Vietnam animation films plagued by lack of imagination

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Most end up being too short to be shown in cinemas, shallow, and supercilious

 
The anti-hero mouse in Duoi bong cay (Under the tree), a popular and visually attractive 3D animation movie produced by Colory Animation Studio last year. Photo: The Online Yxine Film Festival For Independent Filmmakers

Vietnamese animation producers churn out a solid number of films every year, and though these are yet to attain the appeal of Hollywood animation blockbusters, they are technically adequate and tell decent stories.

The only problem is that they are too short: With the exception of Vietnam's first feature-length 3D animation movie Nguoi con cua Rong (Dragon's son), which was produced by the Vietnam Cinematography Association Film Studio in 2010 to commemorate Hanoi's 1,000th birthday, they are mostly just 10 to 15 minutes long. The "long" ones go on for up to 60 minutes.

According to Pham Xuan Thach, an art studies instructor at the Hanoi University of Social Sciences and Humanities who will present a paper on the problems of the local animation industry at an upcoming national conference on cultural policies, this limited length makes it extremely difficult to screen Vietnamese animation films in either theaters or on TV where they suffer the handicap of being single episodes rather than series (there are some series for TV but their number is still insignificant).

Thach said financial and technical constraints are not as much to blame as weak scripts since many animators have a background in graphic design and not screenwriting.

In his paper he points out that public schools with long painting traditions, which should offer a major in animation, such as the Vietnam University of Fine Arts, do not have such programs.

The task of training has thus fallen upon private universities and especially institutions working in the field of graphic design, such as the FPT-Arena Multimedia Academy of Fine Arts.

Thach urges the government to develop more systematic training for the animation industry.

This is a sociological view of the problem. Training is indeed essential to raise the general capacity of local animators.

However, whether or not they are trained in screenwriting, when it comes to an individual animator facing the task of creating a 90-minute script, it is important to remember what makes such a script possible in the first place: depth.

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.

It is essentially depth of meaning that does everything for a script, including making it long. When story ideas are not deep enough, it is difficult to turn them into feature-length movies or substantial TV series, however skilled screenwriters are in making a mountain out of a molehill.

By "depth" in animation I mean stories that can speak to both young and old. I am not saying that local animators should seek more audiences by adding new genres such as horror or even pornography to target mature age groups.

The Vietnamese animation industry is yet to reach this sophisticated level of Japanese animation, though some local animators have experimented with realistic, slice-of-life films that adult audiences may appreciate more than young audiences.

I'm only talking about refining films for young people so that adults can enjoy them too. That is what the best American and Japanese animation movies have been able to accomplish and local animators obviously want to rival these two animation superpowers if they could.

Let's compare a Vietnamese and American film about bees to see Vietnamese animators' lack of depth in approaching a story idea. In Hollywood's "Bee Movie," bees sue human beings for stealing their honey, win and unwittingly upset nature's balance. Whether the actual movie delivers on this basic concept may be a matter of debate but we can agree that on paper, this idea is both innocent and profound - the two qualities of our greatest fairy tales and children's literary classics.

Adult audiences may seriously want to see the movie to hear the bees' arguments here. By comparison, one of the few multi-episode animation films made for TV in Vietnam, Cuoc phieu luu cua Ong Vang (The adventure of the Golden Bee) produced by the Vietnam Television Film Center, sets a stubborn young bee on a journey to explore the world in which he encounters what adult audiences can easily dismiss as childish mishaps and ends up learning the value of community and friendship. It offers nothing for adults to take away.

I think one way for local animators to come up with deeper ideas is to rid themselves of the habit of thinking they are making films for young audiences. On online forums, even teenagers criticize their stuff for being too "kindergarten."

Suppose we all stand before an all-powerful being who offers each one of us a wish, I doubt anyone would ask to become just another normal bee to learn the value of community and friendship: You can learn that by staying human. But somebody may think about becoming a super-bee to "sting" the human race, as Hollywood suggests, indeed.

In recent years, Vietnam has seen the emergence of a younger generation of animators who have got together to set up private animation companies such as the Colory Animation Studio and Biqit Studio.

Their films are still short but less preachy and more humorous than films by state-owned producers such as the Vietnam Cinematography Association Film Studio or the Vietnam Television Film Center. Some films are even a bit cynical with anti-hero characters that may appeal to older audiences.

For example, in Colory's popular and visually attractive 3D animation Duoi bong cay (Under the tree), a young mouse who likes to brag about his courage but is a chicken at heart ends up being a hero by luck (throughout his journey, this mouse does try to overcome his fear though).  

School projects by students trained at graphic design institutions such as the FPT-Arena Multimedia Academy of Fine Arts also offer interesting stories.

In Bay (Flying), a short film by Arena's S.M.I.L.E AD Group, a girl tries all she can to fly like a butterfly. After failing to fly by jumping from a tree and using two paper fans and later, balloons, she ends up realizing she can only fly by imagining she is flying as she sits on a wooden horse and spreads her arms in front of an electric fan.

This idea of a child imagining she is flying by sitting on a wooden horse and spreading her arms in front of a fan is a perfect metaphor for the younger generation of Vietnamese animators. Their ideas may be funnier and smarter than the older generation's, but are still too childish to really matter to mature audiences. It takes imagination to be deeper.

In Bay, the girl is bound to a wooden horse and an electrical fan. But why should she be? Why can't she fly, literally? Nothing is impossible in animation films.

Of course, that would mean the animators would have to come up with a different script. I hope someday the animators of Bay, who were still college students when they made this film, will return to this theme of "imagination" and dig it deeper. When James Matthew Barrie imagined children could literally fly, he created a character that touches us all: Peter Pan.

While the child in Bay a fictional character that gives animators the license to be imaginative and create a fantastic but believable world is not allowed to fly, the flip side is that the magical world the animators of Nguoi con cua Rong, who belong to an older generation, create is completely unbelievable.

The child character is not fictional but based on national hero King Ly Thai To, who moved Vietnam's capital to what is now Hanoi in the 11th century.

Though he does not fly in the film, Tieu Ly is able to do lots of other magical things because his father is a godlike dragon.

While it may be imaginative in the narrowest sense, this kind of imagination for real-life figures is a bit too much. Seriously, can anyone believe that King Ly Thai To was a dragon's son?

In a 2003 BBC documentary titled "Imagine From Pencils to Pixels" about animation history, a colleague remembers "Walt" Disney as saying once: "Don't make [characters] real. Make them believable."

The young Ly Thai To in what is Vietnam's only feature-length animation movie for years is neither real nor believable.

Nguoi con cua Rong (Dragon's son)

Duoi bong cay (Under the tree)

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