Good films do not require subservience to technology

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Resident film critic says Vietnamese filmmakers' excessive reliance on technology will undermine creativity and originality

A note to readers: Since I am going to critique our filmmakers' over-dependence on technology, photography and the camera, I won't use stills from movie scenes to illustrate my words. My point is that Vietnamese filmmakers should make things as simple as possible in an effort to be creative, relevant and truly free of any institutional constraint. For my part, I'll try to keep things simple by letting my words do the talking.  

In my previous column, I had said that Vietnamese audiences should adopt a new, critical attitude toward cinema. When we watch a "good" movie, we should view it from a distance to find some bigger, more interesting underlying cultural phenomenon. And if a movie is "bad", we can participate in the filmmaker's creative process and imagine how we can improve it.

You may ask: Why should audiences adopt this attitude? And how exactly can audiences take part in the filmmaker's creative process? Let me elaborate. Nowadays, there are usually two main attitudes towards movies or works of human labor in general. For want of better words, I will call them the consumerist attitude and the worshipping attitude.

"˜Consumerist' attitude vs. "˜worshipping' attitude

The "consumerist" attitude is to treat movies as just another type of consumer goods. We pay money to "buy" them if we like them. If we don't like them, we don't buy them. In other words, audiences and critics watch a movie, give it a thumb up or down, then forget all about it. Thus some readers commented after reading my columns about bad Vietnamese movies that I was wasting my time analyzing them and making a big deal out of "entertainment". 

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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Then there is the opposite attitude that reveres great human achievements, cinematic masterpieces included, and the talents that make them, as if these works and talents were godlike and the rest were not. Once I sat behind director Bui Thac Chuyen in a theater. We had been watching Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. When the film ended, I remember Bui Thac Chuyen thoughtfully, quietly holding his mouth in his hands in a gesture that showed great admiration, if not awe.  

 The Tree of Life has superb techniques but the idea and the story aren't extraordinary. As an audience, I understood this movie. As a filmmaker, with some time and practice, I could create something close. At least that was what I thought as I watched Chuyen's reaction to the film.

Both attitudes are inappropriate, I feel. They tend to ignore the human factor that underlines everything around us. It's real people like us who somewhere down the line make those goods that you consume, not machines. And it's real people like us who suffer and struggle to create those so-called masterpieces that we treat as God's works.

Local filmmakers' uneasy oscillation

The fundamental reason Vietnamese movies are so bad and confusing these days is because in trying to build a new, profitable film industry out of the old state-funded cinema in which cultural works and politics were inseparable, local filmmakers are torn between "entertainment" and "art" and end up creating a bad mixture of both. Thus, commercial movies often have some poorly developed social criticism (example: Duong Dua, or The Race) and artistic movies (example: Bi, Dung So, or Bi, Don't Be Afraid) unwittingly recycle trite themes about sex and gender that pander to international film festivals, arthouses and stock ideas and images of cinema.

No one should be torn between those two directions because they can be harmonized, though harmony is always a dearly-won reward. I would treat my labor and others' as something in between. That means that as a filmmaker, I wouldn't create a work to entertain you and be paid. Nor do I want you to worship it as God's work and yet, at the same time, carelessly and freely enjoy it. In an ideal case, free of monetary considerations, I would only barter my work for something that has an equal value, for instance, your brilliant critique which would enlighten me and help me do better work in the future.

When local filmmakers can reconcile those two attitudes, they may become more modest and ambitious at the same time. They would invest their most serious thoughts into a work, then try to make this work intelligible to at least another person beside themselves. Right now, older filmmakers tend to think a bit too highly of their less-than-perfect works and commercial filmmakers show too little of real personal or social concerns in their box-office hits. With the more balancing attitude I've mentioned, local filmmakers might be smarter, braver, finding ways to make use of whatever resources are available. They might find that there is an alternative to struggling to find money to finance movies and fighting for screening time at big theaters: digital technology and the Internet.

Taking control of technology

Some friends of mine are infatuated with film photography which they think gives a more authentic feel to their photos. They despise digital photography. Then there are other friends of mine who go everywhere and take record of everything with their digital cameras and don't understand how in the world one doesn't know how to take a good photo with digital cameras. People, especially well-off people living in cities, are making such a cult out of technology that they forget technology was created to serve humans. They do not realize that they are being enslaved, instead. There is no authenticity here. We have to change the language and say technology only provides different useful levels of fakeness.

