The Di­rec­tor’s Cut

Viet­nam’s film in­dus­try: past, present and fu­ture

Oi Vietnam - - Cover Story - Text by Wes Grover Images Pro­vided by Othello Khanh

IN OC­TO­BER OF 1995,

Othello Khanh landed in Saigon armed with a Hi8 cam­corder and Walk­man, a tri­pod, and a rev­o­lu­tion­ary at­ti­tude. Hav­ing just com­pleted a doc­u­men­tary about Mex­ico’s Za­p­atista Uprisng, which had him liv­ing there amongst the rebel forces, the young guerilla film­maker’s ar­rival in Viet­nam co­in­cided with the lift of the US Em­bargo, which ef­fec­tively marked a new be­gin­ning for Viet­namese cin­ema.

Over the past 22 years, he has played an in­te­gral role in the de­vel­op­ment of the lo­cal film in­dus­try, from pro­duc­ing a mere two films a year to over 50 films with more than 300 screens across the coun­try.

Much like the in­dus­try it­self, Othello’s means of pro­duc­tion have grown con­sid­er­ably and we re­cently met at his stu­dios in Binh Thanh District, where he stands as the founder of The CREATV Com­pany, to dis­cuss the emer­gence of Viet­namese cin­ema and the ob­sta­cles over­come along the way. As Viet­nam’s long­est es­tab­lished pri­vate pro­duc­tion com­pany, CREATV has pro­duced and directed award-win­ning films, as well as pro­vided con­sul­ta­tion ser­vices for Hol­ly­wood movies filmed in the coun­try, such as

Kong: Skull Is­land (2017) and The Last Air­ben­der (2010).

“Only Viet­namese sta­te­owned stu­dios had the rights to

pro­duc­tion at the time I ar­rived,” says Othello. “But as the coun­try was opening, the stu­dios needed for­eign ex­per­tise to op­er­ate their ser­vices, be­cause on one side there were for­eign pro­duc­tions com­ing to do projects in Viet­nam and on the other side, ad­ver­tis­ing agen­cies with ma­jor clients like Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Unilever all had to set up shop and needed ser­vices.”

Told that his skillset would most ben­e­fit the coun­try in ad­ver­tis­ing and commercial work at the out­set, it was at this point that he was in­tro­duced to the tech­ni­cal chal­lenges of early film­mak­ing in Viet­nam. “We would shoot com­mer­cials on film and the pro­cess­ing was a bit dif­fi­cult be­cause the lab had no gen­er­a­tor and it would of­ten shut down when you went to process your film. So in­stead we would go over­seas to process in Bangkok and bring the film back.”

As with many other in­dus­tries here, over time the govern­ment’s at­ti­tude to­ward moviemak­ing would lib­er­al­ize, giv­ing film­mak­ers more op­por­tu­nity. Ex­plain­ing this shift, Othello shares, “The govern­ment would fi­nance a film for the state-run stu­dios, but un­for­tu­nately they were all at a loss. That’s when they de­cided to al­low pri­vate com­pa­nies to pro­duce fea­ture films. First, we were do­ing tech­nol­ogy trans­fer for the state stu­dios. Then we were al­lowed to have our com­pany to do ser­vices. Then those com­pa­nies with ser­vices were al­lowed to make fea­ture films. Then they were al­lowed to make tele­vi­sion pro­grams and later on they were al­lowed to own TV chan­nels.”

Amidst th­ese changes, a wave of lo­cal and Viet Kieu film­mak­ers be­gan to sur­face. Tony Bui’s 1999 film Three

Sea­sons, the story of an American vet­eran who re­turns to Viet­nam in search of a child he fa­thered dur­ing the war, would prove a sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment, gar­ner­ing in­ter­na­tional ac­claim and earn­ing the Grand Jury Prize at Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val. Shortly there­after, direc­tors Le Hoang and Vu Ngoc Dang would es­tab­lish them­selves as masters of the lo­cal box of­fice with such hits as Gai Nhay (2003) and

Nhung Co Gai Chan Dai (2004). How­ever, Othello points out that a dis­crep­ancy be­tween the in­ter­na­tional and lo­cal au­di­ences soon be­came clear. “If you make a film for the Viet­namese au­di­ence, it’s been proven that it will never have an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence,” he ad­mits. “Some films were able to do well at fes­ti­vals, but it’s very lim­ited and also the Viet­namese lan­guage is kind of a bar­rier. Al­most 100 mil­lion peo­ple speak Viet­namese, but only in Viet­nam and some pock­ets of di­as­pora here and there.”

No Laugh­ing Mat­ter

Fur­ther elab­o­rat­ing on the do­mes­tic au­di­ence’s pref­er­ences, Irene Trinh, Head of Pro­duc­tion and Fea­ture Films at The CREATV Com­pany, ob­serves, “There has been a real shift in sto­ry­telling genre, from melo­drama to com­edy, shift­ing away from the more se­ri­ous themes and topics to light­hearted, whim­si­cal, and some­times far­ci­cal si­t­u­a­tions. Ac­tion films are sparse, as are the more se­ri­ous dra­mas, as au­di­ences have clearly voiced their opin­ion at the box of­fice. In the last five years or so, for ev­ery four or five come­dies made there is one ac­tion or drama. It’s a trend that does not seem to wane, but likely to con­tinue in the years to come.”

