Making peace with the censors

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A scene from Charlie Nguyen's action movie Bui doi Cho Lon, which was scheduled to premiere April 19, 2013. The censors have said the film needs to tone down its violence and be more realistic in its portrayal of Saigon gangsters before it can be released. Photo courtesy of Bui doi Cho Lon Facebook page

In my March review titled "If you like action, fight the good fight," I had suggested that local filmmakers should focus more on the action genre since action scripts don't have to be too complex and many filmmakers personally like it.

Then I went on to say that in future action films, local filmmakers shouldn't apologize for the action/violence in their films too much and end up making films like Luu Huynh's supposedly martial arts action flick Huyen thoai bat tu (The Legend is Alive), which has too little action and is thus boring. The hero's mother's admonition that he should only use violence as a last resort is interpreted too literally.

In short, I argued that if local filmmakers really believe in the need for action, they should go ahead and make "robust" action movies that don't have to resort to romance or sex to make them more interesting.

I haven't watched Charlie Nguyen's latest action movie, Bui doi Cho Lon, yet which was scheduled to premiere April 19, 2013 because the censors have said it has to tone down its violence and be more realistic in its portrayal of gangsters' lawlessness before it can be released.

Judging from the censors' decision, Charlie Nguyen was probably trying to do what I suggested: infuse an action film with some real action.

While I do hope that filmmakers everywhere some day have as much freedom as they want to create good works, I don't agree with the criticism of the censors. Charlie Nguyen recently told Ngan Vi of Thanh Nien that the film's biggest fault in the censors' eyes is that it isn't realistic. For instance, there is a scene in which hundreds of gangsters fight in the street without any passers-by or the police.

Charlie Nguyen's argument is that his movie is fictional, so it doesn't have to be realistic. "American cinema tells stories about the kidnapping of the president... But does anybody find fault with that? Does anybody decry them for not being realistic? To do so means being political. Filmmakers like us only try to be creative. If all movies are like reality, won't they all be documentaries?"

While many may find this argument convincing, I'd put the burden on Charlie Nguyen and artists in general (I take all filmmakers, commercial or otherwise, seriously and consider their creative attempts potentially works of art) to take a moment to ponder whether being creative and being realistic are mutually exclusive. 

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

Fiction and reality are simply two sides of the same coin; however creative we think we are, we can't escape from reality, and however realistic we think we are, there will be someone who says we aren't.

In the same interview, Charlie Nguyen said he really hoped that the censors saw the gangsters' yearning to do good, to give up their former life of sins. "The film has to show audiences that every wrong has a price. If it is too gentle, it will no longer be a warning."

If Charlie Nguyen was simply being "creative," making a "fictional" movie that doesn't, and doesn't have to, have anything to do with reality, then what about the gangsters' "yearning" to do good? What is his and what does he believe is the audiences' definition of sin and right or wrong? Aren't they connected with reality then?

Filmmakers should stop taking refuge in being "creative" and criticizing censors for insisting on realism.  

The best response to the censors' question about why there is no police officer in the street fighting scene would then be: "You're right, so let me figure out how I can balance your reality and my own."

In the interview, Charlie Nguyen said, perhaps half in jest, that he suddenly thought about a way to oblige the censors: A child asks his grandfather to tell him a gangster story. The grandfather immediately tells him the story of Bui doi Cho Lon.

"Grandpa, why isn't your story verisimilar?" the child asks.

"Because it's fiction, dear."

"Why isn't there any policeman when the gangsters fight?"

"If there were any policemen, the story would end right away, and I wouldn't have any story to tell you!"

If I were a censor who doesn't have a sense of humor, I wouldn't take this snideness very kindly and our censorship battle would never end.

So again, I'd put the burden on filmmakers because I have great expectations for them, because they should, and probably do want to, have more wisdom about human nature than normal folks. I'd ask filmmakers to try to be modest about their works and appreciate the censors' point of view.

Then, hopefully, the censors who say they're trying to encourage local cinema will make things a little easier for filmmakers. Trying to create when you're hampered from all sides is actually the greatest kind of creativity, and there is perhaps no bigger "fight" than that.

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