Hard sell or hard to sell?

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  A combination of scenes from Lay chong nguoi ta (In the Name of Love). Like many other recent movies, its plot and characters are too forced to be convincing.

Luu Huynh's latest movie, Lay chong nguoi ta (In the Name of Love), a tragic love story involving one woman and two men, falls flat on its face. It could not wrench a tear from me, or from any others I could see in the cinema that day.

What I did find sad, however, was the fact that the filmmaker tried so hard to sell his movie to audiences, and I sympathized with that.

"In the Name of Love" is about a couple not being able to have a child because the husband is infertile. Out of love for her husband, the wife sleeps with an old friend of theirs to have a child. She has a son and they call him Phuc, meaning happiness. But things take an unhappy turn when the guy she sleeps with, who is violent by nature, tries to get his son back.

Huynh tries all he can to get us interested: cutting back and forth between past and present in what is called nonlinear storytelling to create suspense, ending scenes at their supposedly most dramatic moments to heighten the drama, making the film's bad guy worse scene by scene to drive the tragedy forward, and other techniques. All of these efforts are painfully obvious.

They remind me of two similar movies released earlier this year: Le Van Kiet's Ngoi nha trong hem (House in the Hamlet) and Bui Thac Chuyen's Loi nguyen huyet ngai (Blood Curse), both horror flicks.

Like Huynh, the two filmmakers use formulas in an effort to make their stories interesting. They make their heroes face one obstacle after another, with the obstacles getting more daunting toward the end. But they try so hard that all I can see is their efforts rather than some genuine human feelings that the characters are supposed to capture.

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 qualityof Vietnamese movies improve. Thuy Linh may be reached at dolinh54@yahoo.com.

I also see this self-consciousness in more artistic attempts by promising female director Nguyen Hoang Diep.

I recently watched Diep's second short film, called Hai, Tu, Sau (Monday, Wednesday, Friday). She attracted attention with her well-done first short, Mua thu nam (The Fifth Season), about a young housewife's yearning for sexual and emotional fulfillment with her busy husband. Diep continues to explore this theme in "Monday, Wednesday, Friday."

I see Diep's progress in her second work. In her conceptual world of "husband" and "wife" (Diep does not give her characters names), the unfulfilled housewife this time around has a lover, but characteristic of Diep, who portrays sexual feelings in a gentle but exotic way, the woman does not allow herself to actually have sex with her boyfriend. They just fool around with her letting him taste her skin and the like.

In Diep's first film, the wife tastes soap bubbles on her fingers while she washes her husband's clothes and plays with his shirts in his absence to fill the emptiness.    

I am sounding more gentle about Diep's films than I would if I had not seen her in person at the Center for Assistance and Development of Movie Talents in Hanoi at the screening of "Monday, Wednesday, Friday" because, personally, I do not like these films. The camerawork and characters are too pretentious for my taste. But when I saw her, I realized that Diep's films are only as important as the filmmaker herself, her struggle to raise money to make movies, her intellectual progress, and her feelings as just another person.

Diep struck me as very passionate. She almost cried when she told a member of the audience, the actress who played the wife in her first film, "I invited you to this screening because I wanted you to know that I still try to make movies" (she has been working more in TV). Then she said that sometimes in real life a woman has subtle feelings that are unreasonable and selfish but she still cannot help having them, and she tries to capture this complexity in her films.

It was then that I suddenly saw clearly why I find Diep's films and some recent "art" movies by local filmmakers pretentious: I don't really see the filmmakers themselves in their movies. All I see in Diep's films, Bui Thac Chuyen's Choi voi (Adrift), which was scripted by Phan Dang Di, and Di's Bi oi, dung so (Bi, Don't be afraid) is an effort to be artistic, to capture contemporary society and the depth of life.

The effect, to me, is contrary: their worlds are not deep, I see more pretension than reality, and cannot identify with their characters. After I saw Diep, I wish in the future, when she makes her third short film - if she wants her "wife" to reflect something about real women - this wife will be more like herself: with a career and normal cares about children and husband, so that the world in her films will feel more honest and true.

