Two new Vietnamese films are vast improvements on similar predecessors in terms of settings and plots, but they fail to avoid trite stereotypes
A scene of Cuoc chien voi chan tinh (Thach Sanh Legend) directed by Do Quang Hai Au, who suddenly died of a stroke in March last year while still editing his movie. Despite the imperfect visual effects such as this 3D computer-generated ogre which looks a little bit fake, Hai Au’s first and last movie is solid work. Photos taken from The movie’s Facebook page
I’ve seen two good movies recently. The late Do Quang Hai Au’s first, and unfortunately last movie, Cuoc chien voi chan tinh (Thach Sanh Legend), is solid work. This movie and Victor Vu’s Qua tim mau (Vengeful Heart) are the most worthwhile films of Vietnam’s 2013/early-2014 season.
In his un-planned swan song, Do Quang Hai Au, who suddenly died of a stroke while still editing his movie, was able to do what Dustin Nguyen couldn’t do in Lua Phat (Once Upon a Time in Vietnam): create a consistent, believable setting for supernatural Vietnamese heroes. Hai Au’s new efforts may set the stage for future films.
Cuoc chien voi chan tinh was based on the fairy tale Thach Sanh. It tells the story of Thach Sanh, the son of god sent from heaven into a good-hearted woodcutter family. In the fairy tale, Thach Sanh kills an ogre, wins the love of a princess, and goes through many hardships caused by his cunning sworn brother and a liquor seller, Ly Thong, who tries to steal his promotion to duke and the princess he is set to marry.
Unlike the filmmakers of Lua Phat, Hai Au wisely anchored his story in a specific time period, the 9th Hung King’s reign, to provide a basis for the sets (real or computer-generated), costumes, and props. I give him credit for creating a coherent setting, given scanty historical records. Well-known trademarks such as the design of the Dong Son bronze drums were aptly exploited. The movie has an honest, authentic look.
For filmmakers like Dustin Nguyen who seem to have trouble creating an authentically Vietnamese – yet still imaginative – context for a new genre and a hero that can rival the American western and its cowboy, Hai Au’s choice of the Hung Kings’ period and Thach Sanh is worth thinking about.
In Dustin Nguyen’s Lua Phat, Victor Vu’s Thien Menh Anh Hung (Blood Letter) and Charlie Nguyen’s Dong Mau Anh Hung (The Rebel), the hero is a superb martial arts expert who is torn between the need for violence to protect his country and other ideals like the desire for peace. This hero is fine to me, compared to the classical western hero – the horse-riding, gun-toting cowboy who tries to forge civilization in the wilderness – that local filmmakers try to emulate. Thach Sanh is quite similar – he is also strong but all for peace. However, with a solid plot, concrete actions and less philosophical rumination about violence versus peace, Thach Sanh seems less-forced than other characters in this vein, whom can often come off as contrived.
But Thach Sanh would be less interesting without his alter ego, the cunning liquor seller Ly Thong. Hai Au took particular care with this character. Instead of being pure evil as in the fairy tale, Ly Thong in the movie is quite complex. He is subtle, effective and takes good care of his mother. The first time he tricks Thach Sanh, he only tries to save his own skin. Who doesn’t? The second trick is unforgivable and inexplicable.
Here lies the biggest shortcoming of the movie: the incomplete ending. We don’t see how our characters, Thach Sanh and Ly Thong, get there. Spoiler alert: After Thach Sanh beheads the ogre, the movie cuts right to the last scene in which Ly Thong appears before the king and the princess with the head of the ogre and Thach Sanh wakes up, as if from a dream, on a mountain top. How and why in the world does Ly Thong trick Thach Sanh this second time, given that Ly Thong isn’t too evil and Thach Sanh isn’t too stupid? The ending is abrupt and dense, rather than surprising. I wouldn’t mind watching a sequence for an explanation.
The movie’s visual effects are carefully done, though still modest. The 3D computer-generated ogre, for instance, looks fake and is way behind Hollywood monsters. Considering Vietnamese filmmakers’ lack of familiarity with the latest film technologies, Hai Au might have done his very best.
As for the biggest shortcoming of Victor Vu’s latest movie, it is best revealed in hindsight, after watching the whole movie and knowing the big secret. The secret is interesting and the script at first seems to be simple, tight, thrilling and good. I almost bought it and thought I would give Qua tim mau an 8/10, which would be a rare score for Vietnamese movies.
A scene of Qua tim mau (Vengeful Heart) directed by Victor Vu. The director is heading toward the right direction in this thriller about a young wife with a heart transplant who discovers the terrible secret about the heart.
Qua tim mau has two relationship arches. One serves as the framing story. The framing couple is Linh and her husband, Son, who is afraid of his successful father-in-law and needs to learn to assert himself. Linh has a heart transplant and her new heart belongs to Phuong, who died in a brutal car accident. Phuong, her husband Tam, and – spoiler alert – Tam’s ex-girlfriend make up the other relationship arch.
After the heart transplant, Linh has nightmares, suffers from sleepwalking, and finds her way into Phuong’s house. In this house, she continues to see things that later reveal the terrible secret behind Phuong’s death. Hu, an old friend of Tam and Phuong’s who lives in the house, helps Linh discover the secret. Linh’s marriage transforms after her experience at Phuong’s house.
What makes the script, which was adapted from a play written by Thai Hoa (who plays Hu), a little too easy and weak is this: in hindsight, since Phuong’s husband – Tam – knows, or can well guess the secret before audiences do, and he should act different, more forcefully.
The movie should also reveal more about the relationships of the couples, especially the second relationship arch of Phuong, Tam and his ex-girlfriend that influences Linh and her husband because these relationships promise to be a rich source of character growth for all involved. At the same time, Thai Hoa’s Hu character can be done away with.
I guess many local audiences would disagree with me here, since whenever Thai Hoa appears on screen, his performance elicited genuine laughter in the theatre. Thai Hoa, who has been typecast for comic roles in recent movies, represents a certain sort of humor – which includes things like stereotyping homosexuals, and in Qua tim mau, making fun of a local dialect – that I think sooner or later, Vietnamese filmmakers should wean from. This sort of humor may work in Vietnam, or for many audiences. For broader audiences or international markets, it may be confusing at best and offensive at worst.
If Victor Vu can free himself from all box office obligations, such as the sort of humor I’ve just mentioned, and take the time to develop substantial, complex character relationships and growth, he is on the way to making seriously good thriller movies that can compete abroad.
CUOC CHIEN VOI CHAN TINH (Thach Sanh Legend)
Producer: Golden Eye Movies
Length: 118 minutes
Date of theater release: Jan. 29, 2014
Director: Do Quang Hai Au
Screenplay: Do Quang Hai Au
Cast: Duong Cam Lynh, Nguyen Ngoc Hieu, Tuan Voi, Hieu Hien, Cong Ninh, Duy Phuong
QUA TIM MAU (Vengeful Heart)
Producer: Galaxy Studio, Early Risers Media Group
Length: 90 minutes
Date of theater release: Feb. 14, 2014
Director: Victor Vu
Screenplay: Doan Nhat Nam, Victor Vu, Ethan Tran
Cast: Thai Hoa, Nha Phuong, Hoang Bach, Quy Binh, Kim Xuan, Tu Vi