VIETNAMESE FILM INDUSTRY

VIETNAMESE FILM INDUSTRY

Ben Stocking of Associated Press wrote: "Pirated copies of Hollywood films are widely available in Vietnam for just more than a dollar apiece, and U.S. films are frequently shown on the country's state-run television networks. Vietnam's film industry is changing quickly, from an old state-run studio system into a more modern industry that began allowing private companies to make movies in 2003. The Ministry of Culture and Information still reviews all scripts before production can begin. But the subject matter is moving more frequently beyond the familiar tales of heroic Vietnamese soldiers and other nationalistic themes into racier, more commercial fare." [Source: Ben Stocking, Associated Press, May 4, 2007]

On the state of Vietnam’s film industry in the mid 2000s, Tran Luân Kim, a Representative and Chairman of the Vietnamese Cinema Association told the newspaper Lao Ðang (Labor): "In 2006, several difficulties were basically solved. For example, some production companies upgraded their equipment; government production investment, which is about 15 billion dong, was stable; international collaboration expanded; and several Vietnamese films participated in international film festivals. However, we are still facing many challenges. First, Vietnamese cinema is moving ahead at too slow a pace to suit the ravenous demand of cinema goers. Second, we need many more people working in the cinema industry than we have now. Third, there is no change in management and operation at government production companies. These companies are still trying to unknot a mess of advantages and difficulties woven together. Meanwhile, many private production companies have found their own way to develop. For instance, they make movies suitable to the needs and tastes of movie watchers, most of which are young people, as well as collaborate with foreign partners.[Source: Lao Ðong, December 22, 2006 \~\]

"We have 42 private production companies in Vietnam, more than 30 of which are in Ho Chi Minh City. Not all of these companies are currently operating, which is normal. It’s similar to the fact that only a few of the thousands of businesses out there are working well. Since we started to improve the industry, the Vietnamese Cinema Association has always seen private production companies as the key forces, especially in the future. The association will work with responsible authorities to propose plans to support these private production companies. These plans will be part of the overall effort to improve Vietnamese cinema. The important thing is to provide the film industry, not just each production company, with more professionals. The first step toward this goal is to improve training quality at the two universities of cinema and theater in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. \~\

"In 2007, Vietnamese cinema will undergo no great transformation or change. It is simply because our management and human resources are still the same. However, there may be two new trends: in 2007, some government production companies will go partly private; and there will be more partnerships with foreign companies, especially with Korea and China. In my opinion, if we want to improve quickly in order to join in the international film market, we should work with Americans. We now have favorable conditions for partnerships with Americans: We are more open-minded, the Americans are starting to understand us and to realise Vietnam is a rich source of inspiration and stories for their movies. In short, we don’t need to be pessimistic. Yet, there is nothing to make us optimistic yet. \~\

State-run Giai Phong (Liberation) film studio is Vietnam’s largets film producing body.

Censorship and State Control in the Vietnamese Film Industry

Tran Dinh Thanh Lam of Inter Press Service wrote: "In Vietnam, a few state companies are allocated funds to produce films to be shown in state-owned cinemas. Film scripts must be vetted and approved by the ministry's Department of Cinematography before the cameras begin rolling. With socialist Vietnam treating film as a medium best employed to educate the masses, its control of the industry has been heavy- handed and predictably dull, its output being overly serious films that held little appeal for young audiences whose tastes changed as the pace of Vietnam's doi moi, or economic reform, grew. [Source: Tran Dinh Thanh Lam, Inter Press Service, April 26, 2003 \*\]

Director Le "Hoang explained the approach under such a statist system. "Filmmakers usually choose scripts treating 'traditional subjects' - war memories and socialism building - because it is the safest way to win state approval and funding," he said, and added that he wanted to "make something more enjoyable that people are interested in". His opportunity came with the advent of the new thinking at the ministry. \*\

