The value of Le Hoang's 'cheap' movies

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Director Le Hoang (L). His latest sleazy movie, Toi nay 8h! (At 8 Tonight), revolves around a straightforward question that satirizes materialistic relationships: how much does it cost to sleep with you?

Le Hoang's latest flick, Toi nay 8h! (At 8 Tonight), just like his earlier ones, are less "cheap" than many people think.

The verdict, especially from the local media, critics, and filmmakers, is that Hoang's movies based on titillation have become a cheap bore.

In 2003, when he made his first movie about prostitutes, Gai nhay (Bar Girls), he managed to draw audiences back to watch Vietnamese films which for years had failed to attract them because they were stuffy and mostly about the war.

Before "Bar Girls," Hoang too had made some war movies, such as the award-winning Luoi dao (Knife Blade) and Ai xuoi van ly (Who traversed thousands of miles), which earned him a solid reputation among local filmmakers.

"Bar Girls" was criticized for using sex and drugs to attract audiences. It indeed attracted audiences, garnering VND12 billion in ticket sales, an unprecedented figure in Vietnamese cinema at the time.

As I mentioned in a previous column about director Vu Ngoc Dang, "Bar Girls" is part of, or could even have started, the current overexploitation of social ills that has led to movies and TV dramas looking like documentaries.

For instance, the righteous journalist and police officer characters and the final conference in "Bar Girls" in which an ex-prostitute talks about her regrets and tribulations take away from what could otherwise have been a complex film about women in contemporary Vietnamese society.

In fact, we would do Hoang much more justice if we watched his movies for his take on gender and romance rather than social ills because no new ground can be broken here.

Indeed, Hoang starts off by exploring the gritty aspect of bar life in "Bar Girls," but merely uses it to set the stage for portraying romance and strong women in later movies. Even that film has a character, Hoa, who chooses - rather than is forced by poverty - to become a bar girl. She is from a wealthy family and becomes a bar girl to rebel against her parents, who are too busy to care for her. The strong female character rebelling against conventional ideas about women is a recurring theme in his later movies.

It evolves most fully in Lo lem he pho (Street Cinderella), also known as "Bar Girls II," in the character of Hanh, an ambitious actress who leaves her fiancé to become a sex worker (Hoang never actually lets her sleep with men though) just to play the role of a prostitute in a film.

Though the focus of "Street Cinderella" is split between Hanh and Hoa - the Cinderella in the film, a real prostitute with whom Hanh's fiancé falls in love during her absence - Hanh is the more interesting character.

A scene in Le Hoang's latest film, At 8 Tonight

One shot at the end of the film frames Hanh's face as she realizes, after she returns from filming, that she has lost her fiancé to another woman. She looks sad but understanding. Here we have a woman who chooses art and career over the more obvious option, love.

After experiencing first-hand the world of prostitutes - she acts so realistically in a scene as a prostitute, breaking down and crying after the director says "cut" because of the honesty of her feelings - Hanh has lost her innocence and can't love her fiancé anymore.

She is, in other words, Hoang's version of Louise in "Thelma and Louise." Her fiancé's loss of innocence nicely parallels her own: he only learns to love when he falls for the real prostitute who teaches him that love entails pain and sacrifice.

In Nu tuong cuop (Female Robbers), Hoang's rebellious females are neither prostitutes nor artists but robbers. The two leading characters disguise themselves as vulnerable women to fool men and drug and rob them.

After they succeed in relieving a wealthy man of a large sum of money, one of them refuses to reform and lead an honest life and ends up being robbed and raped by some men and committing suicide. The other girl, who has fallen for the wealthy man, lives happily ever after with him.

The two scenarios Le Hoang posits are telling. With the first girl, the message is clear - you can't beat men in the robbing business, so find another job. With the second, Thu, one would think the message is classic Cinderella: your job is to win a good, rich man's heart.

But this isn't the whole story. Before Thu is able to win her man's heart, she has to cut off a finger to prove her character and love. Earlier her partner in crime asks her to cut off the man's finger to threaten his sister into paying a ransom. Thu, not wanting to betray either of them, decides to cut off her own finger. When the man asks her why, Thu replies that never in her life has she got anything without paying a high price.

This is a poignant scene that undermines the Cinderella motif widely used in popular culture as well as in Hoang's films. It is this poignancy that gives his otherwise movies depth.

Some of the skin-baring in his movies is almost repulsive rather than titillating, which again undermines his own attempts to exploit sex. I think Hoang gives what many people want deep down - sex and violence - but at the same time is satirical.

"At 8 Tonight" has its share of characteristic Le Hoang satire. It is about four poor girls trying to snare rich guys, and asks a straightforward question: How much does it cost to sleep with you? For one, the price is a US$40,000 diamond ring. For a second, it's an expensive car. For the leader of the group, who seems to be the strongest and proudest, it is friendship: she wants to have money to give it to the fourth girl, who is the most innocent and vulnerable among them.

The vulnerable girl has no price (except true love, as suggested by the film as a whole). She even points a rifle at the man who asks the question.

Though Hoang recycles his old plotline of strong females pointing guns at males, this film satirizes the Vietnamese media's current preoccupation with materialistic relationships between beautiful girls and rich businessmen. The theme may be gossip, but the question may well be addressed to us all in this cynical and materialistic age.

Hoang's movies thus throw up some healthy female characters we can identify with. But I agree with critics that he should move on - not because these films are trash, but because it is time for him to find a middle ground between art-house movies that don't sell and low-brow skin flicks and acceptance with both critics and audiences. He was once capable of this.

Vi dang tinh yeu (the Bitter Taste of Love), a 1990 movie about students' life and love which he co-scripted with Viet Linh, remains one of the most critically acclaimed and popular love stories in Vietnamese cinema.

One possible way for him to go is flesh out the best female characters in his movies by giving them some intellect and moral courage rather than just street smarts and physical courage, and moving them away from the world of sleaze and titillation into the one inhabited by ordinary women.

Then the possibilities could be unlimited.

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