Lessons from a master

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Independent directors could learn two things from Dang Nhat Minh: how to project hope but also that beautiful visuals should not take precedence over the narrative


Actress Le Van in a scene from Bao gio cho den thang 10 (When will the tenth month come?), an outstanding film by Dang Nhat Minh (photo below). Younger Vietnamese filmmakers could learn from the master how to take an optimistic look at life and unpretentious approach toward camerawork.

At a course I once attended for young filmmakers, most of the class yawned whenever we were shown an old Vietnamese movie, especially one made by northern filmmakers about the wars. Many young people, including filmmakers, have little interest in these movies, which are often didactic and have complex plots but simplistic characters as opposed to the widely accepted ideal of simple plots but complex characters and unexceptional camerawork. Young filmmakers therefore tend to look for lessons and inspirations in foreign movies rather than at home.

They are partly right. Some of the old films, even those called "classics," are simply not that good. Others are truly good, but yet don't strike much of a chord in young people because interests change with time.

For instance, my mother's favorite is the black-and-white classic Con chim vanh khuyen (Silvereye bird), a film about a young girl who helps revolutionaries during the French Resistance and ends up being killed. My mother cried a lot when she first watched the movie and still remembers the girl's famous last line to the revolutionaries that makes the French shoot her: "That's the enemy's boat, don't get in!"

I love this film too, but as a typical woman born after the war, I cry more over colored romantic tragedies.

But as Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris suggests, there is often true wisdom from the past. Once in a while young Vietnamese filmmakers should look right behind them, in their own backyard, to see if they have missed something valuable.

As the Vietnam Cinema Association gave a Lifetime Achievement Award to Dang Nhat Minh at this year's annual Canh Dieu Vang (Golden Kite) Awards, it seems appropriate to go over his films and point out at least two important lessons that younger filmmakers can learn from him.

As screen writing books teach, an eternal appeal of all good films is strong characters. Somehow, even in the direst circumstances, your heroes and heroines even when they are everyday folk must find within themselves the resources to fight and win, or lose with dignity.

In previous columns I pointed out that characters in many contemporary Vietnamese movies, especially so-called "art" movies, lack this capability, and the end result is, as screenwriter Doan Minh Tuan puts it, characters that "cry too much" or movies that are very similar to each other in their pessimistic view of life. The same problem also seems to plague some classics and makes them a drag to watch.

Recently, with the return of overseas Vietnamese filmmakers who are familiar with Hollywood-style scripting, local cinema, especially "commercial" cinema, has seen more strong characters and hopeful endings. Like Charlie Nguyen's Long Ruoi which was a big hit last year and won a prize at the same Golden Kite ceremony that paid tribute to Minh.

Long Ruoi is about a country bumpkin who goes to HCMC to make a living, and is mistaken for a mafia boss. After a series of escapades, many funny, he escapes the world of crime with his innocence intact to build an honest career.

Director Bui Dinh Hac, head of the Golden Kite jury this year, said one reason the judges loved Long Ruoi was its hopeful message about human goodness.

In the case of Long Ruoi, though, the premise, characters and acting are too exaggerated and unrealistic and the story is obviously meant to entertain, rather than offer food for thought.

On the other hand, art movies such as Pham Nhue Giang's Tam hon me (Mother's soul), which I brought up in the previous column, try to capture real human sufferings but without offering solutions for them.

In her monthly column Through the Lens, film critic Do Thuy Linh shines the spotlight on Vietnamese cinema.

She also wades into ongoing discussion among local filmmakers about how to make movies that aren't just recognized in Vietnam but also abroad.

Thuy Linh may be reached at dolĩnh@yahoo.com

Artists can, of course, choose to hold a mirror to societal issues without pretending to have a panacea for them, but they have to ask themselves if the ultimate purpose of art is only to reflect what everybody already knows.

This is where Minh comes in: His movies show a robust personal vision that fits well with the idealism of his generation who went through the wars and the moral resilience of the same people when they were disillusioned.

Though all of his movies are either set in wartime or have some connection with wars, they aren't concerned with politics but the struggle of common people who happen to be caught up in a war. His characters suffer greatly, as many Vietnamese did during the wars, but they pick themselves up and manage to move on.

This resilience is embodied especially by his women characters. The men are also finely drawn, and, for all of their failings, always have an innate sense of honor, but the women are more marked in their moral strength. They are often portrayed as victims of betrayal, literally and figuratively. Yet, unlike To Thi, a woman in a popular Vietnamese folk story who turns to stone while waiting in vain for her soldier husband to return and whom Minh invokes more than once in his films, his woman characters "just don't turn to stone."

In Co gai tren song (Girl on the river), an idealist revolutionary leader betrays both his wife and his prostitute-lover who helped him during the Vietnam War. After the war he becomes a cold-hearted official who cares only about his position and reputation. The wife leaves him and the lover, who thinks he is dead, returns to her long-time boyfriend who really loves her, albeit with sadness since it is a beautiful dream that can never come true.

In Tro ve (The return), a movie set in the 1980s-90s when Vietnam slowly changed from a command economy to a market-oriented one, a northern teacher moves south and falls in love with a married man who promises to leave his wife for her but doesn't do so. Later she marries a high-school friend, quits teaching for him, but is again betrayed when he changes from an honest, understanding, scholarly man into a coarse businessman. She leaves him and returns to the north to teach.

And in Bao gio cho den thang 10 (When will the tenth month come?), widely considered Vietnamese cinema's greatest masterpiece, a wife isn't betrayed by her husband. He is killed in the war and she is left to fend for herself. She manages to take care of herself, her son, her father-in-law and, it seems, the psyche of the entire village.

The last shot is deeply symbolic: It shows her smiling gently as she puts on her conical hat and looks at her son going into the schoolyard. Her head is wrapped in a white cloth because she is in mourning, this time for her father-in-law.

Minh clearly remembers the very first thing the sponsors, Britain's Channel 4 TV, told him when they sought him out in the early 1990s and offered to fund this movie: "They said, "˜we're willing to provide funding for you on one condition: you'll make a movie that you really want to make and [not] what you think we want you to make.'"

Nguyen Thanh Binh, a young woman filmmaker with several short films who attended a workshop at the Busan International Film Festival last October, told me very much the same thing that foreign sponsors look for "authentic Vietnamese stories."

The definition of an "authentic Vietnamese" story is relative to say the least, but then we can always compare movies that are considered authentic to see the kind of authenticity they try to capture.

French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung's Mui du du xanh (The scent of green papaya), which was nominated for a best foreign language Oscar in 1993 a dream that no Vietnamese before or after him, even Minh himself, has been able to achieve looks Vietnamese in terms of cultural references such as the making of green papayas into a dish.

But this film shows a childlike fascination with cultural symbols themselves, especially their sensual beauty, rather than a concern for real Vietnamese life which more often than not have nothing to do with symbols.

We see cultural symbols in Minh's films too. One of his favorites is the tragic folk story about To Thi, but as I explained earlier, he brings up this story to test it against reality and challenge it.

In other cases, the cultural symbols in his films are simply a natural part of the life and times of his characters. Cultural symbols in his films aren't an end in themselves. Nor is their sensual beauty or the means through which filmmakers capture this beauty: camerawork. Hung and some local filmmakers who are inspired by him are too conscious of visuals. Their films are often noted for breathtaking sceneries, objects, and symbols.

Minh is creative with his camerawork but not self-indulgent. For him visuals are not an end by themselves but are only a tool to move the narrative along. And that is another lesson that younger Vietnamese filmmakers can learn from him.

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