Tall tales or true

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Can the Vietnamese film industry learn from the success of the Chinese dynastic war story "Red Cliff" and place creativity before historic facts to make a film on the founder of Hanoi?

Based on the famous Battle of Red Cliffs in ancient China, the two-part blockbuster "Red Cliff" swept China's box office, earning more than US$200 million.

Directed by acclaimed filmmaker John Woo and featuring Asia's biggest stars including Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Zhao Wei and Takeshi Kaneshiro, "Red Cliff" was a production splurge of $80 million, making it the most expensive Asian-financed film to date.

The second part of the history film hit local cinemas last month attracting big crowds with its dazzling grandeur and visual effects. Local audiences are still waiting to catch a Vietnamese history film that thrills as much as "Red Cliff."

"Thrilled" isn't the word that Vietnamese cinema goers usually use after they've seen a made-in-Vietnam epic film.

The sad fact that historical films have fallen short of being exciting entertainment could change if agencies can stop arguing about a script aimed to breathe fresh life into cinematic representations of history here.

The Thang Long - Ha Noi 1,000th anniversary next year is the occasion that a film about Vietnamese Emperor Ly Thai To (King Ly the Premier), founder of the eleventh century Ly Dynasty, is being made for, but not a single frame has been shot.

The shooting, which was meant to start last November, was delayed by arguments among producers and historians about factual accuracy.

History or fantasy?

The thousand-year-old tale about the founding of Vietnam's capital is as dramatic as "Red Cliff." The main character, Ly Thai To, whose real name is Ly Cong Uan, moved the capital from Hoa Lu in today's Ninh Binh Province to Thang Long in 1010. Its' name was changed to Hanoi in 1831.

The King had an eventful life - he was raised in a pagoda in Bac Ninh Province and grew to become an official of the Anterior Le Dynasty. He was enthroned in 1009 after the last king of the old dynasty died - the change in rulers causing brief but bitter conflicts.

A still in the Vietnamese historical film Dem hoi Long Tri (Festive night in Long Tri) which, along with many other film of the genre, has been criticized for their poor production values

If the shooting of the film began as initially planned, it could have been completed by September 2009, but there were clashes to decide on the right script.

"Hoi the (Oath Fest) by Nguyen Qua won the scriptwriting competition, however, the piece involves some "sensitive issues" gives a chance to runner-up Thien Phuc to take over the film contract with his novel Thai to Ly Cong Uan (Emperor Ly Thai To).

Phuc mainly focuses on the king's decision to relocate the capital to Thang Long-Hanoi today and that matches with the city's millennium celebration," says script editor Nguyen Thi Hong Ngat.

According to Ngat, Phuc's novel is good enough for a film, providing that some details are edited. Than, in an interview with Phu Nu newspaper, said he couldn't understand why his piece was being overlooked when it had won the first prize.

While there is a minefield of "sensitive issues," filmmakers claim that fantasy is an important factor and is acceptable for any art-house film. "Emperor Ly Thai To" could be a promising historical fiction film if it entwined all the elements - relationships, dilemmas, government overthrows and power claims - in a great story.

Critics and audiences said that the huge success of "Red Cliff" was partly because its depictions of historical figures are fresh, but still reasonable considering historic documents or the novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" that is a well-respected text about the era.

Famous painter Le Thiet Cuong told Thanh Nien "Historical films have their own power. We can easily watch a 90 minute movie about the Mac Dynasty but would we spend that long reading a history book about it?

"There is always a gap between written history and ‘real' history. Making historical films is something in-between, the vagueness between history and fantasy can excite the audience," he said.

Vietnamese historical films like Dem hoi Long Tri (Festive night in Long Tri) and Hoang Le nhat thong (Reunification under the Le Dynasty) have long been criticized for their poor production values - inaccurate costumes, settings and poorly developed characters.

Director Dinh Anh Dung told Thanh Nien "I was not very impressed with our historical films. It seems to me filmmakers are still sitting on the fence between what is a historical film and what is a chronicle film. That's why audiences do not know if the stories are real or not.

"It doesn't matter what is real and what is imagination as long as we make the film interesting," he said adding that if they started production before getting the script straight it would flop.

"We hardly notice fictional elements in foreign epic movies while Vietnamese historical pieces keep true to every detail but people mistake them for poor works of fiction," a comment on an Internet movie forum said.

But for Emperor Ly Thai To, there should be some scope for fantasy as the story happened a thousand years ago and not enough is known about the Ly Dynasty to be 100 percent accurate.

Ngat believes it will be a success as long as the film reveals the heroic spirit of Ly Thai To and his lucid decisions, so there should be no more disputes as time is running out.

"If people continue to be picky about minor historical facts in the script, we won't have a film at all, because even the most prestigious historian in Vietnam couldn't tell exactly how Emperor Ly Thai To dressed and looked like, or if he had a long beard or short beard," Ngat said.

In a press conference last year, an estimated budget up to VND200 billion ($11 million) was announced for the Emperor Ly Thai To film project, shocking officials from Hanoi City.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism also suggested a budget plan, which includes VND50 billion ($2.8 million) and sponsorship for the rest.

Nevertheless, the Directive Committee of Thang Long-Hanoi Anniversary said the film must be made at "any cost."

According to Vietnam Films, which will produce Emperor Ly Thai To, the shooting of some scenes has been planned for China while much of the production will be carried out by foreigners. Japanese musician Kitaro and Chinese make-up artist Mao Xian Ping are also expected to join the project.

Audiences are looking forward to the film premiere next year but at the same time, they wonder if it's worth rushing the big-budget epic.

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