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Our movie critic names the three best films to have won the Golden Lotus over 40 years

   A poster of the upcoming Vietnam Film Festival to be held October 11-15 in Quang Ninh Province. The festival has been awarding the Golden Lotus to the best Vietnamese film since 1970. Of the winners in the feature film category, our film critic's top 3 are Bao gio cho den thang Muoi, Doi cat, and Canh dong hoang.

Since the Vietnam Film Festival comes around in October to give away the country's most important movie award, the Golden Lotus, I felt like reviewing all the films that have won it over the years and creating a top 3 list.

Some disclaimers.

This award does not include pre-1975 southern cinema, an interesting commercial tradition that was different from the northern sensibilities recognized by the festival.

Also, when it comes to art, awards are of course not the last word on what is the best work any more than any of our opinions is. That said, for those unfamiliar with Vietnamese cinema, an acquaintance with the movies that have won the festival's Golden Lotus for best film will provide a fair picture.

So here are my top 3 from last to top - from the 26(*) movies that have won the Golden Lotus since 1970 (some good movies made prior to the first festival were recognized at the 2nd festival in 1973).

It is just a nice coincidence that my top 3 movies also cover the geography of Vietnam, being set in the south, center, and north, respectively.

3. Canh dong hoang (The Abandoned Field): a dramatic showcase of American and Vietnamese wills battling each other over a field during the Vietnam War.

Director Nguyen Hong Sen's black and white classic has four main characters: two American officers determined to gun down any sign of life hidden in the field believed to harbor Vietnamese guerilla fighters, and a Vietnamese couple native to the field who work for the guerillas and are equally determined to survive.

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 at dolinh54@yahoo.com.

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Set in a field in the Dong Thap Muoi area in the Mekong Delta, the movie simply and nicely juxtaposes the mundane daily activities of the couple Ba Do and Sau Xoa like gathering water lilies and catching boas with deadly American airplanes flying overhead, Lieutenant Jean combing the field, and Major Mitscher barking orders from HQ.

The couple manage to hide ingeniously and survive until the final showdown from which neither side can escape unscathed.

The movie would be perfect but for the somewhat simplistic and silly characterization of Jean in comparison with the Vietnamese characters.

For instance, in a scene in which American soldiers have a party, he drinks and gleefully takes out a photo of his wife and kid he recently got from home to show off to others and kisses it.

But overall, the enemy are portrayed as human, quite like the Vietnamese, unlike other Vietnamese war movies where they are pure evil.

In contrast, we have the Vietnamese, especially women and children, who are pictures of happiness and innocence, smiling all the time until foreign invaders come and destroy it all.

The couple in Canh dong hoang smile a bit too much for my taste, but somewhere around the middle of the movie is a row between them that saves the portrait of their marriage for me.

Though the camerawork is not faultless (there is some rough zooming typical of old movies), it captures the grandeur of the southern fields. I wonder how awesome the movie would look like in color.

The distinctly southern background music, composed by the late great musician Trinh Cong Son, is superb.  

2. Doi cat (Sandy Lives): a poignant, yet humorous, portrait of people trying to deal with the consequences of war.

The movie opens with Canh parting with his daughter and second wife in the north to return to his first wife down south after 20 years of separation caused by the French and Vietnam Wars.

Canh's reunion with his first wife, Thoa, however, is tempered by the fact that she has gotten old waiting for him faithfully and lost her youthful desire.

One day Canh's daughter visits him without her mother's permission, unwittingly pulling the three adults together to face their dilemma when her mother, Tam, out of concern, comes to find her.

When the husband and two wives live together for the moment, Thoa jealously watches her husband and his beautiful wife, wrecking every chance they have of being alone together.

Meanwhile, Hung, an old friend of Canh's and former comrade of Thoa, has long been in love with Thoa and has to see her reunite with her husband.

For his part, Hung, who lost one leg in the war, is hopelessly loved by Hao, a woman who lost both her legs.

In a sandy coastal village in central Vietnam, these five people slowly come to make choices that put others' happiness above their own.