On how Vietnam and the Vietnam film industry deal with the Vietnam War, Ben Stocking and Bruce Newman wrote in the Mercury News: "Even though Vietnam has opened up in recent years, authorities here routinely punish artists and intellectuals whose works are not officially approved. "Opening up is an evolutionary process,'' said Henry Nguyen Huu Liem, a professor of philosophy at San Jose City College, "and unfortunately there are still some corners of government that have not yet seen the light. This is still a very raw emotional issue in Vietnam. People get very upset when they hear the war mentioned in a way they don't agree with, so there's a tremendous amount of political correctness surrounding any portrayal of Vietnam's role in the war.'' [Source: Ben Stocking and Bruce Newman, Mercury News, October 29, 2002]

Reforming the Vietnamese Film Industry

Tran Dinh Thanh Lam of Inter Press Service wrote: "At the end of 2002, the ministry unveiled a new policy that abolished the pre-filming censorship of scripts and permits the establishment of private film studios. The aim, said the ministry, is to encourage competition, initiative and investment to revitalize Vietnam's film industry. "The new policy will have a great impact on the industry," said Nguyen Phuc Thanh, director of the ministry's Department of Cinematography. "From now on, private producers can decide the stories they want and the script. We aim to provide better conditions for young filmmakers to produce quality movies to satisfy young fans." [Source: Tran Dinh Thanh Lam, Inter Press Service, April 26, 2003 \*\]

"The 2003 film "Bar Girls" was early vindication of the new approach, and has proved that an unconventional story can be successful both cinematographically and financially. Having cost $78,000 to make, it has already grossed several times that. "The success of Bar Girls means that despite limited state funds, filmmakers can turn out movies that respond to the need of the public," said young cameraman Vuong Tuan, refuting the hackneyed argument advanced by many producers that limited resources do not make for interesting movies. Private filmmakers in Vietnam have in fact produced films with their own funds, but only under the license of state-run film companies. These are usually video films with uncomplicated and light storylines - a love affair or saucy domestic scandal. Derogatorily called "instant noodles" by the "serious" filmmaking set, these films recover costs quickly and then profit. \*\

On the state of Vietnam’s film industry in the mid 2000s, Tran Luân Kim, a Representative and Chairman of the Vietnamese Cinema Association told the newspaper Lao Ðang (Labor): ""When I worked with the head of the Ministry of Culture and Information, Mr. Lê Doãn Hop, in November, I proposed that Vietnam should send a team of 300 people abroad to learn how to make movies. With this plan, perhaps in 5 to 7 years, we will have completely new professionals. Private production companies will certainly hire foreigners, which is acceptable. Yet, I think the outsourcing shouldn’t go too far. After watching many foreign films during recent international film festivals in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the most recent of which was the Korean Movie Week in Vietnam (12/08-12/17), many audiences asked, "Why can’t Vietnamese producers make movies at reasonable costs and with subject matter close to everyday life?" We all know these limits in Vietnamese films, of course. One answer is simply the lack of talents. Another answer is taste. If producers are bent on making movies which can show some individual greatness and are totally disconnected from simple, down-to-earth everyday life, then perhaps they are laboring under a misapprehension about taste because it won’t bring them audiences. [Source: Lao Ðong, December 22, 2006 \~\]

Problems Facing the Vietnamese Film Industry

On problems facing the Vietnamese film industry, Wanphen Sreshthaputra wrote in The Bangkok Post, "Since 1990, less and less people go to the cinema. Some figures state a fall as dramatic as 80 percent, and the market is flooded with pirated video tapes (mostly smuggled from Thailand, or so many people said). Television screens are filled with cheap, instant-noodle-like serials. A young seller of roasted-corn on Hong Bai road, for example, whose daily income never exceeds 7,000 VND (19 baht) says she has never stepped inside a movie theater-and probably never will-because of the high price of tickets. A ticket-seller at a theater said, "People here don't come to movie theaters to see Vietnamese productions. For that, they'd rather stay home." [Source: Wanphen Sreshthaputra, The Bangkok Post, February 26, 2000 *\*]

