Get rid of the frills, take Vietnamese movies to the world

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Vietnamese films should dispense with cheesy settings and subplots, resident critic says

   Scenes from Lua Phat (L) and Thien Menh Anh Hung (R) notable movies from the martial arts-action-fantasy stable about a Vietnamese hero who is torn between the need for violence and the desire for peace. Though imperfect, these films may pave the way for a viable brand of Vietnamese cinema. File photos

Dustin Nguyen's action fantasy Lua Phat (Once Upon a Time in Vietnam), the most anticipated Vietnamese movie this summer, is alright; I give it 6/10. It has good effects and decent romance.

Lua Phat is about a group of Buddhist monks who become warriors to protect Vietnam from foreign invaders. These warriors, called the Masters, are bound by an oath: they must not harbor any personal feeling and anyone who deserts the military for whatever reason will be killed.

The film starts with one of the Masters, Dao, played by Dustin Nguyen, going on a journey to find his former lover, Anh, played by Ngo Thanh Van, who deserted the military nine years ago, to bring her back for punishment.

He finds her in a remote village, happily married with a husband and a son. While Dao is still vacillating between his love for Anh and his duty to capture her, his superior, General Long - played by Roger Yuan - shows up one day.

Then we are treated to the big secret of why Anh deserted the army.

The biggest shortcoming of the movie is its fantastic setting. No, by no means am I against creativity, but Lua Phat's world, as shown in the sets and costumes, are confusing and unconvincing. You wouldn't know what to make of it.

Set some time in the past in Vietnam as the English title suggests, the people of this world wear all sorts of weird costumes that you would never have seen anywhere before, whether in fiction or reality.

Nor do their clothes have some basic commonality to amount to a certain style to make you believe there is some fantastic group of people out there wearing it.

These people, each of whom seems to wear whatever he or she can come up with, fight with swords yet ride trucks and motorbikes and live among mythical warriors and modern-day bar owners.

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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As for their houses, I can't ascribe any time period, real or imagined, to them either.

 

If this was all meant for comic effect, I could do without the comedy. I bet Dustin Nguyen is trying to build a solid, believable fictional world with its cultural myths for a new, marketable genre of Vietnamese cinema, something like the American Wild West and western films. He said his movie was heavily influenced by western classics such as Shane, High Noon, and The Searcher.

The American Wild West in the movies is a solid myth with its roots in history and reality: out of the hostile and vast landscapes of mountains and deserts, the western hero, a horse-riding, gun-toting cowboy helps forge a civilization.

To find a Vietnamese concept that can rival this, Dustin Nguyen should take more time to flesh out the settings.

As for Dustin Nguyen's Vietnamese hero, he is alright.

Like his predecessors in Victor Vu's Thien Menh Anh Hung (Blood Letter) and Charlie Nguyen's Dong Mau Anh Hung (The Rebel), Dao is a superb martial arts expert who is torn between the need for violence to protect his country and other ideals and the desire for peace.

This hero sounds good to me. I like him better than the American cowboy.

It is a worthy concept which should be seriously explored. Local filmmakers should treat it with confidence. They shouldn't make light of it and their movies. They're creating cultural ideas to sell here.

So to Dustin Nguyen: please build for my hero a more serious social context. Get rid of the silly looking costumes, the trucks, the motorbikes, and the ridiculous goggles that Dao wears. If the movie is set in some mythical past, make it look like it.

With its real historical setting, Thien Menh Anh Hung has a much more realistic feel to it. This movie is about Nguyen Trai's grandson's journey to search for the truth about the massacre of his family. But like Dustin Nguyen, Victor Vu should treat his material more seriously.

For the sake of entertainment, I'd keep the teeny romance and the fantastic martial arts fighting, but one evil guy, the one who wears plate armor and a black cape, has a scar across his blind left eye, and fights with knives hidden in his hands that spring out on their own, is a bit too much.

The guy's looks and manner of fighting, which were so obviously created with an eye on entertainment, detract from the generally thoughtful atmosphere surrounding the realistically, seriously motivated violence and revenge.

The plate armor is alright, but otherwise the guy could look ordinary and fight like the other characters (with fists, bow and arrow, sword, or iron staff), exciting interest for who he is and what he does in the plot, and not because of his extraordinary appearance and springing knives.

As for Dong Mau Anh Hung, a film about Vietnamese rebels fighting French colonizers, it is the best and most serious of the three. But I hope it were leaner and meaner without some of the unnecessary cheesiness in the three main characters' background stories.

They all share some sad memories about their mothers. Of their three mother stories, I'd keep the story about the heroine's mother because it is shown most clearly in a flashback rather than just through conversation like the other two.

Also, it helps to paint a picture of French brutality, one message of the movie, and advances the romance: the hero, a disillusioned Vietnamese working for the French, becomes very sympathetic toward the heroine, a rebel and daughter of a rebel leader, after hearing her story.

Here is her story: her father was captured once. To rescue him, her mother had to sleep with all the Frenchmen in charge of the case. After he was released and informed of her act by the French, he was devastated and the relationship between husband and wife cooled off. When the mother was pregnant with a child by one of the Frenchmen, she drowned herself.

As for the hero, we gather from his two conversations with his father that the latter disappointed his wife in many ways and spent the last days of his life regretting it. He reminds his son never to disappoint a woman because a woman's love is the most wonderful thing in life.

This background story isn't too necessary and is a trite idea. In many Korean dramas I've watched, the romantic couple are quite orphans or share similar hang-ups about their parents, often their mothers, and easily feel empathy for each other.

The bad guy in the movie also has a vague mother story. Now, this is quite a lot of MOTHER for one movie. Also from conversations, we learn that the mother of this guy, also a Vietnamese working for the French, is a prostitute.

After his French superior brings this up to provoke him to try his best to arrest the rebels and advance himself to make up for his shameful background, the bad guy washes his face in front of a mirror, and breaks down, crying, "Mother, oh Mother!"

The Vietnamese martial art expert and/or defender of the country will probably best travel worldwide if they jettison the emotional baggage.

And by the way, if Dustin Nguyen and Johnny Tri Nguyen continue to play our Vietnamese hero, they should brush up their Vietnamese. It's either the accent or the quality of their voice that makes it difficult to make out what they say.

This seems to be a common shortcoming in movies starring Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) actors. I often have to resort to the English subtitles.

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