Vietnamese movies: art house or cash register?

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Thien menh anh hung, Victor Vu's martial arts/historical movie, is one of the two best Tet releases this year, Bui Thac Chuyen's horror flick Loi nguyen huyet ngai being the other

Anyone interested in Vietnamese cinema should watch the movies released during Tet. During this season, Vietnamese filmmakers made "commercial" movies, movies that they believe can sell. In this column, I'm going to review five Tet releases and one that came a few weeks earlier, while also taking a look at the big picture by examining the paths some of the filmmakers seem to be taking. I have reservations about some of them, while I believe others should be explored further.

Critics have been kind to Vu dieu duong cong (The Dance of the Curves). I cannot see why. Nguyen Trong Khoa's movie aims high but falls short, reflecting a tendency to overreach that local filmmakers would well to jettison. Screenwriter Doan Minh Tuan, who heads the School of Cinema at the University of Theater and Cinema in Hanoi, once called this tendency the ability of Vietnamese filmmakers to destroy even the grandest ideas, and contrasted it with foreign filmmakers' ability to create mountains out of a simple concept.

 Khoa seeks to capture what the title of the movie calls the "curves" of life. This includes many things from literally curvy belly dance moves to the spontaneity of filmmaking to life's chance meetings and sudden deaths. This idea about life's curviness, or spontaneity or surprises or variety, which amount to the same thing in this movie, is sought to be depicted with a meandering script about the mundane daily activities of several main characters who are taking part in the filming of a TV drama. To make the visual effects consistent with the overall message, Khoa uses animation pop-ups. His characters also address audiences directly as in a documentary. I find the end result a dragging and superficial movie. When you try to cover too much ground, you can't but end up skimming the surface of everything.

For instance, Khoa refers to belly dance in the title of the movie and his heroine is an actress who plays the role of a belly dancer in a TV drama. Yet, all we know about belly dancing (and belly dancers) in the movie is its sexy, curvy moves. What about the toil behind the sinuous movements? The same question can be asked about Khoa's other messages about spontaneity. Was he really spontaneous when he made this movie as his movie suggests filmmaking should be? I doubt it, considering the complicated way the story is told. Khoa might have made a better movie if he had focused on the idea of spontaneity in either belly dancing or filmmaking, or daily life itself, and showed that spontaneity is at least partly the reward of human will and hard work. But he isn't so focused.

Another movie whose motley style doesn't work is ad film director Nguyen Quoc Duy's first feature, Coc moc 23 (Milestone 23). At the end of the movie, some people sitting near me in the cinema laughed it off as "mere entertainment." Anyone familiar with "commercial" Vietnamese cinema in recent years will know what they meant - that the story is so random you don't know what the filmmaker is trying to say.

Duy's movie has horror, action, comedy, and melodrama all wrapped up with a meaningless twist: the whole story turns out to be just a dream of the heroine. The movie could have been good if, like I said about Khoa, Duy had stayed focused.

Duy has a simple but great storyline: a rich young woman loses faith in life and runs away to the countryside after learning she has brain tumor. She meets and falls in love with a nude photographer who loses faith in his art and wife who cheats on him. This premise is, however, wasted even before the meaningless ending because it turns out that the heroine's doctors had mistaken her file with another patient's file. Duy's unskilled mix of genres (an unnecessary and confusing ghost plotline and nonsensical characters for comedic effect) doesn't help either.

Duy, and to a lesser extent, Khoa, reflect the tendency to handle scripts superficially and thus waste potentially good plots.

Nguyen Minh Chung's Le phi tinh yeu (Love Fee) is also a good example of superficial storytelling. Unlike Khoa's or Duy's movie, this one stays focused: it is obviously a romantic comedy, except that it isn't as much a movie as a musical video. There are a lot of beautifully shot and seemingly dramatic scenes, the likes you see in musical clips, but no real conflict or depth of feeling. The biggest conflict in the narrative the heroine, a bank employee, discovers that her boyfriend is the very debtor she has been trying to track down is resolved in true musical video fashion. She tells him she loves him regardless and that is all there is to her supposed conflict of interests.