"The Vietnamese movie industry is going through some hard times, and there are many reasons for it. When the Socialist Republic of Vietnam opted for the politics of doi moi, literally "change for the new" in 1986, the cinema moved from an entirely subsidised industry to an entertainment activity in a free market economy. It became more exposed to outside influences within Vietnamese society-and people's tastes and demands change fast. The cinema, which was officially created in 1953 by President Ho Chi Minh as part of the Ministry of Propaganda, has been forced to find new legitimacy for itself and regain its initial, clearly-defined role. "At present, the Vietnamese movie industry has to learn how to rely on itself, in an open market economy. It has to build its own means of survival, without entirely depending on the state's grants," explains Tran The Dan, deputy general director of the Vietnam Cinema Department of the Ministry of Culture and Information. "It is not a tool of propaganda anymore, but simply a means of entertainment. Yet, Vietnamese movies have to try and preserve Vietnam's cultural identity, its moral, familial and traditional values. Mostly backed with government money, it is normal that it serves the society's general interests."Without the government subsidies (which count for more than 70 percent of a production budget), the Vietnamese cinema would have been dead and gone long ago. *\*

"Ms Nguyen Thi Hong Ngat, general director of Vietnam Feature Film Co, the main studio in Hanoi's suburbs, says, "We are working hard trying to produce good quality films. We are not dead for sure, but in very bad health. Everything is lacking, from money to proper equipment and interesting story ideas." The lack of good stories to be transferred to the screen, within the constraints of a reasonable budget, is indeed sorely felt. "The cruel lack of story scenarios is surely one of the main problems which weighs down the sector. I have read a few good stories but it would cost a fortune to transfer them to the screen," comments famous actor Nguyen Ha Phong, who has worked as director assistant on many full-length films. Vietnam lists some 300 film directors throughout the country, mostly graduates from the unique School of Cinema in Hanoi. Employed as government officials, most prefer to work as free-lancers for television, which brings in a fast and more substantial income. *\*

"Television broadcasts around five serials a day, for free, as opposed to the 30,000 VND (80 baht) that must be paid for a movie ticket. It's a great force against which the defenseless cinema cannot fight. In the past few years, many cinema managers have had to go out of business or, if lucky, transform their movie theater into a disco, supermarket or petrol station. "Knowing that the television remains the main source of information (for 70 percent of Vietnamese people), we have to grant it the main part of our budget," explains Tran The Dan, from the Ministry of Culture, taking a sip of bitter green tea. *\*

"That means the movie industry has to make do with 10 percent of the ministry's budget, while the television delights in around 60 percent. Thus in 1999, 10 billion VND (26.6 million baht) was spent on 10 Vietnamese productions. That means the budget of one film reaches its ceiling at 1 billion VND (2.6 million baht). In comparison, Titanic, one of the most expensive movies of all time, surfed on a budget of around $220 million (8.3 billion baht). The number of movies for the big screen has dropped greatly: whereas 30 films were produced in 1980, there were only 10 in 1990. Weedy-looking, the young Vietnamese movie industry also seems lacking in inspiration, tortured by its past. "Our history is punctuated by wars. We have endured nearly 100 years of wars. Heavy losses are haunting the survivors," comments Nguyen Thi Hong Ngat. "We have a quota of five movies a year. I do my best in order to diversify the topics. Obviously, it would be good to have more entertaining topics, on everyday life and on the present-day society," she acknowledged. Despite this black picture of the movie industry, there are still some glimmers of hope. Most people working in this field predict that by the year 2005, the Vietnamese cinema will be back on its feet. *\*

