Chicken goulash for teen souls

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Foreign serials will win popularity stakes if local filmmakers try to ape them instead of making original, realistic ones

A scene in teen serial Nhung thien than ao trang (The white angels). The series failed to connect with audiences because of its bookish characters and dialogues

Kim Minh, a 21-year-old linguistics student at Van Lang University, tunes into the Disney Channel every night to watch its captivating teen sitcoms.

Though he is no longer a teen, Minh said the sitcoms are not just entertaining, he also learns valuable life lessons about family and life in general.

"Disney channel's most popular series, like "˜Hannah Montana,' "˜Wizards of Waverly Place,' "˜The Suited life of Jack and Cody' or "˜Good luck, Charlie,' have become big favorites because the teen fare on local television channels is boring.

"My sister, who is 26 and married, is still enchanted by these [foreign] serials. Good looking actors and educational, entertaining content are the main reasons local teens go gaga over foreign productions," Minh said.

Unlike Minh and his sister, high school student Mai Tram prefers Korean dramas. She is captivated by their young, handsome actors and romantic plots, she says. 

Tram said she and her friends usually surf the Internet with bated breath for gossip on their favorite stars. Teenage social forums like, yeah1 or are full of praise for Korean, Japanese and American teen dramas.

Sensing the needs and tastes of Asian youth, Taiwanese, Korean and Japanese film producers have also created the "idol series" which features melodramatic storylines and dreamy actors and actresses.

The influence of these foreign teen series can be found in every corner of Vietnam, as young fans copy their idols' fashions, hair styles and even mannerisms. Local youth even find creative ways of expressing their love to their significant others in ways that are often inspired by popular serials.

Consquently, the following for local dramas is tiny in comparison.

Head scratching

Many film producers and script-writers are at their wit's end as they try to feel the pulse of local youth. They are not able to put their finger on what it is about foreign serials that captivates local youth.   

"They easily fall in love with the foreign dramas which feature rich boys and girls, gorgeous outfits, nice cars and big houses, but they turn their back when we do the same things in local productions.

"Foreign dramas focus on different cultures and customs, some of which are totally unsuited to Vietnamese life. But they still accept and imitate them. Have they ever watched an entire local series?" wondered Hoang Duan, a director and scriptwriter.

Having spent over 10 years in making plays and puppet shows for children, Duan took to directing films with bunches of ideas on TV drama serials for teenagers. He provides a potential answer himself.

"Adults commonly tell young people that teenage years are the "˜best years of your life,' based on wistful memories. But that is just part of the picture. That part of life is also filled with conflicts with parents, teachers, friends and with themselves. Growing up, negotiating a path between independence and reliance on others, is a tough business. But no local series depicts this insightfully."

Other local film producers say they have only begun paying attention to products for teenagers over the last decade or so. They also admit that at the end of that decade, the results have not been as good as they'd hoped for.

Before making the series Nhung thien than ao trang (The white angels) director Le Hoang rather loftily said he was doing it to save the weak local TV series industry.

However, he failed.

His White Angels, who always appear in pink uniforms, are led by July Miu, a student who studied abroad that returns to Vietnam because of her father's business. She soon becomes the class monitor based on her confidence and the knowledge she garnered in England.

Viewers, however, failed to connect.

"How could someone who studied overseas not know how to use the elevator and talk like a creature from another planet? Her friends are so bookish, having old heads on young shoulders and talking like adults using famous quotes and philosophy. I cannot find any part of myself in a series like that," said Kim Minh, the linguistics student.

In another teen series called Sieu mau xi trum (The tiny models) the audience was put off by "illogical" plots and "ridiculous" costumes of the characters. The teen boys and girls in the series spend no time at school but are always shopping and sporting Harajuku-style outfits and hair styles that look totally out of place in Vietnam.

Kim Minh said many of his friends like to watch local productions, but they are usually disappointed with series introduced as "great for teens" but actually "made by someone who has not had a teenager in front of them for several decades."

Minh also said that local teens will not turn their back on really good local serials, as hits like Dat Phuong Nam (The southern land), Kinh van hoa (Kaleidoscope) and Phia truoc la bau troi (The sky is in front of us).

The adventures of an orphan who tries to find his father during war-time, the childish antics of two boys and a girl, and the ups and downs experienced by a group of students in a rental cluster touched the audience's hearts because they depicted real life situations.

Success factors

Duan said local serials were losing out in competing against foreign productions for lack of good scripts and good acting. 

"A good story plays an important role in making a hit just as it does for adults. Foreign films attract youth with good scripts, actors, high investment and modern technology in producing good science fiction, fantasy, action or adventure films that satisfies their young, rich imaginations," said Duan.

Director Quoc Thinh, who shot to fame as a leading local stuntman, has earned success with his first series Vuon doi (Garden of life) featuring underprivileged teens who get addicted to drugs and are put in jail.

Thinh's series has set off a new trend in making films for teens, eschewing mushy romance themes for more gritty themes like alcohol and drug abuse, relations with parents and teachers, as well as the underworld. 

Thinh said that he wants to depict normal kids which could be found on any street corner on screen.

"The series has no love triangles, nor does it feature wealthy lifestyles. It just provides a picture of what poor children go through. It also depicts them as victims of broken families and an indifferent society. It is not the strict law or social prejudices but love and care that can save their lives," said Thinh.

There are other approaches to making teen films that can be seen in hits like Kinh van hoa and Dat phuong Nam, which are adaptations of well-known novels.

However, Thinh says a real teen series should come from the makers' hearts, experiences and personal observations.

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