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New action film brings relevance of Vietnam's current censorship regime into question

A scene from action movie Bui doi Cho Lon, whose screening is being delayed as censors find it too violent. Photo courtesy of Galaxy Cineplex

The release of Bui doi Cho Lon, Vietnam's latest action movie featuring gangs fighting to dominate the territory of Cho Lon, dubbed as Chinatown in Ho Chi Minh City's District 5, has been delayed indefinitely because the censors have deemed the film too violent.

The much-awaited US$500,000 production, literally meaning "Life on Chinatown streets," was supposed to premiere on April 19, but a censorship committee with the National Cinema Department objected.

Four of the eight-member committee (one absentee) said the movie should be canceled, while the others felt it should be revised to "better suit Eastern values" and "be more realistic."

The movie, which had been advertised at local cinemas, was criticized for depicting a bad image of the society, with no police intervening in the knife and machete fights between gangs.

Its producers and the censors met for latest negotiations on May 3.

Specific discussions have not been released to local media, but scriptwriter Trinh Thanh Nha, a member of the censors committee, said the film's producers have agreed to make adjustments required. A revised version is expected to be released on June 28, Tuoi Tre said. 

Though it might be settled soon, the case has reminded many people in the filmmaking industry of how they are unhappy with Vietnam's movie regulations, which according to them are too generic and vague, and put filmmakers at the risk of losing their money, not to mention discouraging creativity. 

Bui doi Cho Lon has won contracts with California producer XYZ Films and London-based sales and acquisition agency Quickfire Films to be distributed overseas and introduced at the Cannes film festival, but once it has not been approved at home, it cannot go anywhere.

Industry insiders said similar treatment had been meted out to several local movies, including Bay cap 3 ("Level-3 trap" or "High school trap"), a teen horror movie by Vietnamese American director Le Van Kiet, which was banned last year for promoting violence and having low artistic values.

The $350,000 movie tells the story of an ignored, disregarded high school student who kills his schoolmates during a field trip to the Central Highlands resort town of Da Lat with a series of unexpected traps.

Last year the country also banned three Hollywood movies including award-winners The Hunger Games and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the latter winning an Oscar for Best Achievement in Film Editing, and Ghost Rider 2.

Local censors also cut many scenes they considered too sexual from local movie Bi, dung so (Bi, Don't be afraid) when screening it at home, after it attended more than 30 international film festivals and won many awards including some for best film.

The 2009 movie, made by director Phan Dang Di, deals with people struggling to escape from loneliness. It tells the story of six-year-old Bi who lives with his parents, aunt and a maid in an old house in Hanoi, and the relationship he develops with his paralyzed grandfather.

Many local film viewers said the censored version was hard to understand.

Lost in Paradise (2011), a local movie of a love triangle between three men, was bought by Fortissimo Films for taking "a provocative yet compassionate look at a group of people who live, love and exist on the fringes in modern Vietnam," also had many scenes of affection between the main characters cut when it was shown at local theaters.

Filmmakers say regulations and creativity can go in harmony if movies are categorized for different viewers, instead of forcing all of them to confirm to a vague, outdated framework.

Tran Trong Dan, Vietnamese-American producer of Bay cap 3, said he has been researching Vietnamese regulations and is still not sure about the differences between an acceptable and an unacceptable movie.

Current regulations say a movie will be banned if it offends national symbols, a particular ethnic group or religion of Vietnam; encourages crimes with savage scenes and language; shows heavily sexual scenes; triggers panic or illusion about some supernatural power; or contains illegal factors.

Dan said the rules do not clarify what is considered savage, heavily sexual or encouraging crimes. He said this lack of clarity can bring Vietnam's movie industry to a standstill.

"A ban on a movie that does not deserve one will affect the filmmakers, the audience as also the decisions of foreigners who want to invest in future film projects in Vietnam."

Some directors said the censorship committee is made up of old members who have not participated in the making of any movie for a long time, or have never been part of the industry. It requires the presence of young people who are currently working in the movie industry, they said, also noting that the censors are Hanoi-based while around 80 percent of local movies, including the banned ones, came from the south.

Bui doi Cho Lon director Nguyen said it's time Vietnam focuses on categorizing movies into ages, following the film-rating system by the Motion Picture Association of America and similar systems used in other countries. 

American movies are rated into six categories G for general audiences, PG for parental guidance suggested, PG-13 for parents strongly cautioned as some material may be inappropriate for children under 13, R for restricted and children under 17 requiring accompanying parent or adult guardian, and NC-17 for no admission for 17-year-olds and under.

Australia, Singapore and South Korea adopt similar systems, with different ratings indicating different admissible ages between 12 and 21.

Vietnam currently only restricts viewers under 16 from certain violent, sexual movies, but the restriction is rarely applied. Cinemas mention the restriction when selling tickets but do not always check IDs.

Nguyen said specific ratings will benefit everyone. People know what films they should go to, and they can enjoy fully a movie that they are entitled to, while "directors will feel safer in making films," he said.

Other directors said the current censorship will get Vietnamese movies nowhere, as being "realistic" puts action, horror or fictional movies beyond the pale.

Director Nguyen Chanh Tin, a senior actor turned film producer who had a couple of horror movies struggle to pass the censors, said he might not invest in the genre any more if he has to deal with the current system.

"A horror film will surely fall flat if it is cut too much."

Vu Ngoc Dang, director of Lost in Paradise, said movies need to carry their distinctive signatures.

"Too much cutting will create the same round shape for all movies, ripping them off their angles, and keeping Vietnam from having outstanding movies."

Dang said regulations should be more open and at least be specific, such as how long a violent or intimate scene should last, or how far it should go, like what parts of the body can be revealed.

Director Nguyen Vinh Son, who has shot to fame with many award-winning movies and box office hits, said Vietnam's censorship does not help much, and instead creates a "stressful obsession that haunts filmmakers as soon as they get an idea."

In the past, the censors followed a movie through every single step, requiring various changes, and the filmmakers never felt the final product was theirs, Son said.

He said filmmakers these days only face the censors at the finish line of their product, but that means the risk of losing all the money they have invested.

Social-oriented movies?

For their part, Vietnamese censors say they are not being unduly picky or bureaucratic and that they always favor Vietnamese movies.

But they have also expressed a lack of confidence in the ability of Vietnamese filmmakers.

Nguyen Thi Hong Ngat, vice chairwoman of the National Cinema Department and of the censorship committee, said Vietnam's contemporary society is still in chaos and young people easily slip into evil tracks.

Ngat said she is not sure the filmmakers can convey controversial content in a positive or harmless manner.

Tran Kim Luan, former chairman of the department, shared Ngat's concern. He said he himself wants a modern movie industry, that horror and action movies carry all their "necessary" content. "But our society right now is not able to absorb all that yet," he said.

Director Phan Dang Di said if social responsibility is the focus, filmmakers and censors should sit down and discuss it, with the presence of other stakeholders including educators, teachers and parents.

Di said when movies are classified into ages, the viewers will be responsible for what they perceive, but they need proper education at that age to determine what is bad or good.

He said a censorship committee with less than ten people cannot make that choice for every person in the country.

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