Hollywood, Bollywood and Filmmaking in Vietnam

Reporting from Hanoi, Ben Stocking of Associated Press wrote: " Vietnam's small but fast-growing film industry got a dose of Hollywood this week as a delegation of film professionals arrived to participate in the country's first American Film Week. The writers, directors, producers and cinematographers are all members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that presents the Oscars. They were invited by the Vietnam Cinema Department, part of Vietnam's one-party Communist government, which has been easing its control over the content of local films and allowing the development of privately produced movies. [Source: Ben Stocking, Associated Press, May 4, 2007 \\//]

"This is a very good opportunity for us to strengthen cooperation with the American film industry," said Do Duy Anh, head of the department's international-relations division. "We will explore whether we can cooperate in filmmaking and distribution." The Americans, who arrived Wednesday, will try to nurture aspiring filmmakers by sharing their expertise at a series of seminars and film screenings in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's southern business hub and the center of its entertainment industry. Among them, the visitors have 14 Oscar nominations and two Oscars. They include Susannah Grant, writer and director of Erin Brockovich; Curtis Hanson, writer, director and producer of L.A. Confidential; William Horberg, producer of The Quiet American; Tom Pollock, executive producer of Field of Dreams; Phil Robinson, writer and director of Field of Dreams; Freida Lee Mock, who made the documentary Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner, and Emmanuel Lubezki, cinematographer of Children of Men. \\//

Around the same time the India Times reported: "Vietnam has decided to beckon Bollywood and Indian tourists, determined to give neighbouring Thailand and Malaysia a run for their money. Vietnam Tourism officials at this beautiful sea resort told the media that plans are afoot to set up a representative office in India and launch road shows to attract top-end Indian tourists. They said Bollywood filmmakers could get incentives in shooting in Vietnam which provides a variety of locales ranging from hills in the north and central highlands to sea beaches in the southern part of the country. Vietnam's low-cost skilled and unskilled workforce can help Bollywood film producers with support staff, they said. [Source: The Economic Times, India Times, July 2, 2007 *~*]

"What is more important, however, that Bollywood films can find a market in Vietnam with the people developing a liking for their "beautiful" dance sequences and happy ending", said the officials. "While Indian movies used to be screened in Vietnam in the 1970s, the flow has now virtually stopped even in video circuit," they added and pointed out that it is in this area that Indian films can do good business in this country. "After all, cultural exchange precedes economic relationship and investment", they said. The initiative to woo Bollywood is part of Vietnam government's plans to increase flow of inbound international tourists. *~*

Vietnam Students Push Film Limits

In 2007, the BBC reported: "A group of students in Vietnam are pushing the boundaries of movie-making in the country with a film they put together on a shoe-string. Around 20 students from Saigon used their own hand-held cameras and computers to shoot and produce a love story called Little Bubu. The film's true-to-life scenes are unusual in a country where movies are still subject to government controls. Little Bubu proved a hit when screened to other students at Saigon University. More than 600 people turned out to see it. The film was the brainchild of students in the foreign languages department of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities at Saigon. "Our aim was to have some fun and put together something by which we could remember our time at university," one of the students involved, Tran Hung, said. [Source: BBC News - January 11, 2007 ==]

"Little Bubu, or Chuyen La in Vietnamese, centers on Huy and his three encounters with a female criminal called Van - by the end of which they have fallen in love and she has promised to change her ways. With very little money - the whole project came to around $300 (£150) - the students made do with three camcorders, a microphone and home computers. Shooting took place over three months and the editing involved an intensive four weeks. A key reason for the film's success, says Hung, is the publicity drive behind it, which included creating a state-of-the-art website with links to international information sharing sites such as MySpace. "We know that some students have made films before, but I think the difference for us is that there was so much marketing," he said. Movies in Vietnam must be vetted by censors, but Little Bubu was given the go ahead because it is a student rather than a commercial venture. Hung believes this is the start of things to come. ==

