Derided as “instant noodles” because they were made quickly and cheaply, the mostly southern, shot-on-video movies of the 1990s, especially the better ones, though not perfect, are in fact well-conceived, delectable dishes.
Their camerawork is simplistic, just like in today’s TV dramas (there weren’t that many TV dramas in the 1990s), and the sets in many films look cheap. But there is nothing mediocre about the acting or the scripts.
Capturing the theme of young people’s struggles to cope with the hard facts of life, films like Le Hoang Hoa’s Vinh biet mua he (“Farewell to summer”) and Le Xuan Hoang’s Vi dang tinh yeu (“The bitter taste of love”) also paint rich social pictures to tell us about the times they were made in.
The “instant noodles” came at a time when Vietnamese cinema was going through a crisis. Toward the end of the 1980s, the country had entered a period of economic reform. The state started to stop its full funding of cinema. With less state money to go around, studios struggled to make movies.
Then along came video technology from abroad that enabled producers to make affordable quickies. Lots of films were made, garnering revenues and launching a new generation of stars who became household names: Ly Hung, Diem Huong, Viet Trinh, Le Cong Tuan Anh, Le Tuan Anh, Thu Ha …
The stars and the films, ranging from adaptations of fairy tales to semi-historical swashbucklers to melodramatic romances, blew a fresh wind into Vietnamese cinema, which, after 1975, was mostly state-funded, northern-influenced, serious, war-related movies.
Southern filmmakers have always been associated with commercial cinema: in the 1990s, before 1975, and now. Today movies made by southern or overseas Vietnamese filmmakers with southern roots dominate theatres.
But the new breed of filmmakers are struggling to capture the imagination of audiences after the “instant noodles” fell out of favor in the latter half of the 1990s.
Today’s movies may be more sophisticated technically, but for scripts, understanding of society, and filmmakers’ honesty in trying to create meaningful commercial films, films from the 1990s remain unmatched.
In her monthly column Through the Lens, film critic Do Thuy Linh shines the spotlight on Vietnamese cinema. She also wades into the ongoing discussion among local filmmakers about how to make movies that aren't just recognized in Vietnam but also abroad. This English graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, the US, admits to having a vested interest in seeing the quality of Vietnamese movies improve. Thuy Linh may be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The two latest Vietnamese movies in theatre, directors Nhat Cuong and Ly Hai’s Bi mat lai bi mat (literally, “The secret is lost again”) and Tran Cong Thanh’s Xui ma hen (official English title: Crazy Luck), are both insipid. For all of the technical aids to spice things up, such as fast-paced editing, action scenes, opulent sets fashionable clothes, and/or good-looking actors, these movies are insipid because they are fake and trivial.
Take Bi mat lai bi mat for example. The idea is that somebody wants to steal a pagoda’s precious old Buddha statue. This is good. Intelligent, honest filmmakers would try to create characters and drama based on some realistic, meaningful context of how antique statues are now priced in the market, how antique collectors and thieves covet them, how antique thieves operate, etc.
What we see on screen, however, is the most fantastic and trivial: People covet the statue because it has some magical powers which aren’t even described in the film. The thieves aren’t seriously portrayed, just a bunch of over-the-top, supposedly-but-not-really funny characters. There is too much nonsense to remember. Of the things I remember, one is the pagoda’s automatic treasure protecting system that bangs a log into the intruder and sprays an itchy powder on him.
The same tendency can be seen in Xui ma hen. This movie proposes that somebody really wants to win a popular TV cooking show. Good idea in our age of American Idol, Master Chief and the like. Unfortunately, our character is not a believable person who has to work hard to excel at cooking and wants to win the show for the cash prize and career advancement and whom we can identify with and find some meaning in watching.
Our character is a gambler and ex-convict who is running from a debtor and accidentally stumbles into the show and is luckily accepted as a contestant. He can compete because he happens to have cooking experience since he grew up in an orphanage cooking for the orphans and understands the importance and the art of making simple but essential and authentic Vietnamese dishes such as steamed rice. I don’t believe this.
What is lacking here is some realistic basis to raise the stories and characters above fantastical triviality. Movies don’t have to critique, but filmmakers should do more social research, invest more thought into creating characters, and take more time to show the daily lives of these characters until some drama takes place. Forget about fast-paced editing. First, show meaningful contexts and characters.
By comparison, the good “instant noodles” take their time showing us rich social and personal portraits. In Vinh biet mua he, the 1992 movie based on Nguyen Dong Thuc’s popular novel of the same name, we see the chaotic, amoral, yet not unexciting Vietnamese society that had just started to embrace the market economy and was trying to find itself.
