'The Backstage Slap': a rare gem in Vietnam's film archive

By Thuy Linh, Thanh Nien News

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The Vietnam Film Institute (http://vienphim-vfi.org.vn/) is my favorite place to watch the kinds of movies that can’t be found on the Internet or at DVD shops.

Anyone can walk right in to their convenient film library, sit right down and peruse the country's digital film archive.

This month, I went down the list of the feature-length films made since 2000 to get a broader view of contemporary Vietnamese cinema.

Though I’m familiar with many titles, the archive offered quite a few surprises. For reasons that I’ll have to look into, the film institute hasn't been too quick in updating its archive; the list stops at 2011 and there are 93 films in total.  

After watching roughly 25 hours of films I’d never seen before, I decided that in cinema as in everything else, good things are rare.

The films had already been curated from scores more, but of the 17 I watched, I found just 2 worth talking about. 

I’ll talk about one here and save the other for later.

Cai tat sau canh ga (literally, "the backstage slap") intelligently challenges the ability of art – theatre, in particular – to do justice to life, while still reaffirming art’s importance in life.

The film was produced in 2001 by Feature Film Studio I, a major state-owned studio that has actively pursued its shift into a joint-stock company at a time when others are struggling to meet mandated deadlines.

Directed by Tat Binh, the studio's head, and written by well-known American War veteran and sceenwriter Chu Lai, the movie chronicles a state-owned theatre troupe's struggle to survive both artistically and financially. The actors and actresses have to support themselves with odd jobs ranging from selling food and drinks on the streets to dancing at bars to doing commercials.

Then comes a great play, written and directed by Teacher Nguyen Dinh, a veteran playwright and former troupe mentor. The play promises to bring the group everything they need: inspiring work, state funding, festival prizes and fame.

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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The script is based on Nguyen Dinh’s own memories of the war which feature the rescue of a writer-soldier by a female communication soldier with long black hair.

To save him from falling off a cliff and plummeting to his death, she lets loose her hair, which he climbs causing her tremendous pain.

Theatre simply can’t capture this drama (how can a theater troupe recreate an explosive battlefield?), so Nguyen Dinh decides to film the scene and project it onto the stage as a flashback. But even cinema, he decides, falls a little bit short. “If only we could show audiences the tiny drops of blood stuck in the roots of her hair,” Nguyen Dinh tells the troupe after reviewing the shot.

But this is just a minor example of the way the film plays with art's failure to capture reality.

The larger example comes when Kim Ha, the actress playing the long-haired soldier decides to literally rewrite the play's ending to exact revenge against her womanizing co-star Van Hung for his relentless infidelity.

Kim Ha is played brilliantly by People’s Artist Nguyen Lan Huong, who, in real life, is the wife of the movie’s director, Artist of Merit (one grade lower than People’s Artist) Tat Binh. Lan Huong, still beautiful at 52, remains famous in Vietnam for her childhood debut in Director Hai Ninh’s 1974 black and white classic, Em be Ha Noi (literally, “Hanoi girl”).

At just 10-years old, Lan Huong became a sort of national icon for her portrayal of a violin student who wanders the wreckage of Hanoi searching for her family after the brutal Christmas bombing of 1972.

With an extensive theatre background and a rich love life of her own, Lan Huong proved the perfect choice to play a fiery, vengeful feminist who succeeds in getting back at the unworthy men around her.

But the film falls short of holding her up as a heroine.

Kim Ha’s character is unforgiving, and the recurring musical theme  suggests she shouldn’t be. The soothing song, titled Thuc day di em (literally, “wake up girl”), composed by Tuan Phuong and sung by Tran Thu Ha, implies that forgiveness affords life's only real relief.

And in this sense, the film itself falls short.

The suggestion that Kim Ha should forgive unrelenting misogynists proved just as unsatisfactory for me as a viewer as it did for her as a character. Despite its unsatisfying moralizing, though, the film allows us to understand Kim Ha and her actions.

And this is probably the most we can expect from art.

Cai tat sau canh ga

Length: 83 minutes

Year of production: 2001

Producer: Feature Film Studio I  

Director: Tat Binh

Screenwriter: Chu Lai

DOP: Phi Tien Son

Art direction: Vi Ngoc Mai

Music: Tuan Phuong

Cast: Nguyen Lan Huong, Manh Cuong, Nhu Trang, Ngoc Thuy, Duy Hau    


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