Blast in Vietnam Film Effects Warehouse Kills 10

In February 2013, "Twin blasts at a warehouse owned by a cinema special effects expert killed 10 people and reduced three homes to burning rubble in Vietnam's biggest city, state media reported on Sunday. Teams of firefighters worked through the early hours after the overnight explosions and found three survivors among the bodies buried beneath what was left of the houses in southern Ho Chi Minh City, the Tuoi Tre newspaper said. Among the dead was Le Minh Phuong, 58, who worked in pyrotechnics for local films and stored explosives in his home, which doubled as a warehouse, Tuoi Tre said, citing preliminary police investigations. [Source: Reuters, February 24, 2013]

Six members of Phuong's family, including his six-year-old daughter, were also killed. Police said they believed the explosions were triggered by accident. Local residents fled after the blasts shook homes located within a 500-metre radius, according to the news website VNExpress.

Animation Film Set in Africa, Conceived in France, Made in Vietnam

Vietnam is trying to establish itself as a source of animation work for foreign companies. In 2005, AFP reported from Ho Chi Minh City: "Amply endowed semi-naked women and a tiny hero with a prominent belly, arched shoulders and huge round eyes may not be the sort of figures everyone associates with Vietnam. But a group of artists in this southern Vietnamese business hub has helped create just such characters for a full length animation film that is opening in 50 countries. "Kirikou and the Savage Beasts" is set in Africa, was conceived in the French western city of Angouleme, noted for its annual International Comics Festival, and has been brought to life by Vietnamese animators. The animation film was finished in July after a year's exhaustive work, with dozens of Vietnamese artists drawing and crayoning each little move on a separate sheet. [Source: Agence France Presse - December 4, 2005 /|\]

"At first we found the physical features of these characters to be strange, but later we began to detect magnificent grace in them," says Nguyen Thanh Liem, chief artist at the French-funded Armada TMT studio in Ho Chi Minh City. "Giving life to Kirikou turned out to be a real adventure for the 50 odd employees who worked on the project," says Armada's general manager, Christine Gamonal. Her studio had previously worked only on animated television shorts and a movie short, one of the few companies working in the communist country's fledgling animation industry. /|\

Even with a $6 million budget "it would have been impossible to make it in France", says Olivier Reynal, animation supervisor at Les Armateurs production company in Vietnam, which worked on the film. Armada TMT in Ho Chi Minh City won against competition from many other studios because of its reputation from having done a short animation feature in 2003, called "Loulou", the number of artists in its stable and its price, which has not been disclosed. "Think about it: The French asked the Vietnamese to draw Africa, a continent about which each person had a different perception," Reynal says.

Acclaimed Vietnamese cartoons have included ‘The Red Umbrella’ and ‘Bicycle’ by Phuong Hoa, ‘The Call of the Sky’ by Minh Tri, ‘The Story of the House on Stilt’ by Ha Bac, and ‘The Story of Mid-Autumn Festival Lamp Procession’ by Nhan Lap. [Source: Phan Thanh Phong, Nhân Dân, December 31, 2001]

Work at a Vietnamese Animation Company

AFP reported: "Some artists at Armada are products of Ho Chi Minh City's Fine Arts Institute and are in their 30s. Others just showed talent in drawing and learned the job while working. Clutching crayons in one hand and a cup of iced coffee or a water bottle in the other, they calmly stare at transparent sheets placed on a round well-lit table. They rapidly flip the sheets to make sure there is a smooth flow of movement. Later, other technicians scan each sheet separately on to digital, to eventually make one continuous film narrative. [Source: Agence France Presse - December 4, 2005 /|\]

"The company they work for, Armada, sprang from an initiative of a group of French artists who created a structure linking an animation film studio and a school. After some twists and turns, it has evolved into a firm of about 150 employees. Liem says the Kirikou project was a mammoth ordeal. "It was our first full-length work and we had never faced such a huge challenge in drawing. (Our problems) went to such an extent as to require discussions on the thickness of a crayon mark denoting the pupil of an eye," Liem says. Not only were the artists tested by the length, but also by having to recreate Africa, having had little exposure to the continent and being almost ignorant of animals such as hyenas and ostriches. "We therefore looked at television documentaries and books on the culture and the fauna of Africa," says Huynh Cong Van, a senior artist. /|\