One representative of this new society is the heroine’s father. He is a former “communist” turned CEO at a state-owned company. When his daughter remonstrates with him for using his company car to take her to school while her friends either ride bicycles or walk, he tells her to relax and enjoy whatever advantage she has in life. He no longer believes in the revolutionary ideal of an absolute equal, classless society. Now, he is for every man trying to get rich. “Having rich and poor people is better than having only beggars,” he argues.
Caught up in this conflict between old ideals and new interests, or we can also say, young, naïve ideals and old, seasoned interests, are the daughter, Hang (played by Viet Trinh), and her high school friends, whose names all start with the letter H - Ha, Hoa and Han - and who thus call themselves the “4Hs”.
Naïve and idealistic, these girls live to see their paradise crumble before their eyes.
Hang sees her beloved, angelic mother kissing another man, an old friend of the family, right in her house. Heart-broken, she finds solace in her teacher, a married man and a poet whom she trusts. They have sex, but he breaks up with her when the affair threatens to ruin his career.
And Hang’s warning for her father in the car earlier in the film turns out to be justified. Her father is eventually fired and prosecuted for “negative” business activities (not spelled out in the film but likely for using public resources for private use, and not just the company car).
How does Hang cope with? She takes a break. She leaves high school and goes to Dak Nong in the Central Highlands to live with the Ede ethnic minority, explore nature, do some charity teaching, and seek mentoring from her teacher’s friend, a wise, moral, and altogether more authentic poet than the teacher.
The film ends with tempered hope, leaving open her future. We know Hang returns to finish high school, sadder but wiser.
In a conversation between Hang and her mentor late in the movie, we hear a hint about the girls’ future and the kind of attitude and direction that would protect them and make them happy in life.
Hang asks Hung, the poet, “What do you think about my friends?” Hung answers that she and Ha - the more intelligent, sensitive, idealistic of the group - will have a hard time. Han, who is less outstanding, will do well. But the happiest of them all will be Hoa.
Hoa is an earthy girl: loud, talkative, sharp-tongued, outgoing. She works part-time selling fabric at a street market while her friends don’t have to work. Hang’s major in college is unclear, Ha wants to study literature, and Han will pursue education. Hoa will study English, a fashionable, practical major in the 1990s just like now. Too wholesome to be affected, Hoa goes through high school unscathed.
If Vinh biet mua he ends with a shot of Hang, in her high school uniform, a white traditional dress, walking in her school yard toward the camera, and symbolically, the future, in a scene of light and hope, the ending shot of Vi dang tinh yeu is quite the opposite.
Also produced in 1992 and undeniably one of the best movies of the era, Vi dang tinh yeu, scripted by Le Hoang and Viet Linh, paints pain and loss with less light.
The characters are older. They are college students and direct victims of war. Phuong (played by Thuy Tien), a piano student, discovers that she has been living with a small bullet shrapnel that hit her head and got stuck there ever since she was caught in a bombing raid during the American War years before.
The shrapnel, which cannot be removed given the state of medicine, threatens Phuong’s life and prevents her from playing the piano. Quang Don Quixote (played by Le Cong Tuan Anh), a poor medical student who loves Phuong, encourages her to believe that optimism can work magic. If she forgets about the bullet piece and lives positively, she can still be healthy and play the piano.
But to Phuong’s protective mother, this naïve belief is too dangerous. She forbids Quang from seeing Phuong. Too kind and gentle (and poor), Quang can’t fight Phuong’s other suitor either. Binh, her piano teacher, is rich and unscrupulous. With his influential father’s help, Binh has Quang’s college cut short his studies and send him to the battlefield (it’s unclear but the film must be set in some period during the border wars with Cambodia and China in the late 1970s and 80s).
Quang’s kind of love – romantic, gentle, selfless, true – doesn’t stand a chance. And after he is drafted, Binh moves in to claim Phuong, who, we can guess – since the film doesn’t say explicitly – is too weak to fight the world on her own. More than 10 years later Quang returns from the battlefield with a scar on his face and a broken heart.
But as far as his optimistic approach to medicine is concerned, Quang is the ultimate victor. It is he who suggests to his professor to conduct a fake surgery on Phuong for a placebo effect. Believing the bullet fragment has been removed, Phuong leads a positive life, playing the piano and achieving fame.
Later, when the shrapnel acts up again, it is Quang who performs another surgery – this time for real because medicine has improved and a cure is available. But all of this isn’t too much of a comfort. What couldn’t be can never be. Quang can’t get Phuong back because she is married with a daughter and he doesn’t want her to relive the painful past.
What is now possible for Quang to do is to coolly and calmly fight with death every day to remove bullet fragments, heal war wounds, and save lives as a doctor. The closing shot shows Quang walking away from the camera, heading toward Phuong along a dark hallway in the hospital for the operation. Whether in love, war, or medicine, Quang’s battle never ends.