Quest for cultural markers

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Acknowledge similarities first, then find distinct cultural traits, resident critic advises Vietnamese filmmakers

     A scene from Le Bao Trung's best movie, Nhat ky Bach Tuyet (L), and a poster of his latest movie, Dai nao hoc duong. The most common and solid cultural identity that Vietnamese filmmakers can build upon can actually be found in the worst type of movies those that discriminating audiences and critics call "˜silly comedy' or "˜disaster' movies such as Nhat ky Bach Tuyet and Dai nao hoc duong. File photos

I recently read an interesting article on The gioi dien anh (Cinema World) magazine, Huong Linh's "Overseas Vietnamese directors: Returning and Struggling to Find Ways to Tell Stories."

It touches upon the root problem that plagues not just overseas Vietnamese filmmakers but all contemporary Vietnamese cinema: the lack of a cultural identity that can inform and inspire a consistent churning out of cultural products like movies.

While the writer seems to put the burden on individual filmmakers to transform themselves and build their own cultural identities, I have come to the conclusion that we simply do not have the ability to transform ourselves and build our own identity without help from others.

For filmmakers, artists, and anyone else to build their own identities in this so-called diverse age in which everyone tends to think they are unique but turn out to be surprisingly similar to others, it would make sense to adopt the opposite attitude.

First of all, we should be modest and assume we are very similar. Next, we define our similarity. Only then should each individual depart from the common ground to find his or her own destiny, which may have a better chance of being different from another person's destiny and thus help bring out true diversity.    

In Vietnamese cinema, filmmakers need people (audiences, media critics, cinema officials, etc.) to help them define the most common cultural identity that we are sharing since it may not be clear. If this identity changes as regularly as our mobile phones, then we just need to update our definition as we go.

When local audiences watch a Vietnamese movie at this stage, instead of just giving it a thumbs up or down, they should take a more critical stand.

If a movie is "good" and becomes a box office hit, we should not be too enamored but instead view it from a distance to find some bigger, more interesting underlying cultural phenomenon.

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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If a movie is "bad", we can participate in the filmmaker's creative process and imagine how we can improve it.

It is interesting that the most common and solid cultural identity that Vietnamese filmmakers can build upon can actually be found in the worst movies. These are flicks that cater specifically to a certain taste, but which are often dismissed by discriminating audiences and media critics as "hài nhảm" (silly comedy) or "thảm họa" (disaster) movies.

They include films such as the Phuoc Sang comedies I once reviewed which are more popular with southern audiences. Often inspired by real social problems such as teenagers' addiction to online games, the best of these movies try to reflect and satirize social problems, though not very successfully.

Their biggest shortcoming is the carelessly written scripts. Other, less important issues are the simplistic, soap opera-like camerawork, cheap, ridiculous costumes, the supposedly funny, over-the-top acting that may work in certain types of theater (many actors in these movies are well-known names in southern theater) or with truly charming actors such as Hoai Linh, vulgar jokes, and filmmakers' general attitude of treating their works as mere "entertainment."

The latest film in cinemas is another one of this brand, Le Bao Trung's comedy Dai nao hoc duong (literally, causing an uproar at school).

Loads of promise

After watching all of Trung's movies, I think he is the most promising director of this type of movies. His recent teen movies show a solid understanding of teen culture and, for those who can see beneath their cheap looks, his movies have some funny, penetrating satire of teenagers, who are also his audiences.           

Let us take a look at Le Bao Trung's best effort, the 2010 comedy Nhat ky Bach Tuyet (Snow White's Diary), which he co-wrote with Nguyen Quang Dung. I have seen Hollywood's Snow White and the Huntsman and, for all of its shortcomings, the Vietnamese movie uses the fairy tale more critically.

Putting the story in the context of contemporary teen culture, Trung satirizes the naive portrait of princes, princesses, romance, and human goodness in fairy tales.

Though the movie has a happy ending, the message that it is just a movie is clear.

