Talking down to teenagers

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Vietnamese teen films remain vacuous and condescending of young adults


A scene from Vietnamese teen film Danh Cho Thang 6 (For June), the latest from a genre that usually portrays the lives of teenagers as unrelated and irrelevant to the world of adults

Danh cho thang 6 (For June), the latest film about teenagers, remains faithful to the tired old formula for this genre: simplistic, superficial, and patronizing. Its saving grace is the gentle romance between the lead pair.

The film has been labeled "sweet," "cute," and "easy breezy" by the media, all epithets commonly used to describe people in their teens. The first feature of 28-year-old director Nguyen Huu Tuan is indeed a cotton candy mix of romance, sports (basketball), backpack traveling, and lots of background music.

Before the match against a rival high school basketball team, Kien, the captain of Duy Tan High, suddenly stops training and leaves for the countryside after his best friend and the team manager, Minh, turns down his declaration of love. She and a team member then travel to the countryside to bring Kien back.

Director Nguyen Huu Tuan said most films about teenagers describe their feelings as hasty and impulsive, so he wanted to show that teen romance was actually deep and subtle. The romance between Kien and Minh is indeed finely scripted and acted, but these teenagers' love and universe are created without any real interaction with the adult world, as if the teens are some treasured but irrelevant period unrelated to the reality of adult life.

This is my problem with Vietnamese teenagers' films. The only significant interaction with adults in Danh Cho Thang 6 is when, back in the countryside, the three youngsters have a campfire with Kien's adult cousin, who brings his guitar and reminisces about his wonderful college years when he was in a rock band. But it only serves to underline the disconnection between the teenage past, which in this film is pure and innocent, and the adult present, whatever that may be.

The contrast between the innocent world of teenagers and the world of adults is more clearly drawn in another "sweet" film, the 2005 release, Chien Dich Trai Tim Ben Phai (literally, Right-heart campaign) by director Dao Duy Phuc.

In this film about a group of 10th graders playing Cupid for their beloved teacher and the brother of one of the students, the world of adults has corrupted people like the teacher's former boyfriend, who is rich, selfish, and coarse. Other adults like the teacher and the brother may be righteous but still cool and patronizing toward the teenagers.

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 qualityof Vietnamese movies improve. Thuy Linh may be reached at dolinh54@yahoo.com.

The teenagers themselves are naughty, but cute and basically conform, and buy fully into Romeo and Juliet. But characteristic of this genre of films, they are still teenagers whose matchmaking efforts, though actually effective, are portrayed in a condescending manner. The teacher and brother can always make the right decisions and can take care of their own affairs, is the message.

There is a scene in which the conversation between the two reveals a common attitude toward teenagers in teen films. He tells the teacher that his younger brother and his friends are "at an age when they like to explore, discover and want to assert themselves. This is an important phase in the process of character forming."

It is time filmmakers stop taking teenage inferiority for granted when they set out to make films about young people. At every age people "like to explore, discover and want to assert themselves" and try to develop their characters. At least, they should.

A more problematic manifestation of filmmakers trivializing teenagers is the tendency to seize upon the Romeo and Juliet teen romance motif about eternal love and turn it into a silly fantasy film, as if this motif does not deserve to be treated seriously.

With adult romance, we have romantic comedies that at least make a pretence of realism or are tongue-in-cheek.

Three good examples here are Nguyen Quang Dung's two movies about girls and the God of Death, Nu Hon Than Chet (The Kiss of Death) and Giai Cuu Than Chet (Rescuing the God of Death) and Nguyen Minh Cao's Thien Su 99 (Angel 99).

Thien Su 99 is about a teenage angel falling in love with a human girl and deciding to trade his immortality for a life-time with her.

Nguyen Quang Dung's movies are about Cupid-like devils falling in love with human girls and the couples end up as angels. In these films the costumes, and certain characters and incidents, are often silly and the romance is trite.

Certainly, none of these directors mean to satirize the Romeo and Juliet motif either.

At the other end of the spectrum are films that portray teenagers' world as turbulent: like Le Bao Trung's Bong Ma Hoc Duong (School ghosts), a horror film about teen violence and sex, and Le Van Kiet's Bay Cap 3 (literally, Level-3 trap), also a horror film about teen violence and sex, which did not get through the censors and may have to change its script to do so.

Whether teenagers are portrayed as innocent or violent and sexual, they are ultimately considered vulnerable, without critical thinking, and the message is that they cannot be left to their own devices.

Two slightly more thoughtful movies about teenagers' strong sense of self, Nguyen Duc Viet's Vu Dieu Dam Me (Dance of Passion) and Stephane Gauger's Saigon Yo! (Saigon Electric) are unfortunately set in the world of hip-hop, which is another common superficial teenager association.

Many adults will not watch a film about hip-hop because they automatically consider it too "teeny."

In other words, I'm looking forward to a film that releases the teenager from the trite association with music, sports, Romeo and Juliet romance on the one hand, and negative vulnerabilities on the other. Give me a film about intelligent teenagers who engage with adults about important life questions on an equal footing.

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