Academy Award plan an academic exercise

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A poster of Mua len trau (Buffalo boy), a highly acclaimed picture and Vietnam's Oscar submission in 2006

Vietnam's film industry is expected to win an Oscar in 20 years under a recently announced government plan, but filmmakers say there is no foundation for making such grandiose plans.

Authorities should focus instead on giving local filmmakers more freedom and space to build talent, they add.

The Oscar winning goal is set in a plan prepared by the Department of Cinematography in June, but there is little chance of achieving it when censorship inhibits creativity and progress, filmmakers say.

In 1993, Tran Anh Hung's Mui du du xanh (The scent of green papaya), was the first and only Vietnamese language movie that was short-listed at the Oscars, but it was practically a French movie.

Do Manh Tuan's Vua bai rac (Foul king) could have been the country's first representative at the Academy Awards in 2004, but it was not submitted at the last minute because of a procedural delay.

However, it did win recognition of sorts when Quebec-based BM Film International bought 10-year distribution rights to the film for the US and Canadian market.

More Vietnamese movies have been sent overseas almost every year, but none has ever come close to the top honor an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Movie.

Mui co chay (The scent of burning grass), directed by Nguyen Huu Muoi and set in the Easter Offensive of 1972, was selected for the 85th Academy Awards early this year, but it did not enter the final shortlist.

In 2006, Mua len trau (Buffalo boy) won Best Foreign Language Film at the Palm Springs International Festival as well as awards at several other international film festivals, but it did not make it at the Oscars.


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Local critics said the movie, which depicts the poor and difficult life of southern farmers in the flooding season during French colonization, lacked the humor of Son Nam's short story that it was based on.

They said most Vietnamese Oscar candidates carry a depressing mood without the hope and humor that appeals to audiences.

But film directors countered, saying they had no space to make contemporary twists to their stories. They would receive no support for doing so, either from the government or from the producers, if they went beyond approved templates, the directors said.

They said the current censorship system made filmmaking a risky venture. 

Director Ha Son, whose Trung uy (Lieutenant) has been screened in local film festivals since 2010 but not released in public, said Vietnam's movie industry needs some supporting organizations instead of a management agency.

"Maybe that would give the industry more air (to breathe)," Son said.

Phan Dang Di, director of Bi, dung so (Bi, Don't be afraid), a movie that won two Critics Week awards at Cannes in 2010, said the Cinematography Department was on the wrong track.

"Planning for international awards is an impossible thing to do, what matters more is to encourage people's creativity," he said.

Di said Vietnamese cinematography at home is "inadequate," as there are no standard curricula and the training for many important aspects like production, special effects or make-up or costume design has been all but forgotten.

He said teachers at cinema schools are mainly passing on their experience, and students have few chances to practice what they learn. A film student in France would have produced hundreds of short films by the time they graduate, while a Vietnamese graduate would have made ten, at the most. 

Vietnamese graduates also enter real life not really knowing what's good or bad about their work because the country does not have many professional critics, Di said.

An overseas training proposal for filmmakers was approved in 2010, but it has stayed on paper to date.

Other directors pointed to the South Korean example, when the government in late 1980s sent more than 100 people to train at Hollywood, and the move paid dividends more than ten years later with the development of a strong local movie industry.

They said it is "surreal" to hope that Vietnam's film industry would develop similarly in seven years.

For the record, the Cinematography Department imagines the local film industry leading Southeast Asia by 2020 and a prominent one in Asia by 2030.

Di said if Vietnam does not get its cinema training act together, any goal is meaningless.

Local filmmakers not only lack incentive policies, they are also stifled by the current censorship regime, he said.

"Creativity needs freedom. A director needs to be able to go into the depth of their beliefs [and emotions].

"If they keep being afraid (of rules), they would be like a tree that cannot grow up straight, but has to bend and tremble."

Di pointed to the "paradox" in his own case. His film, that won awards at Cannes, was supported by French producers. It tells the story of six-year-old Bi living in an old house in Hanoi with his ill grandfather, who is detached from the family, yet has a strong desire for his regular masseuse, and a single aunt deeply attracted to a teenage boy.

After it won worldwide acclaim and was screened for students in Germany, it was brought back to Vietnam and had to be restricted to those 18 years old and above because of some intimate scenes. Yet, those scenes were cut anyway, leaving audiences unable to have a grasp of the whole story.

He said the movie would have gone nowhere if it had to go through Vietnamese censors in the first place.

Le Bao Trung, who learned from James Cameron's visual effects supervisor for Avatar to direct Vietnam's first 3D movie in 2010, also said the Oscar ambition can be realized only if the hold of censorship is loosened.

Trung said many directors confine themselves to making commercial movies that will guarantee returns, keeping their ideas for artistic projects in abeyance, dreaming that someday they can save some money to make films that they really want.

"Sensitive topics are strictly scanned, and directors can hardly make a breakthrough. It has left us far adrift of the rest of the world."

Directors said Oscar award juries look for movies with some global message, but the council selecting the Vietnamese entry tends to stick to something "rich in national color." 

A famous Vietnamese director, whose movie was sent to the Oscars, told Nguoi Lao Dong anonymously that he never hoped to win because "the game is not for us."

He said technical shortcomings are only an excuse, the biggest problem is Vietnamese movies do not have the content or artistic value that matches the Oscar level.

Local artists have been referring to A Separation, Iranian Oscar winner for foreign film category in 2012, as a lesson Vietnam should learn from.

It has no deaths, no crimes, no bombings, no sex, and it did not need expensive technology to make. The film tells the heart-warming story of a couple having to make a difficult decision between moving to another country for their child's future or staying in Iran to look after a parent with Alzheimer's disease.

Trung said the country should let directors work more on independent films that are not produced within the major film studio system and usually cost less to make.

Such movies allow directors to be less dependent on sponsors, and have the distinctive content and style to carry more of the filmmakers' personal artistic vision.

But there is nothing "personal" about the Cinematography Department's Oscar plan.

Ngo Phuong Lan, director of the department, told the Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper that in the near future,  the department will present a selection of topics for potential Oscar submission that filmmakers can choose to develop on. The department will make its choice from the development proposals, she said.

Lan said that the Oscars are not a big deal. It has been mentioned in the plan only for filmmakers to have a goal to aim at.

But repeated failures of the past make some guidelines necessary to help produce better quality films for the nation's Oscar entries, she said.

Ngo Thi Bich Hanh, deputy director of BHD, the Ho Chi Minh City-based film production company, warned of a worse future, when the local movie industry is consumed by foreign corporations.

Hanh said in a Tien Phong report the local film industry earned nearly VND1 trillion (US$47.16 million) in 2012, and this potential will attract the big players who will take over the local movie scene, burying local filmmaking forever.

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