This seems to be the attitude that many local filmmakers would want to take. Vietnamese filmmakers seem to be making "entertainment" movies unwillingly because they despise them. But at the same time they do not have the qualities to pursue their own artistic directions, if they indeed have them.

They should learn from Trung. Here is a lesser-known director who enjoys "entertainment" while still being able to show audiences its manipulative side.

I once suggested a similar thing about Le Hoang, but he has gotten as far as he can. Trung is younger, has everything to prove, and a better chance of growing.

Here is the full plot of Nhat ky Bach Tuyet, which is tighter and more intelligent than it appears. On her 18th birthday, Tuyet (means snow), a dark-skinned, spoiled, arrogant heiress who cannot sing learns from her mother that she will receive her late father's "treasure" if she marries somebody.

Her mother, the president of a private university, runs a newspaper ad calling for suitors. As the suitors are only after her money, Tuyet runs away from them. But she still wants her father's treasure which can be found with a key hidden in a book in the library in her mother's university.

In the library, Tuyet finds the book with the key. The book turns out to be Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Before she can use the key, however, the bookshelves fall by accident and Tuyet is hit by the books. When she wakes up, she loses her memory and thinks herself as Snow White.

The doctor advises her mother to let Tuyet live in her own world, so her mother hires people to create a fairy-tale world for her.

One of them is a "dwarf," an "independent amateur" director who films every happening in Tuyet's world with a camera. Another is a guard at the university who holds a grudge against Tuyet's mother. This man asks his nephew, a student at the university, to play the prince so that they can get Tuyet's treasure one day.

The whole group follows Tuyet's sentimental whim to travel to a forest, Tuyet's fairy childhood world where she used to play with her father. Here, the prince falls for her. Tuyet also encounters some robbers who are after her treasure. Luckily she is saved by the prince and the dwarfs.

Her mother, after watching the video of the journey, dismantles the group because the journey has endangered Tuyet's life. The prince too is sick of the show. His uncle, however, tries to take advantage of Tuyet's mental problem to find the treasure. But the treasure is nothing but a trunk containing a birthday card and a dress from Tuyet's late father.

The man loses his temper and threatens Tuyet in an effort to get money from her mother. On a rooftop where everybody but the prince is present, the guard delivers an angry lecture about everybody's hypocrisy.

One thing leads to another and the group, one by one, falls to the ground but is saved by the prince. The guard is arrested in time, Tuyet regains her memory, the director sends his film, now with Tuyet's voice-over in which she says she forgives her prince, to a competition. The prince happens to see the competition on TV and runs to the awards ceremony to reunite with Tuyet, who comes to receive the best actress award.   

The presence of the "dwarf" with his camera is smart and funny. This self-reflexive detail is a reminder that everything is just a show as well as a jab at our culture, especially teen culture.

In this technology-dominated culture, one does not just enjoy an experience for its own sake. One has to take countless photos of it or record it and replay the experience over and over again to make the experience more important than it actually is, but unwittingly trivializes the experience by doing so.

This culture, and the movie, prove how right Shakespeare was when he wrote, "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players." Yet, with a clear head and heart, one can also learn much by acting in a good play.

Trung aims for this in his movie. After she loses her spoiled arrogant self to assume the role of her alter ego, the innocent Snow White, Tuyet grows and is able to find the right suitor.

With a more serious attitude, and perhaps a bigger budget, this movie could have been better. So if Vietnamese filmmakers search hard, they may find some cultural basis that is contemporary, relevant, interesting, and solid that they can milk from.

But they have to make an effort to do thorough and consistent research about particular issues that they are really interested in, instead of conjuring up what seems like vague social background based on tabloid stories about social ills.

I predict it is teen culture and the directors who seriously explore this culture that will have the strongest foundation and the best chance of creating an identity for their movies and a genre for local cinema.

Trung too should make more teen movies since there is still much room for improvement. His latest Dai nao hoc duong about some gangsters going back to school is bad.

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