Vietnamese movies: Light at the end of the tunnel?

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A still from Thien menh anh hung (Destiny hero), which is distinguishing itself from other films set for release this Tet with fictional history script and the huge investment of nearly VND30 billion

There were the usual scandals, yes. But good movies are being made and watched, and fresh winds are generally blowing through Vietnam's stunted film industry.

The Vietnamese movie industry was shaken last year by one of its biggest ever scandals after a Department of Cinematography accountant fled the country with over VND36 billion (US$1.7 million).

It led to the resignation of the department's director, Lai Van Sinh, and his deputy, Le Ngoc Minh, in September, just four months before the 17th Vietnam National Film Festival the duo was organizing.

Despite the scandal the festival went on, though the organization, understandably, came in for severe criticism.

Next to crop up was a plagiarism charge against Vietnamese-American director Victor Vu who had entered his Giao lo dinh menh (Inferno) in the Canh Dieu Vang (Golden Kite) Awards. The film was accused of being plagiarized from the 1991 Hollywood film "Shattered."

The allegations prompted the awards' organizers to take the film out of nominations list. But the awards were also a flop due to poor organization and allegations of dubious choice of winners.

There were more scandals and criticisms around the corner, but there were also some propitious signs.

Unseasonable success

In 2003 director Le Hoang came up with Gai nhay (Bar girls), which is now considered the catalyst for the revival of the local film industry after a long crisis starting in the 1990s. It is also considered to have kicked off the era of social movies in Vietnam. Until then they had all revolved around the wars.

With box-office earnings of VND12 billion (US$570,000) after being released during Tet, the film also ushered in the Lunar New Year as the default money-making season for Vietnamese films. Since then, of the 20 or so films made in Vietnam every year, most have been released during the festive season.

Long Ruoi (Big Boss), which was the second biggest hit last year after the Hollywood animated film "Kungfu Panda 2," however, established conclusively that movies released at other times too can make profits.

The action comedy by Vietnamese-American director Charlie Nguyen earned VND49 billion ($2.3 million) in four weeks since its release in August, higher than big Tet releases like Co dau dai chien (War of the Brides).

A still from Long Ruoi (Big Boss), which garnered VND49 billion in four weeks last year, becoming the biggest hit of Vietnam's summer film releases so far

The film's producers said the reason they decided against a Tet release was the difficulty in finding cinemas then.

But they may not have been brave enough if only another Charlie Nguyen movie, De mai tinh (Fool for love), had not been released in April 2010 and gone on to become a hit.

The romantic comedy was the first true summer hit, selling an estimated 45,000 tickets in the first three days and raking in VND18 billion ($856,000) in the next four months. It had cost around VND6 billion ($285,350) to make.

A breath of fresh air

While Long Ruoi is proving the potential of the local movie market, Thien menh anh hung (Destiny Hero), the first Vietnamese martial arts film in 20 years, promises a breakthrough in filmmaking techniques and concepts in the country.

In fact, since its trailer came out in November the Victor Vu film has attracted the most attention among films set for release this Tet.

Instead of following the usual formula for festive blockbusters - comedy, action, sex, attractive girls who cannot act - Vu has chosen an unusual script. It is a fictional story about a family member of Nguyen Trai, one of Vietnam's greatest poets and a famous Le Dynasty (1428-1527) mandarin, taking revenge for the killing of Trai and his family after a false allegation he murdered King Le Thai Tong.

Made at a cost of nearly VND30 billion ($1.4 million), it is the most expensive movie to be made by private producers in Vietnam since 2007. Clearly, Vu and his team seem to have at least the deep pockets needed to achieve their desire to "make a breakthrough," and if the trailer is any indication, they are well on their way to doing it.

If the film does prove to be a commercial success, it could convince producers that quality movies could recover their investment. Their sole focus now seems to be not to make a loss they often tell their director to eschew expensive scenes and sequences.

In 2011 there were also efforts to improve the movie industry.

For example, while national contests and awards continued to be controversial for their bad organization and questionable award choices, smaller ones like YxineFF 2011, an online short film festival begun in 2010, are establishing themselves as a forum for young, independent filmmakers.

In fact, last year YxineFF received more than 150 entries, including from other countries like Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia. Many of them attracted large audiences.

The annual international filmmaking contest 48-Hour Film Project, first launched in Vietnam last year, received over 130 entries. It challenges competitors to make a short movie within 48 hours, and is expected to change local movie-makers' concept of production.

Last year there were also seminars and lectures by Hollywood personalities like Phillip Noyce, the maker of The Quiet American.

All of these are good signs for the Vietnamese movie industry, which is coming out of its cocoon and becoming aware of what the rest of the world is doing.

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