Vietnamese films, recovering from a discouraging year for commercial blockbusters in 2013, are finding progress with small successes in experimental art house cinema. By Ruben Luong. 

Out of eight foreign debut features nominated at the Cannes International Film Festival this year, it was a 99-minute Vietnamese film, directed by a young female Vietnamese director, that claimed the International Critics Week prize for Best Film.

Nguyen Hoang Diep’s Dap Canh Giua Khong Trung (Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere) – a drama revolving around a Vietnamese teenager who needs cash for an abortion in Hanoi – was “poised in its mise-en-scene, poetic in employing visual panache and precise in capturing details which hint at the harsh realities of inner-city life”, as The Hollywood Reporter described it. The film headed to Hollywood’s AFI Fest last month, not only turning eyes towards Vietnamese cinema but repositioning it largely within an art house context.

Along with Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere, a small but promising collection of Vietnamese movies this year proves the local film industry is maturing at a grassroots level. More local and overseas directors or producers are willing to take risks – whether for international or domestic audiences – and invest in experimental dramas in lieu of mainstream slapstick comedies and horror films that currently dominate the Vietnamese market.

“Vietnamese cinema is still in its infancy,” says Irene Trinh, feature film producer and production manager at The Creatv Company, a 20-year-old private production studio based in Ho Chi Minh City. “It is just starting to take baby steps. Directors are exploring different genres. Of course, the market is still flooded with comedies, but recent films like Huong Ga (Rise), Am Muu Giay Got Nhon, Hiep Sy Muu, Doat Hon, Qua Tim Mau, Hot Boy Noi Loan, Sai Gon Nhat Thuc, they are all pushing filmmaking boundaries in Vietnam. This is where we need to get to if we are going to continuously grow and prosper as an industry.”

In fact, Vietnam’s Department of Cinema announced at a conference last year that it wants to top Southeast Asia’s film industry by 2020, despite skepticism from directors, producers and screenwriters who noted that, at the time, there were no works screening in international events, the local market was dominated by foreign films and local films were not being exported overseas, according to Twitchfilm.com.

“For an industry to continuously improve and grow, it needs to have balance,” says Trinh. “It needs big-budgeted films and indie productions mixing and gelling. It needs experienced crews. It needs strong financial backing. It needs the support of the audience. And that is why at Creatv we are looking at ways to create a film fund. A fund that will enable filmmakers to tell their stories, a fund that will allow veterans and newcomers alike to bring their stories to the big screen.”

For an industry to continuously improve and grow, it needs to have balance. It needs big-budgeted films and indie productions mixing and gelling.

— Irene Trinh,
The Creatv Company

Since last year, private studios have been proving skeptics wrong, as directors are not only finding funds but also enough support to facilitate the exposure of fresh and unconventional content. In October, a Vietnamese film that concerns a love triangle between a thief, a young man and a nurse was the first to feature bisexuality in Vietnam. The film, Lac Gioi (Paradise in Heart), was directed by Phi Tien Song, who hoped the film would shed new light on the LGBT community.

Looking to the future, BHD Co Ltd, one of the first private Vietnamese production and distribution companies, will release Farewell the Berlin Wall, a period crime drama told from a female perspective. It is expected to be released on 5 March.

“That’s only a week after the Lunar New Year holiday, when normally romances and action films dominate in Vietnam, so this is a deliberate break with genre programming tradition,” Nguyen Bao Mai, sales and acquisitions manager at Vietnam Media Corp, which backs BHD, told Variety in October.

Farewell should initiate an auspicious start to the Lunar New Year, continuing a streak of appeal for Vietnamese art house film that directly contrasts with 2013, when many Vietnamese blockbusters suffered disappointment.

Dustin Nguyen’s VND 30 billion martial arts endeavour, Lua Phat, for instance, set high expectations with an ambitious promotional campaign but grossed USD $3-4 million locally, a third of the production cost, according to Tuoi Tre.

More memorable was Charlie Nguyen’s VND 16 billion gangster flick Bui Doi Cho Lon (Gangsters of Chinatown) that starred his brother, stuntman Johnny Tri Nguyen. It also garnered anticipation but was banned from theaters for its violence.

After its ban, the Nguyen brothers redeemed themselves with a roadtrip comedy, Teo Em, which became the highest-grossing local movie of 2013 with USD $3.2 million, yet again proving that comedies have a better return in Vietnam.

That doesn’t mean artistic films won’t continue to have a place. While local comedies remain failproof at home, artistic films represent Vietnamese cinema intellectually abroad. “We want the world to know that Vietnam is on the international stage,” says Trinh. “You can make it happen in Vietnam. And we want Vietnamese audiences to be proud of the work of our talented local directors, too.”

Tides do seem to be turning in favour of them, and while there is an international outlet for experimental filmmaking, as well as an improving attitude here towards art house cinema as a worthwhile venture, the challenges for filmmakers in the country remain the same – particularly under the Law of Cinema.

“We need to submit our scripts, we need to shoot the script we submit and show the film we said we would shoot. If we give scripts we’re not shooting – if we revise – we will not be able to screen,” says Othello Khanh, Creatv’s managing director.

Vietnam’s first debut feature to appear at Cannes, Bi, Dung So (Bi, Don’t Be Afraid, 2011), had to sacrifice five minutes of scenes from the original script at the inaugural Hanoi International Film Fest (HANIFF) in 2012 due to sexual content. Its director, Phan Dang Di, was disappointed it didn’t have the same impact domestically as it had internationally.

Fortunately, the current landscape is more optimistic than not. Last month, 18 Vietnamese movies competed at the third HANIFF. And whereas in 2005, three or four Vietnamese films might have screened in a year throughout the entire country, now there are upwards of 20. Couple this growth with the proliferation of new theatres attracting younger audiences and the result is a new generation of experimental filmmakers emerging behind the scenes through HANIFF’s Campus program, which invites talented Vietnamese filmmakers to learn from panelists of film insiders.

“It shows that the government is finally recognising that investing in young filmmakers is the only way Vietnamese cinema will grow and develop like they want it. That’s encouraging,” Di told The Hollywood Reporter in 2012.

The rest lies in their debut. “The most important thing for local filmmakers is that the Vietnamese audience always wants to watch domestic Vietnamese films. Anytime Vietnamese filmmakers can make a good-quality commercial film, the audience is very willing and eager to watch it,” Di added. “They love Hollywood films, too, but they want to see Vietnam and Vietnamese stories. So we have challenges, but a big opportunity is there.”