Fast Food Flicks

Oi Vietnam - - Cover Story -

“I try to give them a dream,” he ex­plains. The fact is that Hol­ly­wood’s cul­tural cap­i­tal is strong­est in those coun­tries that have not yet had time to find a com­pletely dis­tinct voice. Cin­ema-going has not been a com­mon prac­tice in Viet­nam for long and even now older gen­er­a­tions tend not to go to the cin­ema (45 and older ac­count for less than one per­cent of the es­ti­mated mar­ket). With lit­tle of its own cin­e­matic his­tory to draw on, it is only nat­u­ral to seek in­spi­ra­tion in the most wide­spread and pop­u­lar for­eign ex­ports, but that is not to say that the Viet­namese heart be­neath it all has been muted.

Son calls his film a “Viet­namese ham­burger”: American on the out­side but with Viet­namese meat. As he tells it, the film jug­gles an ex­te­rior that speaks to its au­di­ence, one that is rec­og­niz­ably part of a genre that peo­ple can grav­i­tate to­wards but does not sac­ri­fice the in­tegrity that will make a lo­cal au­di­ence re­spond to its mes­sage.

The most ob­vi­ous facet of this hy­brid com­po­si­tion is the re­la­tion­ship it­self. The union of a cou­ple sep­a­rated by such an im­por­tant age gap (17 and 35) is more likely to in­spire shock than laugh­ter for many West­ern view­ers. It is not sim­ply the dif­fer­ence in age, af­ter all the stereo­type of the older wealthy man with a younger woman is far from over, but the fact that the girl in this in­stance is still a mi­nor has pushed key­board war­riors to spray vit­riol online. The re­la­tion­ship is un­sat­is­fac­tory to most West­ern palettes but, then, it’s not a story set in their world. The ‘Amer­i­can­ized’ world that the story de­picts is only a ve­neer, the re­la­tion­ships be­neath it speak to Viet­namese con­cerns, and an age gap of that na­ture is, well, less shock­ing. Hoang is a rich man from an ed­u­cated fam­ily. So, he’s a bit older, but it’s not the gar­gan­tuan prob­lem it would be if he wasn’t al­ready com­ing from such a re­spectable and wealthy back­ground.

For Son the film that he made isn’t about ex­plor­ing this taboo for its moral im­pli­ca­tions. Em Chua 18 is not so heavy and the Viet­namese au­di­ence prefers it that way. The main fo­cus of the film is on re­la­tion­ships, across dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories. The film’s re­la­tion­ships are of young love, in­no­cent love, erotic pas­sion, parental love, un­re­quited love, jeal­ousy, envy and a host of oth­ers, but the film is not a trea­tise, it’s a com­edy. The quirks of th­ese re­la­tion­ships are the source of most of the film’s hu­mour: a fa­ther who wants to con­nect with his daugh­ter and tries to act younger, the in­fan­tile silli­ness of glo­ri­fy­ing the prom and, of course, the prob­lem of dat­ing some­one who is still legally a child.

The way the char­ac­ters speak, their fears and their habits have a Viet­namese fla­vor, but the film trans­lated beau­ti­fully. I don’t mean that the sub­ti­tles are ac­tu­ally well-writ­ten (though Son has show­ered them with praise) but that the hu­mor is uni­ver­sal. Like all good stories, ev­ery­one watch­ing will rec­og­nize el­e­ments from their own life re­flected here, whether it be in the awk­ward at­tempts to ap­pear fash­ion­able and young in the old, force­ful and in con­trol for the young, or just the frus­tra­tion of see­ing a whole day’s events con­spire against you.

The uni­ver­sal­ity of th­ese themes has al­ready caught the at­ten­tion of the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket: rights to make re­makes have al­ready been bought in

In­dia, China and South Korea. The ‘Viet­namese Ham­burger’ as well as other fast food flicks, Son ex­plains, are still very pop­u­lar. Hol­ly­wood churns out one su­per­hero movie af­ter an­other in an end­less cy­cle of pretty mo­not­o­nous con­sumer-friendly dis­trac­tion sludge. Movies, like any other busi­ness, re­spond to the needs of the mar­ket. Em Chua 18 has broad ap­peal but it man­ages not to dis­solve into tired, hum­drum, re­cy­cled scenes. There’s a lot of heart, a very charm­ing cast and a lot to laugh about. It’s a film that you may think you’ve seen up un­til you’ve ac­tu­ally got it in front of you.

So what comes af­ter? The suc­cess of Em Chua 18 has al­ready set the gears in mo­tion for a se­quel set for a re­lease around April 2018. The au­di­ence asks and it shall re­ceive. 

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