Tragic explosion spotlights special effects industry

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Soldiers check the scene of an explosion in Ho Chi Minh City on February 24. The explosion, which killed 11 people, is believed to have been caused by chemicals stored by Le Minh Phuong, a pyrotechnics expert, in his house in District 3. Photo by Diep Duc Minh

The real danger facing people as they create spectacles of fires and explosions for Vietnamese films was brought home tragically to the world outside with last Sunday's explosion in Ho Chi Minh City that killed 11 people and destroyed three houses.

The explosion took place in a house rented to Lac Viet, a props company specializing in explosion effects, and killed all five family members of the firm's director, 58-year-old Le Minh Phuong (Phuong, his wife and three children) as well as a house help.

Its latest casualty was 81-year-old Ho Sy Cam, who succumbed to his injuries at the 115 Hospital on Tuesday (February 26). A female relative of Cam and her daughter had died in the blast earlier, as had another father and daughter living in a neighboring building.

Nhan Phuc Vinh, an actor in a movie Phuong was working, told the Nguoi Lao Dong (Laborer) newspaper that the pyrotechnics expert had gotten ready for an explosion scene the day before he died, but there was a problem with an actor and the filming was delayed. So Phuong had brought the material home.

Although no final conclusions have been reached in the case as of press time, the fact that police confirmed finding a large amount of firecracker powder used in movies at Phuong's house has raised worries over more such inflammable and dangerous materials lying around.

Police have since said they found explosives in another house that Phuong had rented also in District 3. They have not released any information on the nature of explosives stored in the houses that Phuong had rented.

"This is a big tragedy and a life-and-death lesson for the entire movie industry," Le Cung Bac, a senior movie director, said in a Nguoi Lao Dong report.

Industry insiders say explosives used in shooting local films have always been real despite the danger involved.

Dubbed "Fire and Smoke Phuong" for being one of the most seasoned pyrotechnics experts in the country, the director of Lac Viet company handled an estimated 90 percent of the scenes using explosives for movies made in the south.

But he was no stranger to accidents. In 2011, he staged a big fire with explosions in Cu Chi District, but many of the film's crew were injured by the debris and had to be hospitalized, a Tien Phong (Vanguard) report said.

"Huyen Thoai 1C," a TV show released last year about young Vietnamese fighting in the Vietnam War, used 1,500 kilograms of explosives.

Tuan Anh, a local stuntman, said he was hospitalized after a scene that put him in the middle of four shells each with 2.5 kilograms of TNT.

"The farthest one was four meters from me and the closest one two meters. After the first one went off, I felt a pressure in my heart. I got dizzy after the third one, and the final one caused fire that slightly burned by arms and caused injuries all over my bodies," Anh told Tuoi Tre, showing off his scars.

Nguyen Thanh Van, director of the series, said Vietnamese special effects experts were using "very simple methods" to create smoke and fire, and that this should change.

He said real explosives were being used but actors in the scenes were not given adequate protection.

State-invested movies can get some help from military experts, but other movies rely on self-taught props masters who learn from one another, he said.

Stuntman Lu Duc Long, who has worked for many movies and cooperated with foreign filmmakers, said teams in Vietnam "have a very different way of putting up explosions."

"In a car explosion scene, for example, we just put explosives into a car and blow it up, and not worry much about where the debris would go. But experts from other countries would dismantle the cars and stick the parts together in a new way that the debris is contained within an expected radius," Long said.

Director Phan Hoang said he formerly used real explosives, "a very little each time," but has since turned to 3D technologies that cost him much more.

Cheap and risky

A government directive that took effect on May 20, 2012 allows filmmakers to use simple weapons and does not mention if they can use explosives or not.

Since there is no specific ban, many props masters are still making use of explosives because it is cheaper.

Charlie Nguyen, the overseas Vietnamese director known for action flicks including blockbuster "The Rebel", uses chemicals he buys from Thailand and mixes them with cement to create smoke, later adding sounds and fire using gasoline.

"When I returned to the country in 2006 to make "˜The Rebel', I looked for several Vietnamese props masters and asked to see their explosive effects, and I was startled to see that they used TNT," Nguyen was quoted by Tuoi Tre as saying.

"That would be very dangerous so I refused to use it," he said, though also adding it would be several times cheaper than creating special effects with other means.

For many Vietnamese props masters, even TNT is expensive, industry insiders say, with a big explosion costing around VND3 million ($144). So they do not bother with rehearsals to test the materials they are using, and simply go ahead.

While some people in the industry say Vietnamese props masters should be trained to use more advanced technologies to help create better visual effects without causing any destruction, director Do Manh Tuan said it is not necessary.

He said Vietnamese props masters are good enough to have been hired for creating explosion scenes for foreign films, they just do not have enough money to do the same at home.

Question of management

Nguyen Van Dung, head of the Ho Chi Minh City Police Department's Administrative Management Division, said Vietnamese laws only allow state-owned businesses to store and manage explosives, and those need to be fully certified by the Ministry of Public Security.

Dung said Phuong, the ill-fated pyrotechnics expert and his company, as well as many other private filmmaking companies in the city, are not legally allowed to use the explosives as they have been doing.

But he also said there are loopholes and the city police have not punished any such violation.

The officer said filmmakers are allowed to sign contracts with military officers to help with the explosion effects, and they are not required, legally, to ask for the police's permit to carry these out.

Tran Anh Dung, deputy head of the Administrative Management Department under the Ministry of Public Security, admitted that government control over the use of explosives has been weak.

Dung said there are more than 11,000 spots around residential areas nationwide that are considered to pose fire and explosion threats.

He said the firefighting department would carry out major inspections four times every year, but "we cannot handle all the threats.

"Inspections have found many violations but fixing these has been delayed and faced various problems. And the current cash penalties are too low, failing [to act] as deterrents."

Figures from the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs showed a 5.1 percent increase in the number of fires and explosions last year over the previous year.

It has recorded 1,751 fires that killed 173 people last year, causing property damage estimated at VND1.14 trillion ($54.84 million) as also the loss of 652 hectares of forest. There were 29 explosions last year that killed and injured 50 people, inflicting damage worth VND307 billion ($14.73 million).

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