A promotional image of teen romance Hit: Hoang tu va Lo lem (Hit: The Prince and Cinderella) directed by Ngo Quang Hai. Photo from the movie's Facebook fan page
It was with great anticipation that I went to see Nguyen Khac Huy's first feature Duong dua (The Race), the next big action flick after Charlie Nguyen's abortive Bui doi Cho Lon, which has been banned for good by the censors.
I had read good things about it from critics. They said the movie, whose cast and crew are all debutants it is famous actress Hong Anh's first movie as a producer, Australian-educated director Nguyen Khac Huy's first feature film, and famous rock singer Pham Anh Khoa's first leading role, among others is fast-paced, thrilling, and surprisingly good.
I was disappointed; it wasn't a good movie. It was incoherent, angry, fast-paced nonsense. There were lots of vague references to what may be real social issues: runners' angst against their coaches and footballers, lack of appreciation for their sport and even the difficulty of the sport itself (what profession in the world is not difficult?!), gambling, human organ trade, rampant prostitution, traffic police corruption.
These references provide a dark social backdrop for the angry hero and other angry characters.
The hero is a former runner turned truck driver who needs to repay the money he borrows to buy his truck. He is basically a good person who can become very angry when provoked. He hopes to earn the money by gambling. When this fails, he thinks about robbing a jewelry store.
But before he carries out the heist, he encounters an even angrier man who is running away from other angry gangsters with a mysterious bag.
There is another angry guy, the hero's nemesis whom I should have mentioned earlier because he is the angriest of the lot and treats the hero's family brutally to punish the hero for owing him money. But because the movie is so muddled I don't know where to start.
This man runs a gambling and human-organ business. He is evil in a mean way. He doesn't just threaten the hero viciously when the latter loses at gambling and owes him money, but even when he has money and will soon pay him, he has his men steal the money to force our guy to pay again.
As for the mysterious bag, we never know what is inside it, and the filmmakers promise at the end of the movie to reveal the mystery in a sequel.
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 email@example.com.
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But I hope by that time to have a film of my own to worry about. More about that later.
I'm more interested in another movie Ngo Quang Hai's teen (the heroine is 20, so she isn't strictly a teenager) romance Hit: Hoang tu va Lo lem (Hit: The Prince and Cinderella).
It isn't much better, but provides me with more meaningful material to discuss about the future development of Vietnamese cinema. After watching many contemporary Vietnamese movies, I have come to the conclusion that I can't expect anything any more from the people currently in this business. It's time everybody who is interested in cinema feels free to take action, write their own scripts, and find ways to make their own movies. They can't be any worse than what I'm seeing.
Vietnamese cinema needs a group of energizing films that can point toward a direction and inspire diverse styles. At the moment most movies here too unrealistic and fluffy, if not boring, or downright incoherent.
The films I hope to see should feel real and coherent; if they can also be engaging, so much the better. They should not imitate foreign movies. If they remind somebody of foreign films, it should only be because human stories resonate across time and place, not because local filmmakers try to imitate others.
These future films should also be free from the old ways of looking at the world and making films, which include a patronizing attitude toward anything commercial.
There should be no distinction between entertainment and art. There should only be good movies.
This is where Hai's latest movie comes in. In Hit: The Prince and Cinderella, which is about a girl who is dumped by her boyfriend, a musical manager, and later proves her emotional and professional independence by taking part in a singing contest without his help, Hai tries too hard to be teeny and commercial on the one hand, and serious and artistic on the other.
The movie creates a mythical world for its young characters: they listen to a hugely popular music program on the radio, are worked up because of a singing contest, and declare their love by texting. There is a sequence early in the film where it looks like everybody in Vietnam listens to this radio program when the heroine is dumped by her boyfriend.
I use the word "mythical" because Hai did his homework and learned from the global entertainment enterprise that you have to whip things up to a frenzy (think about the glitzy American Idol show that advertises itself by projecting itself as hugely popular, whether this popularity is real or imagined).
Hai's world would be convincing if entertainment in Vietnam had reached such levels. But I don't think it has, so the film looks fake and unoriginal. Even if it is indeed so popular, pop culture here doesn't have to travel down the common route which will lead to a dead-end of creativity if it doesn't re-invent itself.
But if Hai had been content with being teeny and commercial, and tried to tell a simple story about young people's fluffy world, his movie would have been okay.
But no, he had to make it more sophisticated with torturous storytelling in which he cuts back and forth between the final singing contest and things that happen earlier.
He must have thought the repetitive images from the singing contest and amateurish use of a soundtrack which spills pieces of songs all over the place would help build the mythical sense of popularity of entertainment I mentioned earlier.
But for the heroine's voice-over, which sounds too precocious for her fluffy world, the whole thing would have been incomprehensible. Late into the movie, a person who sat behind me in the cinema told his girlfriend, "Don't understand what this film is about."
To make a better teen movie, Hai should just relax, empty his mind, and plunge into the exciting world of youth, starting from the young people he knows, and tell their stories simply and naturally as they happen.
I trust such stories will be a start for better things to come. If the young characters live in big cities, yes, there should be singing contests and incessant texting. But there are more things than that. There are the real, fascinating, unsolved conflicts between parents and children, boys and girls.
My 14-year-old niece and her boyfriend recently broke up. The reason for the break-up was that her mother caught her and her boyfriend chatting about sex on Facebook and pleaded with her to end the relationship.
Though it was the boy who initiated the dirty talk, my niece wasn't shy about joking along, and this horrified my sister, who never thought her daughter could be so vulgar and knowledgeable about sex.
The girl, who is intelligent and obedient, listened to her mother and avoided the boy even though she still liked him. She liked him because he defended her when her schoolmates spoke ill of her. She was the best student in school and excited as much admiration as jealousy.
The boy felt rebuked and flirted with other girls. My niece became jealous and wanted to get him back. She talked to him again and invited him to her birthday party. He lied he was in the US and did not turn up.
One day he came out and said he had a new girlfriend and removed her name from his Facebook friends list. My niece sobbed to her mother one night, saying: "Mom, can you talk to him? Can you explain to him why I had to avoid him?"
My sister, who was relieved that the two broke up, comforted her daughter, telling her to let go, assuring her she would meet her perfect match, a better boy, who deserved her, some day. My niece asked, "What if I've met my perfect match and lost him?" To this, my sister didn't know what to say. My niece is calmer now and has started to post wise and somewhat cynical observations about relationships on Facebook.
My niece's story makes me feel that life is so full of interest, unanswered questions, and good stories that cinema should try to capture and share them with audiences.
I'm writing about it as a promise to myself that I must write good scripts and make good movies that my niece, her ex-boyfriend, and my sister can identify with. Because if I don't at least try, and you don't either, who is going to make good movies in Vietnam?