Match thy neighbors

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A poster of the latest Vietnamese release, Le Bao Trung's horror comedy Biet chet lien

I often hold up the best of Hollywood such as Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino for the standards that Vietnamese filmmakers should aspire to. But as a reader recently reminded me, local filmmakers don't really have to look to the west for lessons; they can learn plenty from regional filmmakers.

"Vietnamese filmmakers have nothing to learn from America," commented Jamie Maxtone-Graham on my article "Hard sell or hard to sell" about Luu Huynh's latest movie Lay chong nguoi ta, which was republished on http://diacritics.org, a website covering Vietnamese culture at home and abroad.

"And little to learn from Europe. They have everything to learn from the regional neighbors and colleagues whose experience, situation, circumstance is so much more closely related than anything in the West," he said.

In that and other articles I said the scripts of Vietnamese movies are forced and fake, meaning they are devoid of real human emotion.

Last month I watched three films from "the neighbors". One was a very good Indonesian documentary, Dwi Sujanti Nugraheni's "Denok and Gareng" about a young couple's daily life. It was screened in the Southeast Asian documentary category at the 5th European-Vietnamese Documentary Film Festival.

It was for the first time that Southeast Asian documentaries were shown at this festival, which, considering the reader's reminder, is a brilliant idea.

The Vietnamese documentaries produced by the National Documentary and Scientific Film Studio screened at the festival simply can't be compared with the European films or "Denok and Gareng."

Saying Vietnamese filmmakers just have a different way of making documentaries, which includes using lots of voice-over and not letting real-life events and people speak for themselves, does not wash.

I have seen a few documentaries and feature films from Southeast Asia, and Vietnamese filmmakers are indeed falling behind their regional counterparts.

The gap is painfully clear between the latest Vietnamese film, Le Bao Trung's horror comedy Biet chet lien, and the other two regional films I watched in June.

Taweewat Wantha's "Long Weekend" (Ky nghi tai uong in Vietnamese) and Banjong Pisanthanakun's "Pee Mak Phrakanong" (Tinh nguoi duyen ma) were both from Thailand, both horror flicks screened in theaters at around the same time as Biet chet lien.

It would be unfair to compare Biet chet lien with "Pee Mak Phrakanong," also a horror comedy, because the gap is too vast.
"Pee Mak Phrakanong," which has become the highest grossing domestic film of all time in Thailand, is based on a Thai folk tale about a dead woman trying to live with her husband as a ghost because of her undying love for him.

It delivers on all fronts: When it meant to be funny, everybody bent over in laughter; when it meant to scare, everybody screamed. Toward the end, when romance takes the spotlight, it was so touching and convincing that I cried.

I do not expect to see a Vietnamese movie of the same caliber any time soon. But the makers of Biet chet lien can learn a thing or two from the other Thai horror flick, "Long Weekend," a more modest and straightforward film with the not-too-original script of sending teenagers off on a summer vacation to party and get punished for their thoughtlessness by the ghosts.

Biet chet lien is also about a group of young people going off to a resort in a coastal village where they learn a terrifying secret.

There are two things I picked up from "Long Weekend" that the filmmakers of Biet chet lien may find useful: 1) Focus. One thing at a time. Stick to the horror. To be able to make a good horror comedy, to scare and make people laugh at the same time is difficult. Only the best films like "Pee Mak Phrakanong" can do this.

Biet chet lien has too many trivial and not-so-funny details it could have done without. The main idea has some solidity and could have been better developed.

The young people go to the coastal village to learn that villagers there are infected with a mysterious disease that destroys their skin. While the filmmakers should have devoted themselves to presenting this idea, and developing a solid build-up to the big secret behind the disease, they instead waste much of the time on so-called comedy and irrelevant scare pranks that turn out to be nothing.

Later in the movie, after the secret is summarily revealed, we are treated to a lot of action. If there is something that saves this movie and reveals an effort to make a good film, it is the final sequence featuring some emotional confrontation and justified action.

The filmmakers would have done better if they had focused and jettisoned the comedy and everything related to the following:

2) Breasts. Get over boobs, please. Young audiences go to the cinema to be entertained alright, but there are other ways to entertain them than merely having beautiful actresses wear revealing clothes and show their breasts. This just makes a film look cheap.

One may argue that summer films that target teenagers should be fun, but looking fun is different from looking slutty. The few scenes in "Long Weekend" in which the young characters swim and drink are OK and do not distract from the main story.

The girl characters are ordinary teenagers and wear what look like normal clothes, though of course they are all good-looking because they are played by good-looking actresses.

Films are about characters, not the actors and actresses who play them. But Vietnamese films that target young audiences often reveal an embarrassing attempt to make actresses look sexy and pretty.

In Biet chet lien, the girls shower, have photo shoots in bikinis, and make out to be sexy. As for pretty, Vietnamese heroines often wear clothes that make them look like princesses.

I often see the girls who play the characters more than the characters themselves. Ngoc Diep in Vu Thai Hoa's Giua 2 the gioi  and Angela Phuong Trinh in Biet chet lien look sexy, dress up, and flaunt their impressive mammaries.

After watching Giua 2 the gioi, all I remembered was Ngoc Diep's bosom which heaves violently out of fear in a bedroom scene when she is haunted by a ghost. Ditto with Angela Phuong Trinh's breasts, which distracted me right from the beginning in Biet chet lien.

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