A little hope goes a long way

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A scene from Canh dong bat tan (Floating lives), a box-office hit adaptation of Nguyen Ngoc Tu's 2005 sensational short novel of the same name. "˜Floating lives' was short-listed but not selected to represent Vietnam at next year's Oscars.

As the National Film Selection Committee was debating which of its three candidates Canh dong bat tan (Floating lives), Long Thanh cam gia ca (Ballad of a Thang Long musician) or Khat vong Thang Long (Thang Long's aspiration) it would submit to the 2012 Oscars, I hoped for "Floating lives."

The film is based on what is perhaps Vietnam's most popular and critically acclaimed work of contemporary fiction. The short novel of the same name published by Nguyen Ngoc Tu in 2005 has a solid story. What do I mean by a "solid story?" Whatever filmmakers say about cinema being a visual art, not story-telling, most audiences want to be told a story when they watch a movie. A "solid story" to me then reveals something important about some character(s) with realistic human psychology that somehow touches me. It is this solidity that I find lacking in almost all Vietnamese submissions to the Oscars. These movies either tell unimportant stories, or important stories about unrealistic characters, or most often, important stories about realistic characters in such a defeatist language that they strangle the love of life out of viewers. 

The committee's choice turned out to be Khat vong Thang Long, an unchallenging historical epic about King Ly Thai To, one of Vietnam's most revered national heroes who founded the later-Ly Dynasty in the 11th century and Vietnam's capital, present-day Hanoi. This film is likely to go unnoticed at the Oscars.  "Floating lives" might not have been noticed either, but this movie has a key ingredient the other films lack: hope. 

A hopeful message or better yet, a sense of humor about life and human beings for all of their shortcomings is glaringly lacking in Vietnamese entries to the Oscars. Without hope or humor, or something similar for us to take home, we may wonder why we bother to watch a movie at all.

Good art should inspire us to live better. Screenwriter Doan Minh Tuan, who heads the School of Cinema at the University of Theater and Cinema in Hanoi, last year told a conference that characters in Vietnamese TV dramas cry too much. As I watched the Vietnamese entries submitted to the Oscars in recent years such as Mua len trau (Buffalo boy) and Chuyen cua Pao (Story of Pao), as well as movies that would have been submitted had it not been for some procedural problems such as Rung den (Black forest), it struck me that characters in these movies laugh too little.  They are mostly victims of a life that is consistently poor and difficult.  "Buffalo boy" is about the poor and difficult life of southern farmers in the flooding season during French colonization. "Story of Pao" is about the poor and difficult life of present-day farmers, especially women, in the northern mountainous region.  "Black forest" is about the poor and difficult life of present-day northern wood smugglers. With specific and realistic settings, these films are superior to the likes of the overly-symbolic Ao lua Ha Dong (The white silk dress), which is also about Vietnamese poverty and hardship, and was submitted to the 2007 Oscars. 

Vietnamese filmmakers can certainly win cultural prizes and plenty of tears and sympathy from international audiences with their tales of struggle and poverty. But after they present the problems of life, these filmmakers' solution is uniformly resignation to fate.  They thus don't really offer the world any new answer to the ultimate question of art: how should we all live? This submissive attitude toward life is reflected by Pao, the heroine of "Story of Pao," in her final lines that close the film:  "After a long journey, I came to understand an important idea: No matter whether it's in sorrow or joy, everybody has to try to live his life till the very end, though more often than not, sorrow it will be."           

Vietnamese literature is doing much better than this. If "Buffalo boy" and "Story of Pao," which are based on well-known short stories, were more faithful to the originals, they would have been much better.  Writer Son Nam's short story Mua len trau is different from Nguyen Vo Nghiem Minh's movie, "Buffalo boy." The latter has many new details that turn the former on its head. Nam's heart-warming and humorous story about the disadvantages and advantages of the rainy season for rice farmers in southern Vietnam becomes a depressing movie about the brutality of rain against man, and of men against women. This same destructive creativity, if I may, is obvious in Vuong Duc, who directed "Black forest" in 2008, and earlier adapted Nguyen Huy Thiep's short story, Nhung nguoi tho xe (The woodcutters) into a movie of the same name. I was almost angry when I watched Vuong Duc's adaptation. In the movie "The woodcutters," Thiep's imperfect but charming hard-boiled hero becomes a repulsively vulgar man driven only by primitive sexual instinct. Thiep's idea of finding a balance between an idealistic and realistic attitude about life in order to survive in the woods is transformed into a narrative about the failure of both idealism and realism, and man's efforts to survive in the wild without any alternative.                                       

Director Bui Tuan Dung recently told me that "Floating lives" "doesn't outdo the literary version," and I agree. But this film should be applauded precisely because it doesn't try to be smarter than the original. Instead, it remains faithful to what is good about Nguyen Ngoc Tu's work: delivering a hopeful message about forgiveness.  Though they both portray the harsh life of southern farmers who must fight the brutality of nature and man, the movie "Floating lives," directed by Nguyen Phan Quang Binh, is able to capture the genuine generosity and well-known strength of the southern farmer that "Buffalo boy" fails to portray. Binh does this by staying close to the original literature. Nuong, the heroine in "Floating lives," decides to raise a child she bears as a result of rape and names it "Thuong" ("love" in Vietnamese) because she wants to teach her child how to "forgive the mistakes that adults make."  On the contrary, Kim, the hero in "Buffalo boy," whose father and uncle rape women and who almost commits the act himself, goes through life depressed because life is so hard.

To this observation about defeatism, I except Tran Anh Hung's Mui du du xanh (The scent of green papaya), the only Vietnamese movie that was short-listed at the 1993 Oscars, Ho Quang Minh's Bui hong (Gone, gone, forever gone), the submission to the 1996 Oscars, and especially the movie that wasn't submitted for the 2004 Oscars because of procedural delay, Do Minh Tuan's Vua bai rac (Foul king), which was bought by Quebec-based BM Film International to distribute in the US and Canada for 10 years, the first achievement of its kind for a Vietnamese movie. Tran Anh Hung's movie is stylistic and optimistic but it's too obsessed with the superficial details of Vietnamese culture to really matter to Vietnamese audiences. Ho Quang Minh's film about Buddhism is similarly flawed.  But Do Minh Tuan's movie isn't concerned with presenting Vietnamese culture. It is about the life of hard-working garbage dealers, but the story is one of joy and hope amidst trials and tribulations. Trong, the hero of "Foul king," is the leader of a gang of garbage dealers who rules with an iron fist but becomes softer as he falls in love with a kind-hearted banana flower seller. However, to this combination of realism and romance, Tuan adds style when he sets up a happy ending in which Trong makes up with his girlfriend after a fit of jealousy at an installation art exhibition he organized at his garbage dump.  We are thus forced to distance ourselves from this obviously artificial ending and the film's overall optimism because whatever is hopeful in the film might just have been "installed" by Tuan himself. Life may be different. Such reflexivity is rare in Vietnamese cinema and makes this film superior to all Vietnamese submissions to the Oscars. With humor, a quality that "Floating lives" lacks, "Foul king" has both a complex message and style, and suggests an effective strategy for bringing the uniqueness of Vietnam to the screen without cliché and melodrama.

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