At the ongoing Francophone Film Festival, there is a difference between the foreign movies screened and the Vietnamese entry, Victor Vu’s high-profile 2015 “Toi thay hoa vang tren co xanh” (literally, I See Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass): the former tell good, important stories while the Vietnamese film tells little and that in a showy way.
From the title to the poster to the trailer, you expect to see much poetry in Victor Vu’s movie. “I See Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass” - hmm, you think, this is a good visual, poetic way to begin.
The trailer also promises some great music, breathtaking camerawork, heart-warming rural scenes and cute child actors.
With such promise, or fuss, you wait to hear an important story, a message, a point. Life is so precious not to have a point, any point, to hang by.
Indeed, from the foreign movies shown at the 2016 Francophone Film Festival that has taken place in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and is still going on in Hue, you feel there are so many important things going on in the world right now.
The eight movies (three from France, two from Belgium, one each from Switzerland, Canada, and Egypt) offer touching, inspiring stories.
They include stories about people struggling under Islamic extremism, homeless kids forming a musical band, and an HIV-infected woman confronting public discrimination.
The inherent danger of cinema is that with lots of technical tools at hand (camerawork, music, etc.), filmmakers tend to create visually, sensually spectacular works without much substance.
The technical touch of the mostly European films showcased at this festival is professional though. The camerawork and acting in particular are natural, unexaggerated and effective - nothing too self-conscious or showy, and all technicality is subordinate to the important human story and spirit that the filmmakers try to capture.
Olivier Ringer’s “Les oiseaux de passage” (Emigrating Birds) for instance is occupied with what may seem trivial in adults’ eyes: two girls, one in a wheelchair, have a duck and try to return the duck to nature where he belongs rather than give him to a duck farm where he may be killed.
A scene from “Les oiseaux de passage” (Emigrating Birds) by Olivier Ringer
The duck may be trivial to Cathy’s mother and Margaux’s parents, but to Margaux, the girl in the wheelchair, he is her child. When he comes out of an egg, it is Margaux whom he first sees and instinctively considers his mother. So Margaux, who has to be aided by others in life, becomes the only one who can protect and do what is best for the duck.
The movie about the vulnerability as well as resilience of nature - a disabled girl and a duck who couldn’t swim at first - is simple, dramatic and beautiful.
The shooting of the duck is brilliant. The camera manages to follow him in his most natural, hilarious acts: defecating all over the floor or trying to swim back to Margaux when the girls try to set him free on a lake.
You identity with the duck so much that when he swims valiantly in the lake like other birds of his kind, you are moved to tears and feel inspired.
The girls’ characterization and acting are also great: There is no exaggerated cuteness or precociousness about Cathy and Margaux.
They are straightforward. Though young, they are intelligent and brave. Or to put it differently, though they can be great, they are still children at heart and do need adults’ understanding and support.
For instance, Cathy’s and Margaux’s journey can reach its satisfying end because Cathy’s father begs the police not to interfere and let the girls do what they want with the duck.
The Vietnamese kids in Victor Vu’s movie, by contrast, are baffling. The brothers Thieu and Tuong, with their exaggerated cuteness - which is shown mostly clearly in their dialogues and how the lines are spoken - and very serious sentiments, make one wonder what the filmmaker is trying to say.
Thieu and Tuong don’t seem to be boys; they look like men in disguise.
“Toi thay hoa vang tren co xanh” (Official title: Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass) is about Thieu and Tuong having feelings for two girls, Man and Nhi.
Thieu, the older brother, is a jealous, vengeful, ill-tempered boy who doesn’t like to see his younger brother and Man hang out with each other.
Tuong, on the contrary, is innocent and forgiving.
At one point, Thieu sees Tuong and Man playing with make-believe food and thinks they are hiding real food and having fun with each other behind his back.
Their village is flooded and crops destroyed, people are starving and Thieu has just fought hard with a bully from school to keep a precious sweet potato he found in the field and intends to take it home to his hungry brother and girlfriend.
Then he comes upon the scene and what with his pent-up jealousy about Tuong’s and Man’s friendship, Thieu grabs a stick and hits his brother hard with it.
This isn’t the first time Thieu treats his younger brother cruelly only to regret his action later. Tuong’s back is badly hurt as a result.
Such serious sentiments in children aren’t the problem actually. The ultimate problem lies in the fact that such passion is wasted.
The movie doesn’t develop and show us how the boys’ first love influences their characters: Do the boys, especially Thieu, grow up to become great lovers and men?
What role do all those bittersweet childhood experiences and feelings play in the boys’ future? Or at least, what lesson do the boys draw from their young love and childhood right there and then?
Since it isn’t at all clear, the movie ends unsatisfactorily. What the movie shows is simply this: the boys and the girls meet, feel this or that, then part as their families go different ways, and that is that.
After all is shown on the screen, there is not much to be said or felt, except perhaps for the nice-sounding title - some pretty “yellow flowers on the green grass” that can serve as the symbol of whatever feelings that can be evoked by the image.
But wait. I’m wrong. There is a moral or point to this movie. Actually it is quite noticeable once you take a close look. It is sexist and not tasteful.
Thieu the older brother does learn that romantic feelings can cause harmful passion that threatens brotherhood and learns to treat his brother better in the end. This is clearly good for brotherhood but not good for girls who seem to be written off from some substantial romance.
Tuong, the younger one, is always a good boy so he doesn’t need to learn anything. It is his crush, Nhi, who is at the receiving end.
Nhi is deeply benefited by her childhood experience with Tuong. Nhi loses her mind after her mother dies in an accident, imagining herself to be a princess and Tuong her prince.
However, thanks to Tuong who comes to her rescue when she is teased by some bad boys, Nhi finally regains her memory and sanity.
For her part, Man also has a pitiable family background and receives much help from Thieu’s family. She is a nice passive girl whom Thieu often calls “stupid”, albeit lovingly.
So if this movie has any point at all, the point is that the boys are nice toward the girls, who are helpless and vulnerable.