Simon Stanley looks at Vietnam’s cinema industry and how Hollywood blockbusters are being received by local audiences. Photo by Jonny Edbrooke.

In February 2015, the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey was released in movie theatres across Vietnam after exceptional audience demand. But it was a commercial failure. Despite the hype and excitement, a last minute cut by the censors left the film 20 minutes shorter than the original and void of the very thing everyone had paid to see. (I’ll assume you know what I’m talking about).

“Even the Trailer Was Sexier…”
As well as frustrated, audiences were left puzzled, as a vital scene towards the end of the film was also omitted, throwing viewers straight to the final moments with no idea what was happening.

“It’s totally ridiculous,” one audience member told the UK’s Independent at the time. “This version is rated 16+, but it doesn’t need an age restriction; a five-year-old could watch it. Even the trailer was sexier. They’d have been better banning it altogether.”

Despite the criticism, the film’s release was seen as an indication of a shift in attitudes towards sex and sexuality in Vietnam. The 2016 release of Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl – a biographical drama inspired by Danish painter Lili Elbe, the first known recipient of sex change surgery – went a long way to normalising the otherwise taboo topic of transgenderism. According to Doan Do Thuy An, PR executive at CGV, one of Vietnam’s largest cinema chains with 32 branches encompassing 210 screens across the country, the film became the most successful foreign drama ever released here. “All of the audiences here deeply sympathised with the main character of the film,” she says.

Even so, The Danish Girl made just US$298,000 at the Vietnamese box-office. It may have seemed like a strange choice from a business perspective, to release such a film in a nation where action-packed blockbusters such as Jurassic World (2015) and the Avenger series consistently dominate the charts. The Vietnamese release of 2015’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth may also have left some scratching their heads as to its commercial potential. But as An explains, sometim es it’s not all about making money: “Shakespeare is very famous in Vietnam and this film was not only nominated, but also won a lot of awards. At CGV we not only focus on [releasing] good quality titles, we also want to lead young audiences to art-house movies [like Macbeth]. We would like to diversify the genres and help audiences choose their own movies.”

For those who did see Macbeth in Vietnam, the sight of Vietnamese audience members quietly slipping out of the movie theatre midway through was a common one. Whether they were reading the subtitles or not, imagine translating 17th-century English into 21st-century Vietnamese and you can understand why many chose to duck out early.

“We have a very professional and skilful team to do the translations,” says An. “Yes, Macbeth was one of the more challenging projects, but we did it well. Of course, everything has to get the approval from studios, so with just a few cases, some customers were not satisfied and left the cinema unhappy.”

Cultural Differences
Lost in translation: it’s a phrase that came up a lot when I probed an online expat group for their memorable movie-going experiences in Vietnam. On the subject of humour, one anonymous contributor suggested that (missed cultural references aside) physical, slapstick comedy is preferred by local audiences, which often leads to rather unexpected audience reactions: “It seems that in Vietnam comedy is often portrayed in a face, if that makes sense. So in a scene where someone is breaking down and all the emotion is coming out through their expression, it seems to sometimes be understood as something to laugh at. I remember watching Les Miserables (2012) here, and when Gavorche dies on the barricade, almost the whole cinema was rolling around laughing.”

Michael Tatarski, a 28-year-old American living in Saigon, recalls a similar experience when watching 2012’s Skyfall: “In the pre-title scene, Bond gets shot and falls off a train into a river at the bottom of a canyon. A fellow MI6 agent radios ‘agent down’ to HQ. It’s a pretty serious moment, but the Vietnamese audience went crazy, laughing at whatever the subtitle was for that line. I had to laugh because there was such a disconnect between what had happened on-screen and the audience reaction.”

In comedy films like 2016’s Deadpool, those littered with Western pop cultural references and in-jokes, the opposite can happen, with a handful of foreigners left to bury their hysterics in their popcorn as the rest of the room sits in silence, or not….

Having to read your way through an entire film can be tiresome. It’s something that many foreigners forget when paying to see films with English audio and Vietnamese subtitles.

“During The Jungle Book (2016), people all around me wouldn’t shut the f*** up unless there was an action scene.” – Jesse Rebock, 30, USA.

It can be frustrating to have the conversations and Facebook browsing of your neighbours competing with your attention during a movie, but as film-fan Nguyen Dinh Thieu, 21, points out, the cinema, for many of Vietnam’s youth, is less about watching a film and more a chance to learn a bit of English, get away from the heat and hangout with friends. “And make out!” he adds.

Pure Luxury
“It’s natural that in line with [Vietnam’s] economic development, people’s demand for a quality environment for their cultural activities will increase,” says An. “So CGV is trying to cope with such positive demand of the market.”

Whether you choose the double booth-style ‘Sweetbox’ seats at the back of certain screens, or go all-out for the ‘Gold Class’ experience, with giant, leather, reclining armchairs, cutting-edge sound and screen technology, plus complimentary hot drinks, CGV is certainly proof of the industry’s potential here.

And it’s not just foreign films that Vietnamese audiences are eager to eat up as they relax in CGV’s decadent surroundings. Released in December of last year, director Phan Gia Nhat Linh’s Sweet 20—a remake of 2014’s Korean film Miss Granny—became the highest grossing local film of all time in February 2016, taking over $4.76 million.

CGV are watching the trends: “Vietnam can become one of the top five or six markets, in terms of admission, globally,” says An, “and accordingly, in the foreseeable future, Vietnam will be able to be positioned as one of the most important film markets in the film industry in the whole world.”

On Movie Censorship…
“Films have to satisfy the government’s censorship guidelines, which forbid political or superstitious elements or excessive sex, violence, or blood. It’s not only foreign films; local films have to be censored too. Almost all of the films that are banned in Vietnam are horror films. This is a favourite genre in Vietnam. The Human Centipede is an example of a film that would be banned in Vietnam. It is not beneficial to society. It is too violent.” – Doan Do Thuy An, CGV PR Executive.