The danger of making a cult out of technology is real in cinema, which is the most technology-dependent of all art forms. I am not impressed with pretentious art films such as Tran Anh Hung's movies which don't propose any new idea but are packaged with all the glossiness of camerawork to fool the eyes. As for Vietnamese filmmakers whose strength don't lie in the technical aspects, they can be easily intimidated by the sophisticated technology available abroad and in foreign films and wish to have the same expensive resources. Director Pham Nhue Giang once lamented the lack of money that didn't allow her to have some difficult aerial shots for her movie Tam Hon Me (Mother's Soul). To me, that movie's shortcoming wasn't camerawork. It was the story. But I am biased, because I'm of the opinion that technology, whether old or new, sophisticated or still developing, is only technology.

Director Ha Son said once that there was no shortage of scripts and ideas. But he would need money to make movies and once he had money, he would have to find distributors. I say, why wait? Vietnamese filmmakers, especially older ones who have good ideas, should consider the Internet and digital technology not just the alternative to the old, big, costly way of movie making, but the very next thing in culture. Director Dang Nhat Minh told film critic Nguyen Le Chi in an interview that he wished some day he could be both the director and cameraman of his movies, because he had never felt satisfied with the camerawork in any of his films. Though it was him who decided most aspects of camerawork (angles, frame sizes, choices of lenses telephoto or wide angle, and camera movement), he didn't directly control lighting setup for shooting, which he could only discuss with his cameraman. And it was in lighting that Vietnam technicians fell far behind their foreign friends. Digital cameras may offer diverse, automatic lighting options that can free Dang Nhat Minh from depending on lighting technicians. 

I would break my scripts into short films and all types of genres, animation included, and use any technology available to make them as inexpensively as possible. I would create a blog, a website, anything, to screen those films, then charge people appropriate fees to watch them when I believe my films are worth watching. That way, serious filmmakers could help start a movement to counteract the rampant, wasteful, amateurish use of technology and the Internet in which people post some funny Facebook status about themselves and consider it super-creative.

For a serious critique culture on the Internet

Once movie making is taken to the Internet, especially by seasoned filmmakers, younger audiences would be offered a chance to take part in the creative process. This is my answer to the second question at the beginning of this article. The Internet makes it possible for us to offer direct comments. But what I mean isn't the kind of "interactive" moviemaking seen in Victor Vu's recent sci-fi work called Menh Lenh Lien Hoan (literally Chain Orders), sponsored by Samsung.

In this movie, which was screened online, audiences could click on some buttons and choose different developments of the story. This isn't a serious way of making movies. This is the "gamesy" way of cheapening already cheap commercial movies. It gives younger audiences a fake sense of being in control and taking part in the creative process. But no one takes part in Victor Vu's and Samsung's creative process just by clicking on some buttons. They are simply playing a game.

An artist should have developed an idea fully and when he or she proposes it to others, it is a finished work. All feedbacks are appreciated for future works and the artist's intellectual process in the long run. This attitude would force audiences to get rid of any false claim to creatively participating in an art work. But it would give them a chance to be equally creative in a different calling: criticism. They would have to offer carefully-developed critiques instead of some breezy comments and Internet-age emoticons. Only by being so serious can we, artists, audiences and everybody else, do justice to the Internet and technology. Only then can the Internet and technology give us a fruitful online meeting place of old and young, of people and ideas to complement our offline reality.

Vietnamese filmmakers' opportunity

You may ask: Why should filmmakers take it upon themselves to engage in this broad cultural movement? It isn't their duty or anyone else's, but filmmakers owe everything to technology. They should give back if they could. And by giving back, they may challenge and renew themselves, create better works yet, build audiences, connect with investors, reap other rewards and find opportunities that they cannot find in the current cinematic scene. And more than filmmakers from other countries, Vietnamese filmmakers should think about this. Because given the current state of their movies and movie industry, they don't have much to lose.

*Note: In writing this essay, I was inspired by Vilém Flusser's 1983 book "Towards a Philosophy of Photography". In this book, the late Czech-born philosopher warns against the danger of mankind making themselves subservient to their inventions, including the camera and what I'm using, written language, which they originally created to serve themselves.

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