The ultimate handshake

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A scene from Cham (Touch), one of the 32 Vietnamese movies to be screened at the Hanoi International Film Festival from November 24 to 29

You can see movie director Ha Son is not a big fan of Vietnamese culture. He says it is "zero," and that if other countries take one step forward Vietnam has to take three to catch up.

He is scathing. There is hardly any writer of quality except Nguyen Ngoc Tu, films have retrogressed, nowhere are scanty attires as tasteless as in Vietnamese TV serials, and the abortion rate ranks among the highest in the world for a country with so many sexual taboos, he says.

For him there is something uncritical about the Vietnamese mind. Nobody, for instance, questions the lack of logic or justice in myths and legends.

Take one of the most well-known, Son Tinh Thuy Tinh. The myth is about a Vietnamese king who wants to find a good husband for his daughter. One day two suitors show up - Son Tinh, the mountain god, and Thuy Tinh, the water god.

The king is unable to decide between them, and comes up with a solution: he asks them to bring certain wedding gifts, and says whoever shows up first will get the girl.

The presents are, besides some glutinous rice and rice cakes, an elephant with nine tusks, a cock with nine spurs, and a horse with nine manes.

The mountain god shows up first. The losing water god becomes vengeful, and has ever since waged wars by unleashing storms and floods against the other god, who has been holding his ground with equal determination.

The injustice in this story is stark: the elephant, the cock, and the horse are all animals found on land, meaning the king, consciously or not, must have favored the mountain god.

Why? Son has an answer. In his 1991 movie Truyen thuyet tinh yeu cua than nuoc (Legend of the Love of the Water God), he says the Vietnamese king only sees the benefits of things in front of him like land, fields, and mountains, and easily forgets what sustains them since it is out of sight: water and the oceans.

In the movie that he scripted, based on a short story by writer Hoa Vang, the water god is vindicated. The princess grows up playing in the water and falling in love with him in the first place. Only later does she understand that the rain and floods are not signs of his vengeance, but his broken, justifiably outraged heart. She takes it upon herself to bring love and justice back to him.   

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.

For all of its faults such as rudimentary visual effects, costumes, and sets, which could have been improved with a bigger budget, and its storytelling, which could benefit from more action and clarity, I was delighted to watch this movie.

It is an intelligent and touching twist on the old legend. I remember as a child acting as the princess's maid while playing with other children in my neighborhood, and feeling pity for the water god because he does not get the girl.

So here I was, years later, watching a movie that spoke to my heart and had the qualities I find so hard to find in current Vietnamese movies, namely simplicity, intelligence, and heart.

If I was a private producer looking for good ideas, I would bet on remaking such good old movies. Or I would knock on the doors of the older generation of filmmakers like Son who are so desperately looking for investors because they cannot count on state-owned studios any more. Or I would send an open letter to all filmmakers, young and old, to send their best ideas. Or I would pool my resources with other private producers to establish such a fund, and once a year make and market a movie that we believe many people can enjoy.

It would be for no narrow monetary purpose, but for the challenge and excitement of producing a truly great movie. It may sound naïve and idealistic,

but in times of crises and few would disagree that Vietnam is indeed in a crisis in many areas now it is often idealism that pulls people through.      

 Son says he will make a last-ditch effort to find local investors for his scripts. Failing that, he will find a way to work with the Russians. I hope he does not have to go that far. In Vietnam, private producers have been teaming up to make movies, some of them artistic. State-owned producers have been trying to make more entertaining movies and explore partnerships with private producers. Some local producers have also been working with foreign ones.

But whatever partnership is struck between the private and state sectors, I have not seen the ultimate partnership, "the partnership of minds," which should be shown in the movies.

If you watched the Vietnamese movies screened at the 1st Vietnam International Film Festival (VNIFF) in 2010, you will have an idea of what I am talking about.

I realized after seeing them that even the most artistically honest movies made by the private studios such as Ao lua Ha Dong (The White Silk Dress), Dong mau anh hung (The Rebel), and even Cu va chim se se (Owl and the Sparrow), a very charming film shot with a hand-held camera that will be screened at the second festival, recently renamed as Hanoi International Film Festival (HANIFF), this month are not "there" yet.

They look good technically, as commercial movies made by private producers often do, but they do not take more than a cursory look at society and culture.

On the other hand, the most entertaining of movies made by the state studios, which often have more sophisticated social contexts, lack the energy of the best commercial movies.

A movie, to have the best of both worlds, should have both a complex understanding of society and culture and an energetic, focused story, the partnership of minds

I referred to earlier.

Among the HANIFF movies are two particularly decent ones: the state-funded Sinh Menh (Life), which was screened at the first VNIFF, and the privately-funded Cham (Touch).

Dao Duy Phuc's 2006 movie Sinh Menh is a rare Vietnamese war movie I have watched without having to resort to a big glass of iced coffee to help me concentrate.

The story is simple, entertaining, and thoughtful. It is about a soldier who must find a way to sleep with his new bride or somebody else to relieve his pent-up desire for sex, love, and an heir to continue the family line. This desire gets delayed again and again by wartime circumstances.

He has been called to the front the day after his marriage and before he manages to sleep with his wife. The script was written by Nguyen Manh Tuan, a northern writer of the older generation who moved south and is known for having many interesting things to say.

Cham, which premiered in Vietnam March 2012, is also about human desire for sex and love. This first feature film by overseas Vietnamese director Nguyen Duc Minh tells the story of a Vietnamese-American manicurist who cleans a white American mechanic's dirty nails and, along the way, rekindles his sexual desire, sense of manhood, and attractiveness to his wife, who has lost interest in him and the sensual things in life because of her hectic career.

Though they are by no means perfect, both Sinh Menh and Cham suggest that even when the two spheres separately - state money and older talents on the one hand, and private money and younger talents on the other hand - they are able to come up with something good.

I can imagine what could be achieved when the two sides really appreciate and learn from each other, when private money is generously offered to the best ideas of the older generation, and the older directors realize that their ideas can always be improved.

If I had to choose between Sinh Menh and Cham to invest in, I would choose the former because of its more complex social context; but with the condition that its moralistic message about the destruction of war and the preciousness of human life be toned down.

What I am saying is that the older generation needs a lighter touch while the younger directors need to learn more about life. This is one way to improve the Vietnamese mind, I think.

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