Despite being torn apart by the devastation of two separate aggressor invasions and often finding its artisans hamstrung by censorship and bureacracy, the 100 year-old Vietnamese film community has forged a strong brand and unique voice within the global cinema community.
(Picture, above: Tôi thay hoa vàng trên co xanh; Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass, 2015)
Three prominent production entities were formed in Hanoi in the 1920’s – the Huong Ky Film Company, producers of documentary footage (notably the funeral of Emperor Khải Định and the enthronement of Bảo Đại) and the silent feature Một đồng kẽm tậu được ngựa (A Penny for a Horse); the Vietnam Film Group, producers of Một buổi chiều trên sông Cửu Long (An Evening on the Mekong River) and Thầy Pháp râu đỏ (The Red-Bearded Sorcerer); and, the Asia Film Group, makers of the nation’s first sound films Trọn với tình (True to Love), Khúc khải hoàn (The Song of Triumph) and Toét sợ ma (Toét’s Scared of Ghosts), between the years 1937 and 1940.
The government propaganda machine was also a prominent producer of documentary footage, having formed a film unit in 1945 (pictured, right). They were responsible for capturing iconic images of the First Indochina war in documentaries such as Trận Mộc Hóa (Mộc Hóa Battle, 1948), Trận Đông Khê (Đông Khê Battle, 1950), Chiến thắng Tây Bắc (North West Victory, 1952) and Việt Nam trên đường thắng lợi (Việt Nam on the Road to Victory, 1953).
Following the creation of the North and South divisions, film production was shared between Hanoi (which produced the government’s propaganda films) and Saigon (where the more audience-friendly genre films were being made). With the opening of the Hanoi Film School in 1959, talents such as Nguyễn Hồng Nghị (Chung một Dòng sông / Together on the Same River, 1960) and Phạm Kỳ Nam (whose 1963 feature Chị Tư Hậu / Sister Tư Hậu won a Silver Bear at the Moscow Film Festival) began to emerge. Manuel Conde’s Filipino co-production Chúng Tôi Muốn Sống (We Want To Live), a stiring account of wartime defiance, was a hit. There was even an animated feature, Đáng đời Thằng cáo (A Just Punishment for the Fox), in 1960.
But, with the American War ravaging the countryside and its resources, most film technicians and equipment were being utilised for newsreels, sent by embedded photojournalists. Some features were produced – the hit film Chúng Tôi Muốn Sống (We Want To Live, 1959), the family dramas Nguyễn Văn Trỗi (1966), Người Tình Không Chân Dung (Faceless Love, 1965) and Chiếc Bóng Bên Đường (Roadside Shadow, 1967) and the comedy Triệu Phú Bất Đắc Dĩ (The Reluctant Millionaire, 1970) – but in a country under siege, cinema was often a luxury that the population could not afford.
The reunification of Vietnam in the 1970’s led to a wave of social-realism cinema, stories that focussed on the plight of the nation’s people in wartime and of heroic, revolutionary struggles in the face of oppression; notably Em bé Hà Nội (Little Girl of Hanoi, 1973; in full, above) and Cánh đồng hoang (The Abandoned Field: Free Fire Zone, 1979). Production surged – by the early ‘80’s, Vietnam was producing 20 feature films annually, including the international critical hits Hà Nội trong mắt ai? (Hanoi Through Whose Eyes?, 1983), Bao gio cho den thang muoi (The Love Doesn’t Come Back, 1984), Bao Giò Cho Đến Tháng Mười (When The Tenth Month Comes, 1984), Người công giáo huyện Thống Nhất (A Catholic in Thống Nhất District, 1985) and Cô gái trên sông (Girl on the River, 1987).
The introduction of free market economics under the Đổi Mới period of social reform and the wave of television and video content that surged into the sector on the back of the VHS boom kept the population indoors for most of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, severely hurting the exhibition sector. B-movie aesthetics came to the fore and artistry suffered, and soon the unregulated film industry was in the hands of producers chasing the quick buck. The richness that had been synonymous with the great visionaries of past Vietnamese film eras was kept alive through such independent works as Hà Nội trong mắt ai? (Hanoi Through Whose Eyes?, 1983); Thuong nho dong que (Nostalgia for The Countryside, 1984); Anh và em (Siblings, 1986); Chuyện tử tế (Story of Good Behavior, 1987); Gánh Xiếc Rong (The Travelling Circus, 1988; pictured, above); and, Canh bac (The Gamble, 1991), though clogged distribution channels meant these films were often not heralded until years after they were made.
