Will Vietnam move past romance and comedy, to produce its own full-length science fiction film? That’s the hope behind Project:Sci-Fi, a film contest that held its first awards night last month. By Lien Hoang

Project-Sci-Fi-film-contestWhat will happen on the last day on earth? Few questions seem to arise in the realm of science fiction as often as this one. Apocalyptic nightmares usually bring in zombies, aliens, meteor crashes, or some other dramatic flourish.

But maybe the human race will cease quietly, instead, with people going about their daily routines, washing dishes, and chatting with one another.

At least, that’s what happens in A.I, a short film that was a surprise winner in last month’s awards for the first-ever Project: Sci-Fi amateur film contest in Vietnam. A.I draws from Ray Bradbury’s short story The Last Night of the World, in which an older couple discuss nonchalantly that they now know the end is near.

“Why is it tonight, and not some other night?” the wife calmly asks her husband in the film.

“Because tonight is not another night, why else!” he answers, as they both chuckle.

The casual absurdity is more reminiscent of existential literature, such as Waiting for Godot, than of the fantasy that typifies sci-fi. But such simple humour might have helped A.I win “Best Promo” and come in as second runner-up for “Best Film” at the awards ceremony.

The entry was among more than 60 films, shot mostly around Ho Chi Minh City, to participate in Project: Sci-Fi (another set of films centred on Hanoi, where a separate ceremony was held). Production companies HKFilm and Cloud 9 Production organised the competition to raise the profile of science fiction among Vietnamese filmmakers, who rarely dabble in it due to lack of funding and experience.

As a Cloud 9 producer Ross Stewart put it: “We are discovering that filmmakers are wanting to experiment more outside of the safe and financially proven romance and comedy genres.”

Project: Sci-Fi hosted more than 20 workshops to support budding filmmakers. Those who entered the contest had one month to complete their films, which were limited to 10 minutes. Entrants ran the gamut of skill levels and were both Vietnamese and foreigners, such as the mixed group behind The Last Generation, which cleaned up at the awards night in January. Out of 10 categories, the film took top prize in six, including best film, best director and best actor.

To close out the night, organisers screened The Last Generation, which tells the story of a lab-generated hitman who turns on his creator, before cloning his own team of mindless assassins. The cloning relies on Quentin Tarantino-style backdrops, while digital effects create a futuristic laboratory.

By contrast, all such special effects were entirely absent from the breakout short A.I. It began in black and white, turning to colour once the married couple kissed for the final time. Producer Chung Chi Cong was so surprised to place in the best film category that he ran up to the stage and danced when the award was announced.

“Our team, we didn’t learn about making movies in university, we studied economics,” he said afterward. “So the award tonight is a big encouragement.”

Nominees were introduced throughout the night against the soundtracks of popular sci-fi epics, such as E.T. and Back to the Future. While hosts spoke or artists performed, the screen behind them ran through what felt like the history of cinematic sci-fi, with clips from The Matrix, Akira, Invisible Man, Tron and others.

As for the films shot in Vietnam, they can be watched at Scifi.yan.vn and will delight viewers living in Ho Chi Minh City with scenes famous and familiar. Dead City, for instance, takes a young man and woman, dressed like Hunger Games characters, through post-apocalyptic ruins at the Opera House, Bitexco, the red bridge in District 7, and an eerie fairground. For a no-budget film, it offers impressive fight sequences and supernatural creature costumes, straddling dystopian and horror themes. Dead City, which sets a bleak tone with lighting and colouring, won the best actress award.

One of the judges to choose the winners was Andrew Cosby, a sci-fi film and TV producer in California. He sent a recorded greeting to the awards audience to announce the top film. “You guys did a tremendous job, and really captured the heart and pioneer spirit that’s at the centre of all good science fiction,” Cosby said.

Stewart, also behind the 48 Hour Film Project, told the audience he looked forward to seeing a full-length sci-fi feature come out of Vietnam soon.

“Before, not many were brave enough to make sci-fi in Vietnam,” he said at the awards. “The future of sci-fi is in your hands.”