Irene, who has pro­duced eight fea­ture films in Viet­nam since 2005 and worked with such note­wor­thy direc­tors as Vic­tor Vu, adds, “It would be won­der­ful to see Viet­namese cin­ema be strong enough to bring back the dra­mas, the thrillers and the art­house pic­tures. It’s cer­tainly big enough to sus­tain, but how to shape and pre­pare the au­di­ence for its re­turn—that will be the chal­lenge. It should be on the in­dus­try’s mind as a whole, as it’s im­por­tant to have va­ri­ety and di­ver­sity in cin­ema for it to be called a na­tion’s cin­ema.”

As film ac­tivist who prefers tar­get­ing the in­ter­na­tional crowd,

un­der­tak­ing con­tro­ver­sial mat­ters has been an­other ob­sta­cle Othello is fa­mil­iar with, as was the case with his award-win­ning 2007 film

Saigon Eclipse. Ex­am­in­ing the topic of im­pov­er­ished Viet­namese women mar­ry­ing wealthy for­eign­ers, not for love but out of des­per­a­tion to help their fam­i­lies and whether this can be con­sid­ered a form of hu­man trade, his thoughts were, and re­main, that be­ing up front with the govern­ment is the best method for both sides.

“I be­lieve that if you work well with the Peo­ple, there’s no prob­lem,” he ex­plains. “If you have a dou­ble agenda, of course you will get in trou­ble. The govern­ment has had bad ex­pe­ri­ences be­cause some peo­ple played them by shoot­ing one script dur­ing the day and then shoot­ing a dif­fer­ent script at night. The script they had pre­sented was not the script used in the film and peo­ple lost their jobs.”

“For me, I’m very straight­for­ward.

It’s too com­pli­cated and I can­not have dou­ble lan­guage be­cause I’m not smart enough,” Othello says laugh­ing. “I spend enough en­ergy try­ing to find out what I re­ally want to say. So ev­ery time we do stuff that may be con­tro­ver­sial, I’ll present it from the start and the govern­ment will ex­plain their an­gle. I feel like it’s more of a col­lab­o­ra­tion. Once we’re clear with what we want to do, they’re very help­ful and are part of the team that works to­gether to make it hap­pen.”

The chal­lenge for direc­tors hop­ing to hit it big in Viet­namese cin­e­mas, he ex­plains, is also partly the re­sult of a lack of laws in place re­quir­ing the­aters to des­ig­nate a cer­tain num­ber of screens for lo­cally made film and, there­fore, direc­tors are less likely to take risks when forced to com­pete with Hol­ly­wood block­busters. “It’s chal­leng­ing to make suc­cess­ful films in Viet­nam be­cause, even though there are more screens now, you only have a two-week win­dow to break through and you’re fight­ing against films like

Su­per­man and Cap­tain Amer­ica.”

“So it’s very dif­fi­cult for Viet­namese film to grow,” he goes on. “The only way to do it is to have some commercial recipes, mean­ing the bud­get should only be around USD300,000 or less. Oth­er­wise you can­not make a profit in two weeks and the only way to make that kind of film is to make a heavy com­edy—a slap­stick film that will please the masses.”

Nonethe­less, there are sev­eral lo­cally made movies that have en­joyed un­prece­dented suc­cess over the last few years, cater­ing to a grow­ing do­mes­tic au­di­ence of nearly 50 mil­lion movie­go­ers. Most re­cently, di­rec­tor Le Thanh Son’s com­edy Em Chua 18

(2017) grossed an im­pres­sive USD8.8 mil­lion, while in 2015 Phan Xine

Linh’s Em La Ba Noi Cua Anh brought in USD4.76 mil­lion. From a busi­ness per­spec­tive, the sheer num­bers are an en­cour­ag­ing sign for the film in­dus­try, though as a clas­si­cal cinephile, it’s read­ily ap­par­ent Othello hopes to see a de­sire for a deeper ex­plo­ration in sub­ject mat­ter from the au­di­ence.

“I think over time peo­ple have de­cided to have ac­cess to more for­eign films,” he posits. “But, mostly what they call block­busters. What’s been miss­ing for a lot of peo­ple is an un­der­stand­ing and a knowl­edge about the cul­ture of film. Maybe be­cause of what’s been given to them, they are kept in a kind of in­fancy. No­body knows about John Ford, Fellini, Fran­cois Truf­faut.”

Think­ing on the fu­ture for a mo­ment, Othello adds, “But now that there is ac­cess to ev­ery­thing on the in­ter­net and peo­ple travel to study over­seas and come back, maybe that third gen­er­a­tion will start to grow.”

Othello shoot­ing in Hanoi

35mm circa 1996

Truong Ngoc Anh, Dustin Nguyen & Othello on lo­ca­tion at Qbar Saigon

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