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Young director takes on controversial erotic tragedy set in the Mekong Delta

Hai Yen portrays Suong, a prostitute, in director Nguyen Phan Quang Binh's lastest film, "Floating Lives"

Director Nguyen Phan Quang Binh did not have an easy time adapting the famous novel Canh dong bat tan (The endless field) to the screen.

But after a lot of hard work and a number of changes his adaptation, "Floating Lives" is ready for international competition.

Binh said adapting Nguyen Ngoc Tu's literary masterpiece, which won the Southeast Asian Writers Award (2008), placed an enormous strain on his crew and actors. But, in the end, he is satisfied that he has made the film his way, he says.

"We didn't copy the entire story," he was cited by Cong An Nhan Dan Online (People's police online) as saying. "We added many details to make the characters richer."

Canh dong bat tan was published in 2003 and drew a great deal of interest from readers and critics. The book tells the story of a peasant family living in the Mekong Delta and one man's search for romantic redemption.

Ut Vo is a single father left to raise his daughter and son. He has lost his faith in love when Suong, a prostitute, steps into his family's life.

Following its publication, the book ignited debate among local government officials who objected to the heavy, erotic tone of the work.

Tu's piece was adapted into a play that won critical success.

Many critics doubt Binh's capacity to guarantee the story's success on screen "Floating Lives" will only be his second movie.

But Binh says this movie has been six years in the making and is not a project he took on lightly.

"I first read Canh dong bat tan in 2003, and was immediately enchanted," said Binh who has visited the area six times to meet with scholars, reporters and local residents. "I convinced scriptwriters Nguy Ngu and Nguyen Ho (also a renowned director) to meet Nguyen Ngoc Tu for an adaptation contract. But I did not dare to film it at that time."

"Six years was sufficient time to live and experience (the story), and give me the confidence to make it."

The director said his film will have a brighter ending, because he wants to "release" his audience from the obsession that the literary work instilled in its readers.

But the film will keep the original message of the writer: only forgiveness makes life easier, he told Dat Viet newspaper.

There are sexual scenes in the film, Binh says. But they are "psychological", not physical.

"I want to tell a simple story about people learning to forgive one another to live more easily," he said. "It will be very hard, but I expect the understanding from readers of the book for my film."

Binh said that, like Tu's book, his film seeks to articulate the impressive spatial features of the Mekong Delta.

The producers hired people to plant dozens of hectares of rice months before the film was shot in November, 2009, so they could film in a ripening paddy field.

Thousands of ducks were bred and trained to become accustomed to studio lights and the crew's presence.

Yet Binh said he still regrets that "a hundred minutes of the film couldn't include more fascinating beauties of the southern land."

He said he hoped the film will be artsy but at the same time, appeal to a mass audience.

"Floating Lives" features a glittering cast that includes Dustin Nguyen who has performed alongside Jonny Depp and Cate Blanchett, and Do Hai Yen who costarred in Phillip Noyce's "The Quiet American" (2002) and won a Golden Kite, Vietnam's most prestigious film award, for Best Actress in 2006 for her role as an ethnic girl in Chuyen cua Pao (Pao's Story).

Nguyen (Ut Vo) said he came away with a number of bruises in the many days he spent learning how to row a boat, catch fish, do wood work, round up ducks and set up a house like a real southern farmer.

"When reading the story, I was really moved," Nguyen said. "It's simple but the atmosphere and emotions are haunting, especially the life of the father. So I accepted the part."

"[Vo is] a character with terrible conflicts and few lines. This is a serious choice of mine as it gives me the chance to discover myself."

Meanwhile Hai Yen said "I have tried twice as hard as I thought could. The role of Suong was a big challenge and I like that."

Suong wades through mud and trembles through thorns. Yen said she had to do so many takes that, in the final days, the make-up artists didn't have to do much.

"Suong is a prostitute but she's pure a complicated and floating life," Yen said. "She wants to change, to become a new person but her tragedy is she cannot choose the life that she wishes for, so she bristles to answer life."

It sounds ridiculous but the director said the biggest obstacle during the making of the film were the mosquitoes.

The film was shot near the river in Can Tho City, and in Dong Thap and Long An provinces, which are known for the saying "the mosquitoes fill the air like a band of flutes and the leeches crowd the rivers like noodles in a bowl."

In order to produce satisfactory shots, Binh said the whole crew had to accept wading through brackish water and being stung by mosquitoes day after day.

Crew members agreed that the film has been the most demanding undertaking of their professional careers.

"Floating Lives," which was produced by BHD (Viet Media Corp.) and Viet Film Studio will be released nationwide on October 22. It will also be the only Vietnamese entry to the Pusan Film Festival, in Korea, which will be held from from October 7 to 15.

A total of 308 movies from 67 countries and territories have been entered into 11 different categories at the festival. "Floating Lives" is among 12 entries in the "New Currents" category. The winner will receive a US$30,000 prize.

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