Van and Dustin Nguyen (“21 Jump Street”, “Little Fish”). “The Rebel” (2007), starring all three, is available in the United States on DVD. His latest film “Clash” was featured at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.