The Vietnamese film industry turned around overnight with the release of Tran Anh Hung’s The Scent of the Green Papaya in 1993. The film would win two awards at the Cannes Film Festival, including the Camera d’Or, trophies from the British Film Institute and the French Film Academy and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Tran’s follow-up film, Cyclo (1995), would win the highest accolade at the Venice Film Festival and his subsequent works – Mùa hè chiều thẳng đứng (The Vertical Ray of the Sun, 2000) and I Come With The Rain (2009, starring Hollywood import Josh Hartnett) – would be globally acclaimed.
Tran’s presence in the marketplace opened the films of Vietnam to a wider audience and inspired his countrymen. Soon, such notable works as Regis Wargnier’s Indochine (1992) and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Lover (1993), two high-profile international productions, as well as Tony Bui’s Ba mùa (Three Seasons, 1998, with Harvey Keitel), Lê Hoàng’s Gai nhay (Bar Girls, 2002) and its sequel Lọ lem hè phố (Street Cinderella, 2004), Nguyễn Võ Nghiêm Minh’s Mùa len trâu (The Buffalo Boy, 2003), Phi Tiến Sơn’s Lưới trời (Heaven’s Net, 2005), Quang Hai Ngo’s Chuyen cua Pao (Pao’s Story, 2006) and Ham Tran’s Vượt Sóng (Journey From The Fall, 2007) were impacting festival programmes and arthouse cinemas worldwide. A horror film (a genre frowned upon by censors) finally made its way to local screens in the shape of Kim Tae-Kyeong’s Muoi The Legend of the Portrait (2007), the first film to bear a under-16 censorship tag; documentaries have found favour again, particularly Nguyen Trinh Thi’s gay-themed Love Man Love Woman (2008) and Doan Hoang’s Oh Saigon (2008).
The debate over censorship and the influential role of the Vietnam Film Department flared in 2013, when the Nguyen Brothers film Bui doi Cho Lon faced a ban for content deemed violent and anti-social. The banning raised deep concerns amongst the industry that the governing body was becoming too strict in its enforcement of ageing standards, especially when anachronistic actioners like Lady Assassins 3D (2013), Quang Dung Nguyen’s Shaw-inspired Ninja-babe romp, were getting greenlit and heavily promoted.
That same year, the Vietnam Department of Cinema announced with much fanfare that an injection of US$309million would kickstart a resurgence in Vietnamese production and exhibition. The aim was to ensure the region’s film output and cinema attendence would be the number one per capita earner in South-East Asian territories by 2020. However, as of 2016, it is Korean interests CJ CGV Cinemas and Lotte Theatres that have secured control of 70% of the multiplex market, while the planned investment in regional cinema venues (predominantly owned and operators by local entrepreneurs) has slowed. Piracy remains a major concern, with stalls often spruiking DVD knock-offs of current release titles on the same street as theatrical houses.
Despite these obstacles, both the commercial film sector and independent arthouse producers are surviving in the modern Vietnamese film landscape. Broad entertainment such as the period action epic Lua Phat (Once Upon a Time in Vietnam, 2013), the body-swap comedy Em là bà nội của anh (You Are my Grandmother, 2015), the raucous farce Battle of The Brides (2011) and its sequel (2014) and the horror/romance hybrid The Housemaid: Co Hau Gai (2016) open to receptive local crowds, while more personal, indie-sector works such as the rural drama Tôi thay hoa vàng trên co xanh (Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass, 2015, and Vietnam’s official foreign language Oscar entry in 2016), the transgender documentary Finding Phong (2015), Dap Canh Giua Khong Trung (Flapping from the Middle of Nowhere, 2014) and the wartime melodrama Nha tien tri (The Prophecy, 2015), buoy the sector, which maintains an enviable presence in the face of the western sector imports.
The Hanoi International Film Festival – Hanoi, Vietnam; November.
The 4th edition of the northern city’s premiere film event begins November 1, under the guidance of the Cinema Department of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. To honour the theme of ‘Cinema, Integration and Sustainable Development’, the event will screen 12 features from 11 countries, as well as provide a sidebar focus on Indian Cinema.
Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST)
147 Hoàng Hoa Thám,
Quận Ba Đình, Hà Nội.
Tel: (+84) 4 845 2402
Fax: (+84) 4 823 4997
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