Identity: young filmmakers' holy grail

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Movie critic laments dearth of good Vietnamese films about and by youngsters, highlights little nuggets that show potential

   (L-R) Scenes from Inhalation (2010) directed by Edmund Yeo of Malaysia and Sunday Menu (2011) by director Liesl Nguyen of the United States. Photos courtesy of The Yxineff

I'm always eager to watch teen films, or more accurately, films about young people, like Taiwanese director Giddens Ko's hit You Are the Apple of My Eye about a naughty, lazy high school boy having a crush on the prettiest and smartest girl in class.

I identify with young characters and look for insights into my own issues. Unfortunately, Vietnamese filmmakers are yet to make such hits as You Are... or a series of good movies about young people that can make up a robust genre for contemporary Vietnamese cinema. In an earlier column, I had promised to make my own movie some day, a movie that can speak to young people.

While I'm obviously yet to make my own movie, young filmmakers here and elsewhere have already been making very good films about themselves. I happened to go to YxineFF, the fledging international online short film festival that has received considerable coverage in the local media and seems to attract more and more good films by young, independent filmmakers.

This great initiative by a group of young Vietnamese living here and abroad is currently in its fourth year, with the 2013 competition now taking place at the festival's website at www.yxineff.com.

I see such an initiative as a smart alternative to established commercial theaters and art houses. But the thing with the blossoming of artistic expression and the forums made possible for it by cheap digital technology is that the quality is all over the place.

Quite a few young people I know tend to consider themselves "artists" or as having great potential to become one simply because they have a photo collection or a personal film to post on YouTube.

Yet I do not discriminate between sources - the Internet and YouTube and Facebook are as good a place to find good ideas as anywhere else - only works.

Young Vietnamese filmmakers make lots of short documentaries as school assignments or to practice their technical skills because you can learn a lot from the difficulty of recording real sound and shooting real people.

But to judge their commitment to a particular social issue or topic, which is important for serious documentary filmmakers, I'd have to wait for it to be shown more clearly through a series of longer works and through how their documentaries contribute to that particular issue or topic.

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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What I mean is that I don't pay too much attention to short documentaries by young filmmakers. But there are some good ones on YxineFF that others may be interested in such as Nguyen Le's 13-minute film, Talking to my best friend, about a transgender woman constantly talking to her dead friend, also a transgender.

Young Vietnamese filmmakers love to try their hand at melodramatic stories, horror ideas, and breezy musical clip-like romance. Films in these categories I pass because they aren't good.

Other than these above categories, except for some brilliant short films such as Dzung Pham's eight-minute animation, Freedom the Perennial Quest of Little O, which I once mentioned in an earlier column also about YxineFF, and which should stand individually, there are some films which I take seriously and which can inspire a solid young people's film genre.

The genre comprises fictional or documentary short films about young people themselves not some ambitious social issue or fanciful horror story, but young people's real questions about sex, love, career, and, ultimately, identity.

Out of hundreds of local and international short films in all sorts of genres and about a range of topics that YxineFF managed to attract in its four-year existence, I rate four of them the best in this genre.

I intended to make a list of only Vietnamese films because the number of foreign films is still too modest to warrant a fair representation. But the foreign films are so good and superior to local ones that any distinction between nationalities becomes meaningless.

Here it is, a "feast" as YxineFF calls it of the four best films about young people, the most recent being last (three have English subtitles, one has French):

1) Triết lý tình yêu buổi sáng (L'amour en roue libre) (2008)

Director: Pham Thi Hao (Vietnam)

Film's link: www.yxineff.com/film/triet-ly-tinh-yeu-buoi-sang-2008

This personal documentary film (the literal English title would be Philosophy of Love in the Morning) is honest, intimate, and altogether very interesting. Pham Thi Hao plays herself in the movie. She comes to Hanoi to escape memories of a failed relationship after her boyfriend, the first man she ever slept with, leaves her. To her, this relationship from which it is so hard to recover is more selfish and sexual than otherwise. Hao superimposes images of her naked body lying on the floor with images of Hanoi streets at night which include couples driving on motorbikes and people hanging around lakes, then uses a voice-over to tell her love story.

2) Grocery, my love (2010)

Director: Meathus Sirinawin (Thailand)

Film's link: www.yxineff.com/film/grocery-my-love-2010

A very intelligent and creative film. My favorite on this list. A young man falls in love with a girl who runs a grocery store. He folds pink paper hearts to give her on Valentine's Day, frequents her store to buy Pepsi which she sells in plastic bags with straws, and goes home to save all the straws and plastic bags.

But this sort of love is far from enough to win her heart, which, for all practical reasons, seems dead to him. This film develops skillfully, beautifully from being hilarious to heart-breaking, and back. Hats off to 24-year-old Meathus Sirinawin.

3) Inhalation (2010)

Director: Edmund Yeo (Malaysia)

Film's link: www.yxineff.com/film/inhalation-2010

Edmund Yeo is an experienced and talented young filmmaker. All of his short films I've seen so far are good. In this slow-paced film, a poor and uneducated girl, who is fed up with her work at a pig farm and a butcher's shop at the market in Malaysia, thinks she can have better luck in Japan. Thirty eight days later she returns home after being deported - as clueless as ever.

Yeo's settings are apt: the dirty pig farm, an ugly parking area around a wharf and a train station, and the streets filled with litter at night make up a disheartening landscape from which the girl is unable to escape.

4) Sunday Menu (2011)

Director: Liesl Nguyen (the United States)

Film's link: www.yxineff.com/film/thuc-don-chu-nhat-2011

Mi, a young Vietnamese-German, struggles to learn Vietnamese cooking to carry on her family's tradition and restaurant in Germany. As she tries to find her identity and create a definite mental picture of herself, the camera also tries to take a good picture of Vietnamese living in Germany through a lot of photograph-like still shots.

In some of them, other Vietnamese-German characters, like Mi, self-consciously pose for the camera. Mi is able to master a difficult Vietnamese dish, and, for a moment, to find herself and comfortably pose for a photo at last.

But in that final picture, she still looks a bit strained and sad. "I'm not sad," Mi says in a voice-over before this scene. "Just sometimes a bit confused."

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