A scene in Giua hai the gioi (Between two worlds), this year's first local horror movie is set for release on July 22
Murky censorship laws have long vexed horror film makers in Vietnam. In recent years, few have dared to risk releasing them. Those who complained their films were rendered unrecognizable by heavy handed cuts.
Audiences complain that no one has succeeded in making a film that deals in the unseemly.
At the moment, horror appears to be making a comeback and gun-shy directors are hoping that a recent relaxation of the red pen will allow them the space they need to create a truly titillating cinematic experience.
Between now and Christmas, Vietnamese producers are preparing to release four locally-produced films that deal heavily in death and gloom. In addition, industry insiders say that three horror films are on track to come out next year as well.
Giua hai the gioi (Between two worlds) is set for release on July 22. The film will tell the story of a beautiful music student who fails to commit suicide and ends up marrying a mysterious construction contractor.
She is haunted by the spirit of a young girl.
By the rules
Quang Phuoc, a representative of the BHD Company (which produced Giua hai the gioi) said that submitting a risqué film to Vietnam's censors is risky business.
Vietnam's censorship standards were released in 1997 by Ministry of Culture and Information (now is Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism).
The ministry prohibited the screenings of films which include the revelation of state secrets, the distortion of history or the depictions of sex, nudity or masturbation. The standards likewise prohibited the screening of gruesome images of murder or dismemberment.
The regulation also banned depictions of criminals who are satisfied with their crimes.
The 1997 regulations contained a caveat. Such films were eligible for release if they met the ministry's "artistic criteria." However, the criteria were never explained and filmmakers are left to guess whether or not they will qualify for screening.
Phuoc said that the National Film Censors Association only reviews films on Tuesday and Friday. He added that the body makes it exceedingly difficult to create a proper horror film.
Most mentions of murder are considered verboten. Moreover, mentions of ghosts or devils are considered superstitions and may also be subject to censorship.
"Everybody knows that the horror genre is supposed to contain shocking content that is supposed to make an audiences' hair stand on end," he said.
In the end, Phuoc believes, it is better for the filmmakers to self-censor their work and avoid sensational elements like bloody violence or sex.
Real ratings, please
Vietnam still lacks a rating system akin to the symbols employed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). In this way, it is more open"”all films that are released are deemed suitable for all audiences.
However, in 2007, audience curiosity was piqued when the government released Muoi, a horror film that was jointly created by Korean and Vietnamese filmmakers. For the first time in Vietnam's history, viewer's under 16 were barred from viewing the film.
The hype attracted more viewers than ever and the age restriction was loosely enforced by cinemas throughout the country.
In the end, however, the film disappointed most of the viewers.
"Many scenes in the film were cut, so hardly anyone understands the storyline much," said Duy, a post-production editor in Ho Chi Minh City. "Given that they placed an age restriction on the film, it was unnecessary to cut it."
Phuoc Sang Film Production, the Vietnamese producer of Muoi quit making horror films, citing the complex censorship process and the low audience revenues.
However, the new age standard created new hope for local filmmakers.
That same year, Nguyen Chanh Tin, a senior actor turned film producer, producing and releasing two 45-minute-horror films called Ngoi nha bi an (Mysterious house) and Suoi oan hon (Spring of injustice souls).
Tin said that the local censors changed Ngoi nha bi an's ending. The film chronicles a film director's attempts to disprove a rumored haunted house. The film initially ended with her fear"”one that proved the existence of a homicidal specter.
Tin maintains that the censors demanded that the film end as unsolved (and decidedly non-supernatural) murder.
"It left no suspense or fright for the audience" Tin said.
Scapegoating the censors
Some viewers argue that blaming poor film quality on government censorship is just an old dodge for bad film-making. Some say
Vietnamese horror films are just plain bad.
"Ghosts appear on the screen, but they sometimes look funny instead of scary," said Minh Chau, an overseas student. "I think we desperately need good horror scripts. The producers, at times, pass the buck to the strict censors instead of taking a look back at their bad stories".
Director Bui Thac Chuyen shot to fame with a number of art-house releases like Choi voi (Adrift) which won a number of international film awards in 2009.
He is currently working on Loi nguyen huyet ngai (a film about a group of students being terrorized by a vampiric tree) which is set to come out this Christmas.
Ultimately, he believes that local film makers must focus on improving their scripts and visual effects.
In the meantime, things seem to be looking up for the genre.
Recently, censorship seems to have relaxed. Foreign horror films like "The Prom Night" or "Legion" were screened without too many cuts.
Many directors and producers are hoping that Vietnam's censors will be as easy on them as they are on the foreign releases.