War films: Time to let go

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     An image of the romantic soldier: Nghia, played by Truong Minh Quoc Thai, writes to his mother back home on the battlefield. Photos: www.facebook.com/nhungnguoiviethuyenthoai

Since the Tet films this year are again too bad, I’ll talk about Nhung nguoi viet huyen thoai (The Legend Makers), another state-funded war film which is not especially good but nevertheless offers some food for thought.

A note to readers: By the time this review is published, the movie is likely to be gone from major cinemas (this is a pressing problem that state-owned studios have to address: make movies that can attract broad audiences, and find money and build capacity to promote and distribute them).

For those who may watch it one day, The Legend Makers promises to be energetic and different because its director is Bui Tuan Dung, a relatively young and capable director.

Dung’s movie shared the recent 18th Vietnam Film Festival’s Golden Lotus for best feature with Victor Vu’s Bi mat tham do (Scandal) and has garnered positive reviews from the media and critics.

To me, though, it was a sad thing that a movie such as The Legend Makers was judged so superior to others that it won the Golden Lotus. It is bad. I give it a 5/10, though I sympathize with Dung’s effort to make a state-funded war film interesting and marketable.

Compared to other war films, The Legend Makers may be faster-paced. But that is about all it can boast of.

In an American War setting made up of trivial and trite details, we have poorly developed characters that are not connected by any significant plot whatsoever.

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 quality of Vietnamese movies improve. Thuy Linh may be reached at dolinh54@yahoo.com.

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The Legend Makers is not even about the bombing, burning, gun-firing, and mine-exploding which dominate the movie, since if all of those noises were the main character, I would still expect some structure such as how they increase as the film progresses. But the noises are confusing.

I prefer the more selective, justified, and dramatic battle scenes in some older war movies such as Nguyen Huu Muoi’s 2012 Mui co chay (The Scent of Burning Grass).

The Legend Makers’ 4,500 battle shots, which Dung said is three times higher than the number in typical Vietnamese war movies, only confirm that it is not quantity but quality that matters.

The Legend Makers is supposedly about the efforts of General Dinh (based on a real-life war hero) to build a north-south fuel pipeline to provide much-needed fuel to the southern battlefields during the American War. Unfortunately, the movie does not develop this worthwhile idea.

I do not see the particular difficulties that the General character has to face that made the real figure, General Dinh Duc Thien, a war hero. The movie indulges in depicting the general violence of the American War (through all those battle scenes). But this portrait is tiring because it simply repeats very trite things that can be found in other movies, literature, or people’s memories of the war.

(The Legend Makers)
With English subtitles
Commercial theater release: Jan. 10, 2014
Length: 95 minutes
Producer: Vietnam Feature Film Studio
Director: Bui Tuan Dung
Screenwriter: Nguyen Anh Dung
Cast: Hoang Hai, Truong Minh Quoc Thai, Tang Bao Quyen
If the Bureau of Cinematography and the state-owned studios under its watch want to make good war movies, they should not waste precious state money on scripts that do not say anything relatively new about the wars, let alone such a trite, empty script as The Legend Makers.

The Scent of Burning Grass is also trite (I wonder which Vietnamese filmmaker can ever make a war film that is original, yet still permissible under the current censorship, after so many years of making war movies here). But the characters in The Scent of Burning Grass, also inspired by real people, were developed with much more care and that movie is thus more authentic.

Here are some examples of the trite characters and ideas in The Legend Makers. Besides General Dinh, another main character is this tough, quite invincible, yet romantic liaison soldier named Nghia who keeps a diary. Nghia falls in love with Ha, who serves as an entertainer. Ha is also a romantic who plays with leaves by the stream in a scene and dies with one in her hand in a latter scene.

It is time we move on from this idea of the romantic soldier, which can be found everywhere in popular culture about the war. I also see a soldier contemplating a leaf, the symbol of fragile life and beauty in wartimes, in Bui Tuan Dung’s earlier and better war movie, Duong thu (Mail Road) scripted by Doan Minh Tuan. In that movie, the soldier mails the leaf to his girlfriend back home.


Director Bui Tuan Dung on set

Then there is the snake. A snake appears in The Legend Makers in a scene to scare Nghia’s sister right at the moment she’s trying to keep quiet to hide from the enemy and thus cannot shoot. In Duong thu, a snake also appears at a similar moment to jeopardize the protagonist.

It seems as if the most familiar characters and ideas about the war can be found in The Legend Makers. Another stock image is the flirtatious, brave, and tragic female soldiers who cleared roads during the war. In The Legend Makers, these women appear in a scene to greet General Dinh as he drives through their area; instants later, they are bombed to pieces.

In a previous column about Vietnamese war movies, I said the tragic fate of these women in Luu Trong Ninh’s Nga ba Dong Loc (Dong Loc T-junction) did not move me much because their characters were portrayed as a group, not as individuals with distinctive personalities. I would say a similar thing about these and other characters in The Legend Makers: No matter how terrible their death looks on screen, I am not moved because they are trite, empty images.     

But I do not blame everything on filmmakers: There can be a difference between the authenticity of wartime characters from earlier times when memories were fresh and emotions were high and now.

Now there is a distance from the real thing, and the films are made by younger people for younger people, neither of whom have memories of the war and may not really care.

The Legend Makers shows how time can desiccate real tragedy and emotions. In the film, there is a scene that unwittingly captures the lack of authenticity and the distance of the film from the material that it tries to depict. Two children stand safely on the side observing with philosophical gravity the horrific bombing before their eyes. One would think that in reality and with a more verisimilar script, the children would just run away or be killed.

So, barring some extraordinary talent that can truly renew the war genre, it is time for the Bureau of Cinematography and local filmmakers to let go of war memories. Or else, we will only have another empty, noisy, and costly thing like The Legend Makers.

The script notwithstanding, Ly Thai Dung’s photography is good, the acting is decent, and the special effects are alright.

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