Although the broad brushstrokes of the people in the story as well the whole script were sent from Angouleme, according to Reynal, Kirikou has acquired "a little Vietnamese touch as things went along, like in the way he arches his shoulders or moves his head when he looks at a butterfly." Ly Thi Thu Thuy, a translator at Armada recalls for her part: "When some ideas were too subtle to be expressed in words, people took recourse to drawing them to be better understood." And some used their own bodies and voices to make their point. /|\

"Sometimes, the French supervisors even got down to imitating animals to explain things," says Van. "At first we thought they were crazy." After the "Kirikou" project, the company is now taking stock of its talents and resources for getting other big assignments, including an American project. While some artists use up well-earned holidays, others are taking refresher courses and upgrading skills. "Some artists got so immersed in it that their view of the profession has changed, they want to take on more full-length works," says co-director Galup. For Armada's Gamonal, there is no doubting the sea change "Kirikou" wrought in the company's prospects. "Kirikou and the Savage Beasts should allow our studio to join the ranks of the big ones," she says. /|\

Models Become Actresses in Vietnam

In 2008 Viet Nam News reported: "As the Vietnamese film industry grows, many state and private film studios find they are lacking actors and actresses. Tapping into the modelling industry to fulfil this need is a win-win situation; film studios get young attractive actors and models are given an opportunity to increase their income and fame. A film featuring model-actors, Co Gai Xau Xi (Ugly Girl), is now airing on prime time. Director Nguyen Minh Chung has chosen many models for his films, such as Phi Thanh Van, Ly Anh Tuan, Trinh Kim Chi and Binh Minh. "Audiences now are fond of good-looking actors and actresses," says Chung, "models meet the demand, moreover, they have experience acting in front of the camera." "That’s the very reason why I and other directors tend to choose models as actors," he says. [Source: Viet Nam News, September 23, 2008 ||||]

"Many models become even more famous thanks to their roles on the silver screen. Model Truong Ngoc Anh is a prime example, now, she’s known as a famous actress, though she began her career on the fashion stage.Other models have also attracted a following in the acting world: Ngo Thanh Van with her role in Dong Mau Anh Hung (The Rebel), Thanh Hang in Nu Hon Than Chet (The Ghost’s Kiss) and Anh Thu in Tuyet Nhiet Doi (Tropical Snow). ||||

"In order to be in the film, The Rebel, Van had to study martial arts for two months. "My role in this film is Thuy who is good at martial arts. That’s the reason why I refused many fashion shows and music performance to practice acting," Van says. Not every model can act, so they have to audition for the directors. Almost all models have a few supporting roles before they’re given starring roles. Anh Thu had a small role in only one film before she was given a major part in her next films. "At the beginning, acting was an opportunity for me to try my talent. I didn’t really adore it," says Thu, "when I won a prize for my role in Tuyet Nhiet Doi, I was confident that I can act well." |||

"Many models appear with an introduction as model-actress-singer, which doesn’t surprise their audience. Ngo Thanh Van and Ho Ngoc Ha are two models who have successful singing careers. Now, Phi Thanh Van will try her luck on the musical stage. "Acting brings good income for models but it’s quite hard, while becoming a singer is cushy and the pay is attractive," she says. The models must have a good voice and unique style if they want to promote their career in singing. ||||

"The life-span of modelling careers isn’t long. When models hit middle age they no longer get the same offers, so many try to expand their career while they are still on top. "If models just want enough food, income from the catwalk is enough for them but if they want to be wealthy, they should make a career in business," says supermodel Vu Thu Phuong, who owns four fashion shops. Anh Thu and Xuan Lan have made successful businesses with companies that train young models. Breaking into television advertising is the career choice of many models because the work is not as strenuous as acting. These models aren’t just fashion mannequins, but multifaceted performers willing to answer the door when opportunity comes knocking. ||||

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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