Diep herself said: "Men in my films are concepts." Well, if her woman characters are not concepts, then men should not be treated as concepts either. But I have much hope for her. I'm eager to see what her "wife" will do next. 

What I am saying is that if local filmmakers want to make great movies, sooner or later they will have to dig deeper within themselves and bring that to light.

Usually, when artists are honest and mature enough to understand themselves and the world, even if their characters are fantastic aliens, their works will feel honest and true. Audiences can pick it up right away.

With "commercial" cinema, where audiences do not expect much and filmmakers do not have to give much, the bar may be lower. But I suspect even with pop culture and entertainment, if people want to make money they will eventually have to return to the basics, namely honesty and truth. Audiences cannot be fooled for too long.

Though I do not put "In the Name of Love" at the same level as the disastrous movies of recent years with their silly characters, costumes and plots, it suggests the same underestimation of audiences who pay to be entertained.

Good art and good entertainment are not all that different. There should be, as screenwriter Doan Minh Tuan said about a story idea, "a seed of truth" in them. Filmmakers may work very hard on technical aspects (like Chuyen's hard work with visual effects in his horror movie) but story ideas are not receiving the care they deserve.

When I watched the trailer of "In the Name of Love," which shows a sex scene, a naked woman standing in a street market, and two men fighting each other over a son, I thought it was about a wife who sleeps with another man to give her infertile husband a baby and then falls in love with this guy, one or both men get jealous and fight for her love and son, and she is somehow punished for the whole thing.

Though such a story would make this movie another one about women's sexual passion and sense of duty, it would at least make sense. But the movie does not make much sense. The wife, Lua, is so selfish and stupid that for her husband's sake she sleeps with a man, Linh, who used to love her and is violent by nature. Then when Linh tries to take his biological son back through violence, she punishes him.

No matter how hard Huynh tries to sell this story, I just could not buy it. The husband, Khanh, is infertile but tells his wife that he is fine with just the two of them. She does not mind not having a baby either. So why does the movie force her to sleep with the other man and cause whatever tragedy that happens afterwards? Because there is some "commercial" formula that says the plot should be driven forward regardless? Or is it because the filmmaker believes that Vietnamese men want children or sons so much that they do not mean it when they say they are fine with not having them, and Vietnamese women are so devoted to their husbands that even if their husbands mean what they say, they still do something that is irrational and cruel to somebody who is not their husband? Or that audiences who only expect "entertainment" will accept such a premise, if this film is meant to entertain (it was considered good enough to be entered at the recent Toronto International Film Festival but did not win any prize)?      

But the movie's bad guy, Linh, played well by actor Thai Hoa, is interesting. He is an angry man. Unfortunately, the movie does not explain why. If this movie focused on him rather than Lua and the infertility plot, it may have been much better.

Every day Linh paints his face, dons the traditional costume of the "God of Wealth," and sells lottery tickets on the streets to earn a living.

Does this double life make him angry? This guy strikes me as somebody with so much external pressure of living that he needs some resources within himself to balance it. Failing that, he would need women. But the women in the movie just hate him. The movie mentions briefly that Lua rejected him to marry her current husband, and his wife also left him because of his violence. So long before the film's story begins, this guy is doomed.

The potential of this character and the lackluster character of Lua as well as the too symbolic Vietnamese wife in Huynh's earlier movie Ao lua Ha Dong (The White Silk Dress) remind me of Diep. I instinctively feel that the picture of "husband" in Diep's films is not convincing though her "wife" is interesting. Does this have anything to do with Diep being a woman and Huynh being a man and that they are both yet to reach the intellectual maturity that allows them to see the other side of the picture?

I hope local filmmakers, "commercial" and "artistic," come up with a story, a character, or just an idea that is complete and believable, and then use appropriate cinema techniques to express it.

Only then will there be a chance of Vietnamese movies winning anything important rather than just minor prizes or being invited to international film festivals for the sake of diversity.

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