History weighs heavily on Vietnamese war movies

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To make them appealing, filmmakers should treat them as fiction, not as a foggy mix of fact and fantasy

Poster of Bui Dinh Hac's 2-hour 2003 movie Ha Noi 12 Ngay dem (Hanoi 12 days and nights) about the American bombing of Hanoi in 1972. As this poster shows, this movie is mostly about the specifics of how the Vietnamese shot down American B52 fighter jets.

In Vietnam, there is this group of movies, often about the French and American wars, derisively called "ancestor worshipping films."

Made to celebrate important historical events, they get lavish budgets from the government but turn out to be flops (the government may screen them for free for various audiences, but when they are screened in theaters, few pay to see them).

Do Minh Tuan's 2004 movie Ky uc Dien Bien (Memories of Dien Bien) which got VND13 billion (around US$900,000 at then rates) in funding, sold just 60 tickets in three days of screening in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

People have different ideas why these movies in particular and movies made by state-owned studios in general often fail at the box office. Poor or even a total lack of marketing is a common reason; fierce competition from foreign movies is another. But there may be a simpler reason: they just aren't interesting.

It is common knowledge that contemporary war movies, which are often made by the older generation of filmmakers working for state-owned studios, are "boring."

To me, the problem doesn't lie in inadequate technical quality such as rudimentary special effects in battle scenes which fans of Hollywood war epics can easily find fault with or even their deeply ideological content.

Pham Xuan Thach is an art studies instructor who is developing a master's program in cinema studies at the Hanoi University of Social Sciences and Humanities. In a paper suggesting measures to overhaul the cinema industry in Vietnam, he says old "values" assigned by the state as the investor of these movies, such as populism, singularity and clarity of meaning, and ideological correctness may no longer correspond to contemporary life and are thus not accepted by the market.

Spectacular special effects are not a prerequisite for good movies. As for ideological content, war films are indeed usually ideological. It is only that foreign cinemas "sell" their ideologies in much more subtle and effective ways. My problem with contemporary Vietnamese war films is about their form, their confusing mix of documentary and fiction that erodes the storytelling.

Local filmmakers often use documentary devices such as real footage and an omniscient narrator in their supposedly fictional films to provide them historical heft.

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.

Take Dang Nhat Minh's Ha Noi mua dong nam 46 (Hanoi in the winter of 1946) for instance. The movie is about the difficult political situation Ho Chi Minh faced in 1946. After declaring independence in 1945, Ho Chi Minh tried to push France to recognize Vietnam's independence through diplomacy. Though the French government in Paris was not unwilling, the French military in Hanoi continued to provoke him into war. War did break out and Ho Chi Minh had to evacuate from Hanoi in the winter of 1946. Dang Nhat Minh starts his movie with a two-minute sequence using an authoritative narrator and real footage to explain the political events prior to the winter of 1946. This use of documentary devices is inadvisable at best and lazy at worst. Inadvisable because it may turn off audiences who are not interested in documentaries and documentary-like films and others who are skeptical of fictional films that claim historical truth. Lazy because it's more artistically challenging and exciting to come up with ways to re-tell history rather than rely on real footage and a narrator recounting events.

If they want to use documentary devices, Vietnamese filmmakers should learn from the creative way Bernardo Bertolucci used them in his 1987 Oscar-wining movie "The Last Emperor." In this movie about former Chinese emperor Pu Yi, there is a scene in which Pu Yi, who is now a political prisoner at a Communist re-education camp, sees a documentary (which seems to use real footage) that shows the brutal acts of the Japanese in China whom Pu Yi has associated himself with. Here Pu Yi, who has his own version of history, is confronted by a different version of history. It may or may not be Bertolucci's intention but this use of documentary devices challenges audiences, who, like Pu Yi, should choose among different versions of history. The movie "The Last Emperor," which, for all of its historical backgrounds, is ultimately fiction, is only one of them.

Though Tuan does not use real footage or a documentary narrator in Ky uc Dien Bien (he still uses a narrator who is a fictional figure and main character), his movie too has a documentary feel which does not do it any service.

It has a fine fictional story: during the Dien Bien Phu battle between Vietnam and France in 1954, a French soldier is disgusted with the horrors of war and voluntarily surrenders to the Vietnamese. In his journey back and forth between the battle site and Vietnamese military base, he develops a lasting friendship after many misunderstandings with a male Vietnamese soldier and a female nurse who escort him. If Tuan had focused on this story, he could have made a more engaging movie because the story has a fine love triangle and rich, realistic details about the historic battle.

Unfortunately, this realistic drama about the past is alternated with scenes of the present which seem to be just the opposite: a drama-less documentary. In the present, the French soldier, now an old man, returns to Vietnam to do things that mimic what real-life war veterans do: speak at a conference titled "Scientific Workshop on Historic Dien Bien Phu Victory"; have tête-à-têtes with the Vietnamese soldier who escorted him (the nurse, who later married this soldier, has passed away); taste, once again, delicious rice balls at a local restaurant, and watch the 1998 World Cup final between France and Brazil.

These scenes may have been interesting to Tuan but the point is that they don't tell anything that the story of the past did not already and in a more subtle, dramatic, and interesting way.

Luu Trong Ninh's Nga ba Dong Loc (Dong Loc T-junction) also has too much of what looks like re-enactment of real events of a particular time and too little exploration of the latent human desire underneath this reality that only takes some creativity to be turned into something universally appealing.

In this movie about the unfortunate fate of the young women who cleared roads that were bombed at the Dong Loc crossroads on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in central Vietnam during the Vietnam War, the biggest and most interesting theme is woman's desire. The female characters in the film yearn to be in love, have sex, and give birth, all of which are denied them because of the war. But this great theme is wasted.

There are too few of the powerful scenes that capture the women's tension between these desires on the one hand and pride on the other which we only see toward the end of film when male soldiers drive trucks through the area and flirt with them.

In the best of these scenes, one of the women kisses a soldier who has fled a scene of fierce bombing and is now crying in shame beside her. But she gets angry when he goes down and violently kisses her breasts.

Instead of more such scenes, the film is desiccated by showing too much about the women's mundane activities like road clearing and taking math and literature lessons.

These historical activities are important and deserve full attention in a documentary, but in a fictional film they should only be used as a stage for characterization. But the woman characters are not fully developed. It is difficult to tell one from another. This is unfortunate because if they were, and audiences could identify with them more, the ending when a whole unit of them is blown up in a bombing may have had the emotional impact the historical event deserves.

Bui Dinh Hac's ponderous two-hour movie Ha Noi 12 Ngay dem (Hanoi 12 days and nights) about Nixon's 12-day bombing of Hanoi in 1972 is no exception. It uses a lot of real footage and a documentary narrator and is mostly concerned with showing the specifics of how the Vietnamese air force shot down American B52 fighter jets. It is unwise for makers of fictional films to focus on the military aspect of war. For one thing, it is costly to shoot battle scenes and difficult to catch up with the best ones out there. Spectacular battle scenes are Hollywood's forte. For another, Vietnamese people have not won wars because of their military prowess. They take pride in and are admired for winning wars against China, France, and the US with less tangible qualities such as resilience and determination. So why should Vietnamese cinema waste money shooting expensive battle scenes that hardly enhance national pride which is the purpose of these "ancestor-worshipping films" or make for a good work of art?

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