Cyber boost for local filmmakers

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A scene in Xin loi, anh chi la thang ban banh gio (Sorry, I'm just a pyramidal rice dumpling seller)

No sex, no comedy, no violence. This is a formula for failure in the Vietnamese film market, if box office hits are any indication.

However, Xin loi, anh chi la thang ban banh gio (Sorry, I'm just a pyramidal rice dumpling seller), has been a super hit.

The sentimental but not cloying plot of director Pham Loc's 25-minute long feature has attracted 3.5 million views on YouTube after it was first posted in March. This is not including the number of times it has been shared on other social networks.

The film, adapted from a short online novel, is Loc's graduate thesis. He is a student of the Ho Chi Minh City University of Theater and Cinema. It has gathered a lot of acclaim, with several viewers remarking that it might not be a brilliant art film, but it is made more professionally than many box-office hits produced by local studios.

The film has a tearful ending for the blooming love between a bánh giò (pyramidal rice dumpling) hawker and a bánh tráng trá»™n (a popular snack made of girdle cake mixed with spices, fried onions, peanuts and egg) street vendor. Their love is forbidden by the mother of the girl who sells bánh tráng trá»™n, because the latter is afraid the affair will doom the family into eternal poverty.

The girl's father falls critically ill, and the boy gives her family all of his savings, and dies shortly afterwards because he has an incurable brain tumor. 

Many netizens have remarked that the film may lack the "bonus" of sex, comedy or violence, but it has good acting and cinematography as well as moving storyline. Even though the film's "˜creative' flashback narrative without fixed time sequences has been said to copy Marc Webb's amazingly offbeat and utterly charming "˜[500] Days of Summer,' it still makes for enjoyable watching, they say. 

Pham Loc, whose real name is Pham Viet Phuoc, has shot into fame since the surprising success of his short film that he shared on the Internet "just for fun."

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"I think the movie came out at a proper time and place. They (the audiences) celebrate the White Valentine, so it is easier for them to enjoy a love story."

Son of the late Pham Khac, famous filmmaker and producer, Loc has worked as a cameraman for Ho Chi Minh City Television for 10 years and directed some TV serials, but he was still a relative unknown till his 25-minute film struck a chord on the Internet.

He told the Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper that the short film cost him VND40 million (US$2,000) and nearly two months to finish.

Loc said making short films is not his long-term choice.

However, he does not deny that the short film has been a boost for his career. He has just been asked to direct  a new nine-episode TV series called Hoang Dao (Desert island.)   

Loc is not the only unknown director who has benefited from Internet exposure.

DAMtv would still be nameless if its short video clip Kinh Van Bong (A pun on Kinh Van Hoa (Kaleidoscope) a Nguyen Nhat Anh's popular book series for teens in the 90s) was not posted on YouTube last September. The clip, recalling humorous school age scenarios, has attracted over six million views and is considered as one of the best works by the student group.

The group says, however, that they are not interested in using gimmicks to earn revenues. In making humorous video clips grounded in local social events, DAMtv members say that they are just following their love for filmmaking and using social networks, especially YouTube and Facebook, as their official distributors. 

Some cinema forums report that many of around 40 amateur filmmaking groups in Hanoi and 500 independent filmmakers in Ho Chi Minh City have chosen the Internet as their promotional vehicle. They have been inspired by the success of some independent filmmakers like Ta Nguyen Hiep, Tran Dinh Hien, Nguyen Anh Tuan and Truong Minh Quy.

Hiep, Hien, Tuan and Quy have used the Internet in different ways. While Hiep had his film compete at Yxine online film fest, Hien won the 48-hour filmmaking contest in Vietnam, Tuan posted his snappy cartoon on YouTube and Quy earned fame through his profound film reviews on cinema forums before asking the support of famous actress Hong Anh for his debut film.

Hien told Vietweek that although many filmmakers baulk at the idea of putting their work on the Internet, its advantages are hard to ignore. He said online publicity helped him win sponsorship from local film producers to make a more "˜proper' film.

"Some filmmakers, especially young ones like me, usually recoil from asking for sponsorship or financial support from local professional producers, since they are concerned about losing their creative freedom.

"But I think that when you can convince a sponsor, it also proves that your project is good enough to be invested in. It also means that, somehow, you have partly succeeded," he said.   

Pham Tuan, a freelance movie reporter, told Vietweek that the rise of Internet has helped filmmakers reach out directly to potential investors or producers and even use it to sort out difficulties in financing, marketing and distribution.

Some filmmakers have launched online campaigns calling for financial support for their film project, and released their films on movie forums as a marketing and distribution ploy. Professional director Cuong Ngo has released his two short films - one promoting a charity project and one brand commercial online.  

But Tuan also had a word of caution. Although the Internet seems to be an exciting tool to boost development of the local film industry, it is not immune to the same drawbacks as mainstream cinema, he said.

"Among millions of short films or video clips posted online, how do they stand out in such challenging environment? Besides the meaningful and noteworthy stories, many grab viewer's attention through gimmicks as well as the willingness to shock."

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