The making and remaking of remakes

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Vuong Hoang, a famous actor (L, Luong Manh Hai), and Minh Minh (R, Minh Hang) in Ngoi nha hanh phuc (Happy house), a film which was remade from the South Korean sitcom "Full House"

There is a lot of small screen space that needs to be filled but not enough quality scripts to go around.

This, film makers say, is why so many TV serials in the country rely on soap opera hits from other countries.

That seems fairly straightforward, but the success and failure of these adapted serials raise even more intriguing questions. But before we get there, it is worthwhile to take a brief look at how this situation came about.

For more than ten years now, private film makers have been allowed to produce TV serials, besides those traditionally commissioned and produced by Vietnam Television and Ho Chi Minh City Television.

In 2007, the government issued a decree requiring Vietnamese serials to fill at least 30 percent of the programs shown on television. If this was meant to promote the domestic filmmaking industry, it has worked, at least in an economic sense. If it was meant to promote national culture, the success can be debated.

Since the government ruling, many Vietnamese TV serials have hit the screen, from dozens to hundreds of episodes each.

Sitcoms are a relatively new phenomenon in Vietnam, and filmmakers were stymied by the lack of Vietnamese scripts, so the obvious place to look was foreign scripts, which they the filmmakers felt were better than Vietnamese, anyway.

Pham Ngoc Chau, a HCMC-based director, said he and other directors always had to change Vietnamese scripts a lot, a time-consuming exercise and one fraught with increased possibility of commercial failure.

Others were smitten by the foreign scripts and eager to work with them.

Vu Ngoc Dang, who usually scripts the films he directs, said he had been eager to remake the South Korean sitcom "Full House" into Ngoi nha hanh phuc (Happy house) as "the script was so good."

"Full House" is a 16-episode South Korean television drama first broadcast in 2004, and is a televised version of a Japanese manga.

The drama attempts to find out whether two people a famous actor and an ordinary woman - can love each other in a marriage they agreed upon in a contract. It also explores a lot of family meaning.

"The script is the most important thing to me when starting to make the film," said Dang, the director and scriptwriter of popular series Bong dung muon khoc (Suddenly wanna cry).

According to domestic filmmakers, remaking foreign films is not an undesirable activity. They note that even Hollywood buys rights from foreign films to make remakes.

What matters, besides the bottom line, is how the viewers take to it.

Actually, considering the popularity of remaking among filmmakers, it is somewhat surprising that not many have been very well received by local viewers.

Co gai xau xi (Ugly girl), made in early 2008 based on Columbia's "Betty la fea," was certainly very successful.

It is about the life of Huyen Dieu, a young, smart but unattractive girl working for a fashion design company. Due to her appearance, she encounters many problems not only in personal life but also in her career.

The 169-episode series, the longest in Vietnam until then, was selected by the public as the second best among 48 TV series aired on national television between May 2008 and January 2009.

It got 13 percent of votes in the vote organized by the Tap chi truyen hinh (Television Magazine), after Bong dung muon khoc (Suddenly wanna cry) which received 43.4 percent.

Even Viet kieu (overseas Vietnamese) viewers in the US enjoyed the telecast of Co gai xau xi on VTV4, preferring it to the US version.

Khai Chung said his family had already watched "Ugly Betty" but they still waited every day to watch Co gai xau xi.

Inspired by the success, the film producer, BHD, went on to make Ngoi nha hanh phuc (Happy house)

A scene in the TV serial film Co nang toc roi (Messy hair lady) which will be showed at the end of this year based on Mexican soap opera "Don't mess up with an Angel". Sen (R, Midu), a young orphanage city dweller who came to the countryside to protect herself from rumor as she is single but expecting a baby and Mr. Phuoc (L, Le Binh) who take care of a pagoda and poor Sen.

The 26-episode serial failed to enthuse local viewers as much as Co gai xau xi.

So there is the conundrum. Vietnamese remakes of western hits are a hit among the Viet kieu, but eastern blockbusters fail to cut the mustard among local viewers.

The reason could be that the South Korean original was so adored in Vietnam. Satiated with the foreign serial, they might not have the appetite for a remake that could draw unfavorable comparisons.

"Full House" had dominated television sets when the Korean trend swept Vietnam more than ten years ago. So actor Luong Manh Hai and actress Minh Hang, favorites in other serials, did not find favor in the Vietnamese remake of the Korean serial. They were up against the immense popularity of Bi Rain and Song Hye Kyo who had already occupied the space for those roles in the viewers' minds.

The other reason could be that culturally speaking, both films are Asian, and would provide more grounds for comparison, as well as more reason for the viewers to be more harsh in their judgment.

Besides the two remakes that have received the most public attention, Loi song sai lam (Misguided lifestyle), a remake of a Korean production of the same title, Nhung nguoi doc than vui ve (Funny singles) based on the Chinese sitcom "New Living Quarters in Sunshine", Nhat ky Vang Anh (Vang Anh's diary) based on a Portuguese story and Co nang bat dac di (Lalola) from Argentina have all graced the small screen as of late.

All the foreign originals were hugely successful productions back home, but few remakes were rated very high.

Nhat ky Vang Anh was popular among Vietnam's teenagers but Nhung nguoi doc than vui ve was stopped at the 171st episode instead of the 500th as expected. Evidence was mounting that viewers were losing interest in the remake.

Many viewers have complained that Vietnamese filmmakers are not really clever while remaking foreign TV serials. Many remakes still embrace elements not compatible with Vietnamese culture and lifestyle, they say.

When this disconnect happens, the remakes attract a derisory tag "half-breed".

Meanwhile, many viewers are hoping it will not be too long before a "purebred" Vietnamese appears on the scene.

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