Lost in direction

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It's not rare for Hollywood to produce films that feature the history and culture of a country with racially mixed casts.

A film about Russia is in English. Actors and actresses are of different nationalities, and even the director isn't Russian. This is par for the course in Hollywood.

Such films are often controversial. They are praised by audiences around the world, except for the country that they feature, who would say the films fail to portray their culture or history accurately.

When "Memoirs of a Geisha" was produced in 2005, for example, it received several international awards, but many Japanese found it offensive. They noted that Chinese actresses, not Japanese, were cast for the main roles. The protagonist of the book had earlier accused the author of betraying her confidence.

The 1935 production of "Anna Karenina," with Swedish actress Greta Garbo in the lead, was criticized for "not being Russian" by Soviet audiences. "Alexander" (2004), based on the ancient Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great, drew the ire of Greek critics who said the filmmakers insinuated that he was a homosexual.

However, all things said and done, these films target international audiences who watch films for their good plot, strong cast and stunning visual effects, instead of taking time to learn how faithful they are to the local culture or history.

As long as the films meet those demands, they are considered successful.

This is different from the criticism being directed against Vietnam's 12-episode series Ly Cong Uan Duong toi thanh Thang Long (Ly Cong Uan The road to Thang Long Citadel). Some have blasted the serial as a "Chinese film in Vietnamese."

Projected as one of the main productions celebrating Hanoi's millennial anniversary this month, the serial targets only a Vietnamese audience. That means it should have been Vietnamese all the way through, from the cast to the production team, because, as it is said, "no one understands Vietnamese as a Vietnamese does."

However, the project was filmed in a Hollywood style. It was filmed at a studio in China's Zhejiang Province and directed by a Chinese national. One of the consultants for its script was also a Chinese scriptwriter.

Little wonder then that the series featuring the life and reign of the founder of the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225) has attracted a lot of controversy and criticism since its trailer was revealed on the Internet last month.

The clothes, the insignia worn by kings, the king's crown, the settings, the palaces... all these have given critics and the public the feeling that this is a Chinese film. The location does not match as well. There are scenes where soldiers and horses run on grasslands. Vietnam, meanwhile, has lots of rivers and springs, and almost no grasslands. People have said these scenes imitate Chinese films about Genghis Khan's Mongol Empire.

Some have argued that Vietnam doesn't have the capability to do historical dramas, because of its lack of studio experience and historical materials available.

But does that really the matter, considering Korean historical dramas aired in Vietnam in recent years have attracted local audiences and maintained Korean characteristics? This happened despite not having many impressive fighting scenes involving thousands of soldiers and horses.

Is finance really the problem, considering that state-owned VTV in 2007 announced a VND197 billion (US$10.1 million) project to build a film studio that was expected to go into operation this year?

Audiences are hungry for Vietnamese historical dramas, and investors are not hesitant about funding them. But this is a series that, instead of educating our youth about our nation's history at an important moment, raises more questions and doubts.

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