Vietnamese audiences are wondering if their stars' erotic exploits on screen are art or just cheap publicity
There was a time when even kissing in a film was somewhat taboo in Vietnam.
Nowadays erotic scenes are commonplace and even TV viewers don't bat an eye when they see shirtless women's nipples.
But both observers inside and outside the industry have begun questioning whether the line between art and vulgarity has become too thin.
Several Vietnamese directors have said it is only natural for audiences to want a little sensuality and sexuality in their films. They said the key was to titillate without losing one's artistic message.
They point to western "sex symbols" like Sharon Stone, Monica Belluci and Penelope Cruz, whose stunning figures are only add-ons to their talent. Their steamier scenes have only come as part of larger, worthwhile artistic projects.
Khanh Hung, entertainment columnist for Yeah1 TV channel and magazine, said sex scenes must be both real and evoke the right "aesthetic feeling" in audiences.
"But only a few recent local films have made it," he said.
"I think filmmakers are making most sex scenes just to draw the viewer's attention. Films like Chuong reo la ban (Shooting as the bell rings), or Khong can suc (Unrelinquished struggle), Khi yeu dung quay dau lai (Do not turn around in love) abuse the right to have sex scenes and show beautiful women's naked bodies. It seems that the audiences just pay for a ticket to see how an actress or actor performs in bed," said Hung.
Hung also said that the sex scenes in Vietnamese films were not as natural as in foreign movies. He said it was partly because the actors were shy to be shot naked and partly because they were afraid of being criticized by conservative pundits and members of the public.
Moviegoer My Lan said she felt embarrassed and uncomfortable when she watched "meaninglessly erotic" scenes.
She said she especially didn't understand singer Le Kieu Nhu's naked suicide scene in Chuong reo la ban.
"Why did the filmmakers let her die naked like that?"
Ironically, Nhu's character in the film was a student who was devastated after nude photos of her appeared on the Internet.
Lan said she thought young actresses agreed to sex scenes in contemporary Vietnamese films purely to make a name for themselves.
"They become more well-known when they're called 'sex symbols,' but they are only remembered for stripping, not acting. It is fake glory," said Lan.
Most actresses who have appeared nude in film, or in sex scenes, say they did it for the sake of art.
Truong Ngoc Anh, Hong Anh and Ngo Thanh Van are all actresses who filmed sexy sequences generally thought to have advanced the films' plots and expressed the true feelings and loves of the characters.
Ngo Thanh Van, Vietnam's female action star, said she did not need a stunt body to do her erotic scenes.
"When acting in sex scenes in Dong mau anh hung (The rebel) and Bay rong (Clash), I am not Ngo Thanh Van anymore. I am Thuy and Trinh and totally in love with their lovers," said Van.
Love-making scenes in recent movies like Ao lua Ha Dong (The white silk dress), Bay rong, have been compared to the lusty sequences in Jean-Jacques Annaud's famous L'amant (The lover) with Jane March and Tony Leung.
"The sex scenes in Bay rong are beautiful and smooth. I can feel the weak and gentle moment of a strong girl like Trinh (played by Van)," said Thanh Van, a media executive of Vina CHG company.
Against the grain
Actresses who have done sex scenes often say that the naked shots put a strain on the personal lives and pressure on their careers, whether or not they became more famous because of it.
Singer-actress Quach An An said she lost her boyfriend after her naked scene in Chuong reo la ban and faced heavy criticism from the public for playing a promiscuous and erotic ethnic Dao girl in the movie Trung uy (Lieutenant).
Beauty queen Ha Kieu Anh and actress My Uyen also said that several shots of them topless were leaked to the press after they shot a nude bathing scene for the TV series Luc Van Tien (Tale of Luc Van Tien).
The sensitive photos cause "personal problems" for Kieu Anh and she dropped the role to be replaced by Hong Anh.
"Getting naked in front of hundreds of eyes is never an easy job. But ensuring that so called 'hot' scenes are not awkward requires good acting, cinematography and a good script," said Hung.