The casting is brilliant. Mai Hoa makes a perfect old, wasted, thin, dark-skinned wife who has sacrificed her youth waiting for her husband. In contrast to her is the beautiful youthful wife, played by Hong Anh, to whom local filmmakers often turn when they have to find a quintessential Vietnamese beauty. Handling these two women is the late popular Don Duong, a fine, handsome, manly-looking actor.    

This movie grows on me. When I first watched it, I thought it too slow and sad. The second time, it did not seem so slow and struck me as quite funny. Screenwriter Nguyen Quang Lap did a fine job portraying the easy acceptance of villagers' war losses.

The sight of disabilities caused by war is so familiar that villagers can take a breezy attitude about it all. They make bawdy jokes that are somewhat sharp but not too nasty at the expense of Canh and Hao, who retort without feeling victimized.

3. Bao gio cho den thang Muoi (When the Tenth Month Comes): a poetic, intensely psychological movie about a woman coming to terms with the death of her soldier husband.

Duyen returns home after a trip to visit her husband, a soldier stationed on the southwest border during the military campaigns against the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, with shattering news: he is dead.

Devastated, she tries to hide it from her family, especially her father-in-law whose health is falling and who would not be able to handle this news.

She asks Khang, a local teacher to assume her husband's identity and write letters to her family, informing them that he is doing well.

Wearing a mask of happiness in front of her family, Duyen struggles to live with happy memories of her husband and the fact that he is now dead.

She is able to sustain the lie until her father-in-law falls seriously ill and asks to see his son before he dies.

Dang Nhat Minh's masterpiece would be among the top movies, if not the top, in any list of the best Vietnamese movies. Mine is certainly no exception.

One thing I love about this well-known work is the smooth blurring of reality and what is not so real, such as Duyen's memories and dreams, which are often associated with mystical folk beliefs.

It is these unreal worlds where she can remove her mask that
give Duyen the strength to face reality.

A best example of this is a sequence in which in a cheo, or northern folk opera, staged for villagers and provincial officials, Duyen plays a woman sending her husband off to the battles against foreign invaders.

Though it is not a dream, the fictional world of the opera provides Duyen chance to relieve her feelings. When the pain becomes too much to bear, however, she breaks down and runs away from the stage.

She runs toward a more unreal and safer world when she can again unmask, the temple to worship the village's tutelary god, a site where she and her husband used to meet, and sees the god there.

She talks to him, also a former soldier, who tells her that dead soldiers like him and her husband still live in people's memory.

This sequence builds up to one of her most intensely emotional dreams of a meeting with her husband's ghost at the temple on full-moon day, or the 15th of the seventh month, the day of ghosts in many East Asian folk beliefs, before the full force of reality finally hits her. 

The 10th month in the movie's title, however, is a reference to the first line of a poem about the coming of better days, using a rice harvest metaphor, that teacher Khang writes.

The poem starts with "When will the tenth month come/Rice will ripen on the 5-ton field."

Khang tells a friend that the editors of the magazine he will send the poem to have asked him to change the word "5-ton" because many localities are already able to harvest 7 or 8 tons per hectare.

After pretending to be Duyen's dead husband, falling in love with her and knowing more profound things, Khang grows and later improves his poem, changing "5-ton" to "stormy."

I love this!

My top three Golden Lotuses

1. Bao gio cho den thang Muoi
(When the Tenth Month Comes)
Producer: Vietnam Feature Film Studio
Year of release: 1984
Length: 95 minutes
Director: Dang Nhat Minh
Screenwriter: Dang Nhat Minh
Cast: Le Van, Nguyen Huu Muoi, Dang Luu Viet Bao, Lai Phu Cuong

2. Doi cat (Sandy Lives)
Producer: Vietnam Feature Film Studio
Year of release: 1999
Length: 87 minutes
Director: Nguyen Thanh Van
Screenwriter: Nguyen Quang Lap
Cast: Mai Hoa, Hong Anh, Don Duong, Cong Ninh, Tran Thi Be, Lan Ha

3. Canh dong hoang
(The Abandoned Field)
Producer: Giai Phong Film Studio
Year of release: 1979
Length: 95 minutes
Director: Nguyen Hong Sen
Screenwriter: Nguyen Quang Sang
Cast: Lam Toi, Thuy An

(*) The total number of the prize winners is 27, but I haven't managed to find a copy of one of them, Anh va Em

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