Vietnam has created a new training course for young actors looking to break into Vietnam's myriad historical costume dramas.
The nation's first three-month course is aimed at training in preparing theater students for the demands of the historical genre. The program will begin on July 11 in Hanoi with 60 students.
The course was created by the Ve dep Viet (VietCharm) JSC Media Company a major Vietnamese television producer which anticipates the course to run at least for the next five years.
At the moment, the audiences of Vietnamese costume dramas are being eaten up by Korean imports. Many complain the performances on domestic shows are patently poor.
The new project will aim to familiarize local film and television actors with traditional musical instruments, painting and calligraphy. Voice-over artists will be trained in antiquated pronunciation. The course will also feature workshops in stage combat, the use of historical tools, and dancing.
Tran Ngoc Linh, Ve Dep Viet's director, told Tuoi Tre newspaper that the rise of historical filmmaking inspired him to create a project that would help groom a new crop of local performers.
A hankering for history
Both television studios and media companies want to revive history on screen.
Kings and queens in gorgeous costumes and palaces, swashbucklers involved in gratitude and rancor of the underworld or fictional and true stories about historical figures are usually seen in local historical series.
Recently, instead of attracting viewers, they raise questions and doubts.
Some have argued that Vietnam doesn't have the capability to do historical dramas, because of its lack of studio experience and historical materials available.
But US$5 million spent on a TV series made to celebrate the Hanoi's 1,000th anniversary last year proves the opposite.
But less has been spent on quality performers most of whom get $100 per episode. Recently, a number of Korean historical dramas have become popular in Vietnam. Generally speaking, they focus less on bells and whistles (huge battle scenes, costumes) and more on quality performers.
In fact, the imports have outdone the Vietnamese. Vietnam's TV ratings are not released to the public.
"They have attracted local audiences and maintained Korean characteristics, without spending a fortune on impressive fighting scenes involving thousands of soldiers and horses." said Thuy Tien, a Vietnamese overseas postgraduate in Korea.
The fading glory
Historical films and costume dramas peaked during the early 1990s during the heyday of Saigon's "instant noodle films" low-budget, quick-turn movies about swashbucklers and royal intrigue.
The films featured ensemble casts of "golden era" stars like Thu Ha, Ly Hung and Diem Huong. The cast, recognized for their talent, have since either moved abroad or become embroiled in scandal.
The "noodle films" lost their appeal with the arrival of Hollywood movies, South American telenovelas and Taiwanese dramas.
Many feel that Vietnam's crop of dramatic performers is now lackluster.
"Today's actors and actresses aren't convincing," said Trung Tri, program editor at a television station in Ben Tre Province. "Their get acting seems strained, although their highly authentic costumes partially help them get under the skin of their historical characters. They make history seem dimmer and more distant instead of resurrecting it. Look at how Brad Pitt played an undaunted Achilles or Clive Owen portrayed the great King Arthur."
Local actors and directors complain that the genre demands too much from its actors.
Actor-turned-director Tran Luc said that historical actors must fully embrace the spirit of another age.
At times, the genre has required them to ride horses, elephants and exercise a functional understanding of martial arts which requires months or years of practice.
Director Thanh Van said that period actors must have a working knowledge of medieval weaponry.
Too little too late
Director Tran Luc said he is curious to see how the project will turn out.
"If it is successful, it will offer new and exciting opportunities to performers and young artists-to-be," said Luc.
Many other directors expressed doubts that the course will provide substantial improvements in just a few months.
"Who will be in charge of the instructors?" said Tat Binh, director of the historical TV series Huyen su thien do (Legend of the capital). "The actor can learn more from life than from a book. But they'll have to get better, otherwise, they will be eliminated from the game."
Noted director Dao Ba Son said the training course is a good solution, but he also shared the same doubts with Binh.
"It is hard to imagine a single formula for helping young actors capture the essence of period acting, in general," Sons said. "People living in the 18th century were definitely different from those in the 13th or 17th. The point here is the course just teaches the basics, and it is the actor who must apply them to each individual situation."
In response to doubts, Linh (who has worked with designers, decorators, costumers, prop artists and stylists in reconstructing accurate period sets) said he knows some of the top people in the field.
This summer, he plans to bring his first batch of students as close to these experts as possible.