Young directors responsible for a renaissance of sorts in Vietnamese cinema have their focus firmly on the bottom line
What is a successful film? The one that gets acclaim from the critics and wins prestigious awards? Or the one that audiences flock to, and makes good money?
The latter, say young directors Nguyen Quang Dung and Vu Ngoc Dang, who are considered talented, but somewhat counter-intuitively, have a tendency to produce commercial films.
"My goal of making a film is to get the real gold [turnover] not the gold-gilded statuette [prize]," Dung says.
Dung claims, "I have no concept of distinguishing between commercial film and art film."
"I think if you ask Hollywood filmmakers what commercial films and art films are, they will respond in a stammering voice, because cinema is an art by itself that is produced to serve its customers - audiences. That means it needs to be sold, therefore, it's an artistic matter of the market."
Dung is known as the scriptwriter and director of the 2007 Tet lunar new year's blockbuster Nu hon than chet (Hot kiss 1), which won a silver prize at the national Canh Dieu Vang 2007 (Golden Kite) Awards, Vietnam's answer to the Oscars.
He achieved success also with this highly anticipated sequel Giai cuu than chet (Hot kiss 2) released the following Tet holiday. The film raked in more than VND20 billion (US$1.2 million) at the box office and was last year's blockbuster.
Dung's close friend, director Vu Ngoc Dang who is famous for the most-watched TV series Bong dung muon khoc (Suddenly I want to cry) last year, has similar ideas, though his latest feature, Dep tung Centimet (Beautiful by the centimeter) - which also hit the local cinemas last Tet ââ‚¬" encountered criticism for using too many kisses and hot scenes not necessary to supplement the rest of the film's content.
"I am sure everyone will be surprised to learn Dep tung Centimet (Beautiful by the centimeter) did take in VND15 billion ($845,000) although the media does not like it," Dang says.
He attributes criticism of his film to the fact that the media critics don't understand his purpose of making the film.
He wants his films to appeal to the audience; he does not want to be an art film director in order to receive good comments.
"I don't try to produce a good film appreciated by reporters and critics because it doesn't often draw much attention from audiences," Dang says.
"This seems paradoxical but this is true. Good films and best-seller movies sometimes are not (compatible)."
Dang adds: "Many films are praised a lot by the press and the critics but often aren't acclaimed by viewers, and of course, it cannot reach a decent turnover while a film criticized sharply for containing no plot attracts moviegoers who wait in long queues to buy tickets.
"In fact, Dep tung Centimet (Beautiful by the centimeter) is an unsuccessful film in terms of promotion and communication but successful commercially. I can confidently say all the films I have directed are yet to fail (commercially)."
Features like Trai tim be bong (Little heart), Trang noi day gieng (The Moon at the Bottom of the well) and Huyen thoai bat tu (Legend is alive) won top prizes at film festivals and at the Golden Kite Awards, but none of them were half as successful as Dep tung Centimet (Beautiful by the centimeter), according to Dang.
Dang believes the Vietnamese movie industry has great potential.
"Our senior Le Hoang's success with Gai nhay (Bar girls) in 2001 proved that Vietnam has a market with high potential in the movie industry but the country has yet to create interesting commercial films."
"However, there is also no evidence that an excellent film must be an art film that gets awards," he reiterates.
Considered a pioneer of new trends in the local movie industry over the past few years, Dung is set to make a breakthrough for musicals in Vietnam. His initial experiment, Giai cuu than chet (Hot kiss 2), has proved a commercial success.
Giai cuu than chet (Hot kiss 2) included familiar plots and not many striking details but it left viewers with a very favorable impression because of its humor and familiarity.
Dung is known as Dung khung (crazy Dung) because he always employs unconventional directorial techniques to satisfy the audience.
In addition, his combination of teenage actors and actresses drawn from the music and modeling world (like Minh Hang, Dong Nhi, Chi Thien and Tuong Vy, who have turned in good acting and singing performances) and well-choreographed dances warmed up office boxes around the country this Lunar New Year.
Dung says the film doesn't focus much on characters' psychological changes. It just depicts problems that occur in daily life and describes the dreams, ambitions, and passion of youngsters.
In the film, viewers not only find something similar to Hollywood's "High School Musical," "Camprock" and "Mean Girls," but also see the homegrown director's adaptation that adds the perspective of Vietnamese teenagers.
Dung says he is hunting for talented actors and actresses who can sing for a musical to be released next Tet holiday.
Director Do Phu Hai says he had thought of making musicals a long time ago since the investment is not too much and the profits are attractive.
However, the problem lies in the musical know-how.
"Very few directors have a good understanding of music and song writers in the movies sector are not much better. In addition, actors and actresses are not good at singing while singers cannot act well," says Hai.
But Dung has proved that he can make good actors of singers. Singers Minh Hang and Phuong Thanh, for instance, have become award-winning actresses.
So, while critics harp on the artistic demerits of their films, a breed of young directors are singing all the way to the bank.
AWARD-WINNING FILMMAKERS DISCUSS
Director Nguyen Thanh Van, who created award-winning features including Trai tim be bong (Little heart, 2007), Nguoi dan ba mong du (Sleepwalking woman, 2003) and Doi cat (Sandy life, 1999). Van works for the largest state-owned firm, Vietnam Film.
"We should not differentiate between art films and commercial films because every film belongs to the arts. What makes sense here are the movies' themes and their target audiences. Most of the classical, social-oriented films like mine are serious and tearjerking, thus more suitable for those who are between 25-60 years of age rather than the youngsters who are majority of the moviegoers now. In addition, promotion is a key factor for commercial success. Most of the state-run films are made and promoted under backward and improper business mechanisms. A few open-minded persons like me cannot change the whole system."
Phuoc Sang, Chairman of Phuoc Sang Corp, which produced award-winners Ao lua Ha Dong (The White Silk Dress, 2006) and Huyen thoai bat tu (The legend is alive, 2008).
"The White Silk Dress was worth the investment of more than U$S1 million and five years of work. It was honored for its artistic and humanitarian values. It was an old theme, all about the war, and was absolutely not a modern style in any way except for the techniques we used. But it was an emotional film that has sold very well, enjoying the appreciation of both the old and young audiences.
A decade ago, when I was in my thirties, my choice was always those that I could see bearing benefits right away. I did make many films just for fame, fun and money. But as I become older, I only think what I do must be long-lasting and leave something in the audiences' mind. So don't force the young talents to produce what is beyond their ages."