The need to be less cynical

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A scene from Ngo Quang Hai's crime/psychological thriller Mua he lanh (Cold Summer), which is playing in theaters now. Vietnamese filmmakers should experiment more with genres like historical rather than keep making movies like this.

I recently read a summary of modernism and postmodernism, and about the point that art has currently reached in its evolution.

It was by Professor Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe (, according to whom the question today is: Has art come to an end in our current state of pluralism in which "everything can or has the potential to be art?"

I thought about this as I attended an artists' meeting at the Japan Foundation in Hanoi last month. One work in particular captured for me the incoherent state of mind that reveals a lack of belief in the certainty of anything that I find everywhere in local contemporary artists whose works I've seen, local filmmakers, people I meet in my daily life.

Often, people I meet would tell me: "Don't be too sure, you never know."

I'd reply: "I don't know for sure, but I believe we must constantly try to find something to hold on to and improve upon it as we go alone. This strikes me as the only way to make sense of things."

The work that typified the incoherence was Nguyen Huy An's photo in which he took some mud from Sword Lake and put it on his head as he stood looking out at the lake. It was meant as a salute to Vietnamese history because An considers mud a symbol of this history.

By today's standards you could consider this a work of art. But to me it is not because it hardly requires any skill, creativity, or, most importantly of all, thought that helps us understand life better.

Returning to the question of has art ended, we wouldn't need artists if their work is merely something like An's mud work. But can An improve on this? I believe he can.

And we can start by remembering a few basic things about various professions: If you're an archeologist, you dig mud up to find some meaningful objects. But if you're an artist, you should study the heart and mind of the people of the past and these don't lie in mud. They lie in more intangible places such as historical and literary accounts. Or if you have acumen, you'll find the past in your own personal life because human beings aren't too different in various eras.

An's work tells me how confused, if not yet cynical, he is. Admittedly he seems to be a more simple-minded, less cynical type of contemporary artist. He spoke a lot about his "dark, inner self," and the "mystery" of life.

For artists like An, I'd only say "go deeper into this mystery until you find something more animate and important than mud."

For an example of the more cynical type, I'll turn to local cinema. Here I don't see mud, but, worse, human corpses. The latest Vietnamese movie playing in theaters now is another confusing and forced crime/psychological thriller movie called Mua he lanh (Cold Summer) by Ngo Quang Hai. It has a few corpses, and is basically about women avenging men for their violent and sexual propensity.

What's with Vietnamese filmmakers?  They don't seem to be able to make simple, entertaining movies. Right now local filmmakers need to make an educated guess about what entertains people.

Personally, I feel entertained by intelligent humor, not the maze of forced surprises in local crime/psychological thriller/horror movies in which a crime seemingly committed by one person turns out to have been done by another and so on.

This kind of storytelling is just a gimmick. If you want to make movies about crimes and corpses, you should tell me straightforwardly who commits the crime and why, like Dostoyevsky does.      

I see some intelligent, straightforward humor and surprises in Woody Allen's To Rome with Love. In one storyline, Milly, a country girl, visits Rome with her newlywed husband to meet his family.

One day she loses her way in the city and stumbles upon her favorite movie star. Still filled with a child's insatiable curiosity for life, Milly goes to the hotel with the actor to have sex. As the actor is mustering his physical strength outside the bathroom (he's a middle-aged man), and she, her courage inside the bathroom, a thief who looks younger and sexier than the actor suddenly appears from inside the bathroom with a gun and threatens them.

At the same time the actor's wife and reporters knock on the door, hoping to catch him in the act. The thief comes up with an idea: the actor is to hide in the bathroom, and he himself will pretend to be in bed with Milly.

At the end of this scene, Milly ends up sleeping with the thief.

This scene obviously has many surprises orchestrated by the filmmaker. But unlike in local films, they are shown in a straightforward, natural way, just like how things happen in real life. There are no gimmicks. Nevertheless, they aren't at all simple, because they're the fruits of great skills and a mature understanding of chance and life: even in our pluralist, relativist, post-modernist world, there's always an elegant, albeit constantly evolving, order hidden under the seemingly chaotic state of things.

Be what they may be, Milly, the actor, the thief, the wife, and the reporters are inevitably drawn to each other.             

In the current state of Vietnamese cinema in which filmmakers are running out of ideas, a discussion last November about whether and how they should make movies about historical figures suggested one way out.

Despite widespread concerns about the poor quality of previous movies of this genre as well as the lack of resources to make them - from talented filmmakers and historical archives to historical sites and well-equipped studios - Vietnamese filmmakers may benefit if they devote themselves to these movies, particularly movies about historical figures and periods other than 20th century figures and wars, because these subjects have already been amply explored.

At a conference at the 2nd Hanoi International Film Festival also last November, Kini Kim, head of international sales and distribution at South Korean entertainment company CJ E&M, suggested that to sell to international audiences Vietnamese cinema should develop a unique image, meaning genres such as traditional martial arts may be marketable.

I don't know about the business of marketing movies, but I do know that nothing else is unique if historical figures are not.

From the artistic angle, working with historical material is beneficial to both old and young filmmakers. Older filmmakers already have a tradition of making movies about the French and American wars. They should expand this historical terrain to earlier periods rather than abandon it just because their old movies and their old way of making movies no longer appeal to the public.

They'll have more artistic license with older periods because these periods may be less "sensitive."

Also, if older filmmakers have enough confidence and creativity, the lack of historical accounts about earlier periods may prove to be an advantage, not a drawback, because critics (of whom there will be many) will find it difficult to prove their accounts of history wrong.

As for the lack of historical sites or studios or sets, well, filmmaking is difficult and we simply can't complain about every difficulty we face.

Victor Vu's Thien Menh Anh Hung (Hero's Destiny), which is loosely based on Vietnamese cultural icon Nguyen Trai's tragic life, looks fine in terms of sets. 

As for younger filmmakers including Victor Vu, who seem so cynical about everything, they should experiment with historical material much more. This way they will learn and be comforted by the fact that in the past people like Nguyen Trai (1380-1442) also went through great difficulties and sorrows, and that though we're living in an age when we don't believe in anything, we can at least believe that we aren't alone.

I found Thien Menh Anh Hung entertaining, though its mix of light-hearted romance, martial arts, and some serious historical material is not too skillful.

But Vu's later movie, Scandal, a horror/crime/psychological thriller hybrid about the sordid world of showbiz, is very un-entertaining, especially his filmmaker's character.

In Scandal, everybody involved in showbiz has to pay a price except the filmmaker. This character is professional enough to focus on making movies that audiences want and disregarding the rest, but also intelligent enough to treat his own world with contempt. But also I'm possibly making Vu appear more coherent than you would find if you watched the movie.

Vu also pits the dirty, cynical world of cinema against the idyllic, virtuous world of theater. The problem is that if he really believes in theater, he should pursue it instead of cinema; if he doesn't, then he is being cynical.

If cynicism is the spirit of our age, then we should grow out of it. Otherwise, to borrow from I'll Be There For You, The Rembrandts's theme song for American sit-com Friends, we'll be stuck in "second gear" forever.

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