From naivety to sureness

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Film on gay men shows director approaching realism with confidence

Hotboy noi loan va cau chuyen ve thang Cuoi, co gai diem va con vit (Lost Paradise), which is playing in theaters now, is Vu Ngoc Dang's latest effort to make a serious movie that sells. The movie has taken part in several international film festivals including the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.

If I have to name the two most promising directors in Vietnam now, regardless of age, I'll say Vu Ngoc Dang and Victor Vu. This review focuses on the former.

There is much to hope for from Dang, who has made four films so far. In his latest, rather wordily titled Hotboy noi loan va cau chuyen ve thang Cuoi, co gai diem va con vit (shortened to Lost Paradise in English) in particular, one can't help but see a progression.

There is an evolution that can be seen from Dang's first major movie, Chuot (Mouse), a high-minded story about a runaway criminal's psychological journey to turn himself in, to the award-winning Nhung co gai chan dai (The leggy girls) and the commercial hit Dep tung centimet (Beautiful in every centimeter), both of which are about the show business that Dang is familiar with, to Hotboy a stylistic movie about homosexuality and prostitution.

I feel, though, that the Vietnamese media and critics, by and large, praise or criticize Dang's movies for the wrong reasons.

Take Chuot, for instance. The media and critics love it. But despite its good intention, this movie is unrealistic and symbolic, and in many ways similar to other attempts to make "art" movies by Vietnamese filmmakers who are still young and inexperienced. The hero of this movie has an innocent past which is symbolized by the repeated image of the rice field and for some reason commits some crime and is on the police's wanted list. He takes refuge in an abandoned house and spends most of his time fighting off an annoying mouse. His better nature, which is linked to his past, gradually makes him pity the mouse and feed it. In the end, when the mouse is killed by rainwater after a storm, the hero realizes that his fate isn't any different and decides to turn himself in.

Similar to other well-done but egotistical movies by young filmmakers (I have in mind the high profile "Bi, don't be afraid" by Phan Dang Di), the hero of Chuot is less a realistic character than the filmmaker himself. But some people love these movies because they seem to tackle serious ideas. Thus, when Dang "fell" from Chuot's heights to the cotton candy romance between an aspiring photographer and an aspiring actress who, thanks to her love, discovers her true talent is in writing, not in acting (Dep tung centimet), they said Dang was losing himself to "commercial cinema" (all of Dang's movies and TV dramas have been money makers). Now, however, people are heaping praises on Hotboy because this movie, which is Dang's saddest one, returns to the downtrodden in society. It isn't runaway convicts this time but gays, prostitutes and to a lesser extent, mentally-retarded people.

The media and critics may be confused by Dang's moves, but for the most part, Dang knows what he is doing and better yet, he makes it clear. He tells the press that he is a simple, sunny man who wants to make movies that many people, such as his parents, can relate to, and his parents like comedies more than tragedies. But simple and hopeful movies such as Nhung co gai chan dai (The leggy girls) and Dep tung centimet (Beautiful in every centimeter) are too shallow for the critics, especially young filmmakers who commonly believe that life is a tragedy.

Screenwriter Ha Anh Thu, who has played music at bars and discotheques and witnessed first-hand the hard life of call girls, recently said she couldn't help writing about the tears and toil of such a life once she had seen it. This approach is widespread and explains the repetition of the topics of social ills like crime and prostitution in local cinema in recent years.

This overexploitation of social ills leads to movies that sound like newspaper coverage: very loud and superficial, mostly pitting good against evil in a very simplistic manner. For instance, in Le Hoang's Gai nhay (The bar girls), which marked the beginning of the commercial movie trend in Vietnam, the ending depicts an ex-prostitute speaking before a conference about regretting being part of the profession nothing subtle. This superficiality makes it very difficult for Vietnamese movies to be taken seriously. It is said that at an Iranian international film festival, when a judge was asked what he thought about the Vietnamese entries, he said something like, "What entries? Oh, the loud discotheque ones?"

Interestingly, Dang doesn't completely believe in himself. He still unconsciously uses the same patronizing language of the media to describe his romantic movies on showbiz as "childish" and "naïve." Though he stays true to his belief and gives his characters hope even in the most trying times, his insecurity is shown by his obvious efforts to combine - yet at the same time, separate - reality and dreams, in his movies: innocent past and corrupted present are unconnected; realistic characters are put into settings that look a little too pretty; poor and hard working people are too sentimentally attached to pets; and cute animals that symbolize innocence figure too prominently and jarringly in movies that are supposed to capture plain life.

In fact, if Dang got rid of all of the cute animals in his movies the mouse in Chuot, the white rabbit in Dep tung centimet, the duck in Hotboy and turn whatever hopeful visions for life that he wants to express through them into human characters, his movies would be much more convincing because then, his combination of reality and dreams would look organic. High-minded critics might be less prone to dismiss his hopeful attitude as childish. And compared to those movies about social ills that take some particular parts of life and themselves too seriously, his more optimistic stand would show the mark of a filmmaker who is not naïve but confident.

There is a tendency among young Vietnamese filmmakers to overuse symbols. When you don't really understand things, you tend to seize on readily made and trite symbols. For instance, when you look at Vietnamese culture from outside (in Tran Anh Hung's movies most clearly), you see the lotus and the Vietnamese woman, or the betel leaf, or the white silk dress, and so on. In the real Vietnam, women have long since abandoned that dress.

For all its shortcomings, with Hotboy, Dang is heading toward this direction. The two gay heroes in this movie are rich and real and aren't filmmakers or photographers or writers or models the familiar show biz characters of Nhung co gai chan dai and Dep tung centimet. Nor are they symbolic runaway convicts who may merely illustrate Dang's ideas of what runaway convicts are. Hotboy's gay men are something in between. Dang's world has thus grown from a dream inside his head in Chuot, to a small reality-based showbiz world that he knows best, to a bigger and realistic world that includes gays and prostitutes that he understands. I'm wholeheartedly waiting for his next move but I hope Dang's good instincts will show him the way out of the world of gays and prostitutes and social ills that has been overexploited by local filmmakers. Dang himself is falling victim to the trend here. It's easy to show what is obvious. But it's much more exciting and enriching to both filmmakers and audiences to see what is not. Convicts, gays and prostitutes aren't the only downtrodden people in life.

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