The out-of-the-blue flash mob scene at the end in which all characters gather for a final song and reconciliation would also fit a musical clip better than a romantic comedy. But my beef with this film flies in the face of the reactions I saw from teenage girls whom it targets. "Great movie," one said at the end of the film. I understand why they loved it it has good-looking characters and catchy songs and is genuinely funny in places. So we can either leave it at that or hope for a little more effort in basic scripting to have a real romantic comedy next time.

Nguyen Quang Minh's Hello Co Ba (Hello Ms. Ba) is not strictly a movie either. With its lengthy dialogues characteristic of a play and simple camerawork, it is more of a TV soap. But it is an enjoyable satire about a country bumpkin who can tell people's fortunes and draws crowds wherever he goes.

Unlike Milestone 23, whose confusing script doesn't even have a point, Hello Ms. Ba is a meaningful satire on superstition. But south-based studios, especially Phuoc Sang, which often produce such drama-like movies, should continue to find ways to incorporate the good elements of theater and cinema to create better products. One suggestion is to tone down the exaggerated acting that better suits plays or southern folk opera than cinema. Other needless details, such as "inside" jokes and characters, also need to be excised.

This leaves me with the remaining two movies, the best of the lot: Bui Thac Chuyen's horror flick Loi nguyen huyet ngai (Blood Curse) and Victor Vu's martial art/period film, Thien menh anh hung (Hero's Destiny). Bui Thac Chuyen is a local filmmaker and Victor Vu is a Vietnamese-American trained in the US, but in one way they are alike - both are young and have tried their hand at different genres, as if to find out what is best suited for them. So it's interesting to see what they do in their latest attempts.

I have to give Victor Vu two thumbs-up for his conscientious effort to develop a distinctive style, which seems to be a little bit of everything. Hero's Destiny is based on a true historical event - the wrongful death sentences given to national hero Nguyen Trai's family during the Le Dynasty era.

It is a skillful mix of various genres that Vu is familiar with - horror, thrills and spills, and romantic comedy plus something he tries for the first time: martial arts and, to a lesser extent, historical. The movie's sets and settings are so impressive that some wondered if Vu shot his film in China. The visual effects in the martial arts scenes are professional.

Charlie Nguyen made a good martial arts flick a few years ago called Dong mau anh hung (The Rebel). But even more than The Rebel, Vu's movie suggests the viability of making martial arts/historical movies in Vietnamese.

Though the film doesn't have the scale of Zang Zimou's Hero or Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, it is not inconceivable that Vu can get there if he chooses to go down this path.

Bui Thac Chuyen's Loi nguyen huyet ngai is less suggestive about the direction he is going to take, being completely different from his two recent well-known movies, Song trong so hai (Living in Fear), a war movie, and Choi voi (Adrift), a romance.

I did not find Blood Curse very scary because of the rudimentary visual effects, but I give Chuyen credit for trying to tell a straight three-act story.

It is about three students of traditional medicine who conduct experiments on a plant believed to be able to bring dead people back to life. They end up discovering the plant's horrible secret.

As I suggested in previous columns as well as in this one, Vietnamese filmmakers are still struggling with basic scripting. There is a tendency to dismiss Hollywood-style scripts as "commercial" and "cheap" to favor alternative, outright random, storytelling. Some filmmakers are not even aware of the particular school of storytelling they are following. The end result is movies which screenwriter Tuan says destroy even the grandest premises, or movies that aren't really movies but musical clips or TV plays.

So it is a heartening sign that Bui Thac Chuyen has got down to straightforward storytelling after earlier directing Choi voi for which Phan Dang Di wrote a script based on alternative storytelling as a conscious effort to target European art houses. Since Vietnamese filmmakers often talk about making movies that can be sold abroad, it is certainly useful for them to try models that have withstood the test of time - such as telling an interesting and clear-cut three-act story.

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