Striking Home: Trends and Changes in Vietnamese Cinema

By Worthy, Kim | CineAction, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Striking Home: Trends and Changes in Vietnamese Cinema


Worthy, Kim, CineAction


Not bad for a cadre-dominated movie industry in which the People's Army runs the major studio and one of last year's acclaimed films is titled, Hai Binh Builds a Hydropower Plant. (1)

--TIME/Asia (Hanoi), commenting on Bar Girls (Gay Nhai), a 2003 state-produced Vietnamese film which generated $1 million in revenue.

TIME/Asia's quip, while true, is unfair. In recent years, Giaiphong Films (the People's studio) has also made movies that have received international praise, including Guava Season (Mua Oi, Dang Nhat Minh, 2001) and The Glorious Time in Me Thao (Me Thao--Thoi Vang Bong, Viet Linh, 2002). A rave review in Variety of the state-produced King of the Rubbish Dump (Vua Bai Rach, aka Foul King, which premiered out of competition at Palm Springs in 2003), compared the skills and humanity of longtime Vietnamese writer-director Do Minh Tuan to Kenji Mizoguchi. (2) Meanwhile, the second film produced by a private studio (the first was Bar Girls 2), Long-Legged Girls (Nhung Co Gai Chan Dai, 2004), about the fashion industry in Viet Nam, is also a blockbuster. All this, and the latter's very young director, Vu Ngoc Dang was in 1996 the first graduate of the film-director degree at Ho Chi Minh City College for Theatre and Cinema.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

While the young urban Vietnamese consider those productions which urge remembrance of past deprivations by older directors from the past two decades banal, trite, and boring, these films nevertheless interest foreigners and rural Vietnamese. (3) The newer films' recent commercialism may be seen as a pragmatic response to a new social system based on economic change, and may also be read as a discourse rebelling against political suffocation. But the earlier films say much about Viet Nam that speaks for the young too. They not only commemorate the suffering of war, but may be read as signifying the trauma of political and artistic self-censorship, and the yearning for expression of a suffocated national consciousness.

Senses of aesthetic value vary across the cinemas of whole cultures as well as from film to film. But cross-currents in Vietnamese film seem to reflect social and political disturbances within this particular society in this particular period, rather than the work of individual auteurs. Rey Chow, Chris Berry, and Susan Jeffords argue that scenes that are over-the-top may express an art of national trauma in various films, genres, and cinemas. (4) They cite the Tiananmen Square massacres in China and the dividedness that in the US resulted from the traumatic Vietnam war, as sources of compensatory hysteria in the cinemas of those nations. An equally fragmenting national shock is perceptible in Vietnamese films by both the older and the younger generation of directors. In Vietnam the hysterical cross-current may be attributable not simply to violence, as in the case of China and the US, but to the combination of unbelievable loss and the betrayal of ideals. Do Minh Tuan agrees that bizarre moments in Vietnamese film reflect severe and unbalancing disturbances: "We address the psychological suffering through our abnormalities." (5) Added to all of this, the "abnormalities" might signify the precarious and contradictory psychological position of Vietnamese directors themselves, as government officials who must enforce censorship of their own movies.

The most significant recent trauma for Viet Nam was three decades of war and its aftermath. The American war came not long after the defeat of the French and independence in 1945. It took two million lives, and another million as a result of injuries and aftereffects from unexploded bombs, landmines, and Agent Orange. After that war, border skirmishes with China and the invasion of Cambodia cost more lives and money. Since then radical tensions between populace and state created half a million Vietnamese refugees. Terrible poverty came as a result of war and the twenty-year trade embargo; in 1990 the poverty rate was greater than 60%. …

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