Make cinema personal, honest

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A scene in Lo lem Sai Gon (Saigon Cinderella), a Vietnamese-Korean product. This bad movie is one of six Vietnamese movies that will play in theaters this summer

I watched the acclaimed 2007 French animation film Persepolis at the Goethe Institute in Hanoi the other day. What a great film!

Adapted from Iranian-born French cartoonist and filmmaker Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical comic book series of the same name, the film is a touching yet humorous portrait of the difficult adolescent years of an Iranian girl growing up during the Islamic Revolution.

Not having read the email from the screening staff introducing Satrapi carefully I went to the screening not really knowing what I was about to see.

Before the screening of Persepolis and another film the staff said we would see animation films of the quality of documentaries.

As I watched Persepolis, I felt the content was so intimate, realistic, and interesting that I wondered whether it was inspired by a true story. Then the film ended and the credit rolled. How delighted, surprised, and moved I was to find out that it was indeed an autobiographical work and the artist, Satrapi, used her own name, Marjane, for her heroine.

Why did this simple act of an artist using her own name for her character touch me so? Because I'd seen so much dishonesty, fakery, superficiality, and mediocrity in contemporary Vietnamese cinema that when I saw a work that was honest and good, I knew right away. 

I'm going through a state of mind in which fakery no longer makes me angry or contemptuous; it just bores me. If an artist or artwork isn't honest, or if I don't see at least an effort toward honesty, I'm not interested.

In her monthly column Through the Lens, film critic Do Thuy Linh shines the spotlight on Vietnamese cinema. She also wades into the ongoing discussion among local filmmakers about how to make movies that aren't just recognized in Vietnam but also abroad. This English graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, the US, admits to having a vested interest in seeing the quality of Vietnamese movies improve. Thuy Linh may be reached at dolinh54@yahoo.com.

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To me, art itself, even the best kind, already veils something: when we can't express ourselves, we vent it all out in art. So when I encounter a seemingly honest and great work of art, I often check out the artist's biography. If the worlds portrayed in the artwork and biography seem contradictory (given room for inaccurate or incomplete biographical information), I would consider the whole enterprise the person and the art fake.

Usually, however, what I find is inspiring honesty in our greatest writers and artists. For instance, one of my favorites is D.H.Lawrence and his largely autobiographical novel "Sons and Lovers."  

My reaction against dishonesty in artists is similar to what I feel when I see an overload of images on Facebook these days. I would ask myself "Are people really as happy or sad as the images that they project for themselves and others to see show?" Is this whole image-producing enterprise really as meaningful and interesting to us as we would want to believe? Or is it an attempt to hide or compensate for our superficial, boring life?

If our life is so real and meaningful and interesting, we should be so into it that we don't have much time or energy to spare to take photos of it. I don't mean that art or photos aren't necessary. In reasonable doses, when they show real meaning, or skill, which, by the way, should go hand in hand, they are the twin sister of reality. 

What I'm driving at is that Vietnamese filmmakers should make movies like Persepolis, if they want to lure audiences like me.

This summer six Vietnamese films are set for release, two of them about girls achieving success through musical contests and both have the word "Cinderella" in their titles.

I've seen one of the two, Lo lem Sai Gon (Saigon Cinderella), a Vietnamese-Korean product. It's a bad joke. Enough said.

As for the rest, three are action films and one is a horror comedy, whatever that means. The horror comedy and one of the action films, Dustin Nguyen's Lua Phat (Once Upon a Time in Vietnam), will be in 3D.

In comparison, the Hollywood films to be screened include animation, action, superhero, and post-apocalypse films.

Except for the crème de la crème, most commercial cinema is pathetic. It's time that commercial cinema reinvents itself, and Vietnamese filmmakers, if they have any pride, should consider their fledgling film industry a great opportunity to explore new ideas, to be a true leader in this game.      

Continuing to churn out forgettable old things for some quick bucks is like prostituting yourself.  Audiences throw a few cheap bucks at you for a quick fix, and go on to find their next prostitute. In other words, I'm bored. But you can't blame me, since your art of seduction is so rudimentary. The more sophisticated way of seducing me is to be honest and yet still suggestive and interesting so that I keep coming back for more.

I suggest all Vietnamese filmmakers, commercial and artistic, should consider making intimate, personal, or autobiographical films.

Artistic filmmakers, if they are yet to be able to make good films about broad social contexts, should begin by telling their own stories as teachers in basic writing classes often ask their students to do.

Pham Nhue Giang, Nguyen Hoang Diep, or any woman filmmaker who is interested in womanhood, please give me an account of your own life as a woman.

Use your own names like Satrapi did, if you don't mind.

Phan Dang Di and those who are interested in sex, come on, tell me about your own sex lives.

Vu Ngoc Dang, Nguyen Quang Dung and others who may have one thing or two to say about homosexuality, please dig deeper and tell me what this sexuality thing bisexuality, homosexuality, heterosexuality is all about.

Don't just show me how men make love to each other. That is nice but superficial. I have a feeling that homosexuality is a state of mind, but what am I saying? I mean this is a complex topic, which is precisely why I need filmmakers and other artists to help me explore it in an honest, intelligent way. In short, tell me what really bothers you about yourself and your private life?

Everyone of us should take off our masks, if we're wearing them, and artists can take the lead. We may discover that what we've tried so hard to hide isn't our true selves yet, because we are bigger than that.

The feeling of freedom once you are honest with yourself and others isn't an abstract thing. Nguyen Trinh Thi, an important experimental artist and filmmaker in Hanoi, recently said that when she made an installation art work in which she asked other artists to take off their clothes in front of her camera, one of them discovered that he liked the feeling so much that he eagerly came back for subsequent shootings to be naked again.

As for filmmakers who are perfectly happy with themselves and have a beautiful life, why in the world do they try to sell trash to me? I'm not so stuffy and naïve as to ask for 100 percent honesty. As Pink sings, "just give me a reason, just a little bit's enough," just a seed of honesty, so that I can learn to love you.

Among Hollywood filmmakers, the ones I love are Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino, even though they have plenty of commercial appeal. But there is so much intelligence, truth, and growth in their films that I know they are thoughtful people trying to answer serious questions about life through cinema. If Vietnamese filmmakers learn to be honest, some day, they may equal these great filmmakers.

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