Revolutionary in thought, practice

Vietnam embracing its culture as it finds its cinematic voice

When Othello Khanh's "Saigon Eclipse" premiered this year, critics accused the director of airing Vietnam's dirty linen in public.

The $1.1 million-budgeted movie, which deals with the Southeast Asian communist country's open secret — that women are often sold as brides — was also judged harmful to relations with Vietnam's neighbors, particularly China, where one-child policies and a preference for male children has led to a shortage of women.

Khanh, who moved from Paris to Vietnam 12 years ago, remains unapologetic. "I could have been trendy and used sex and violence, but my goal was to raise awareness about what's happening to these women," he says.

As Vietnam strengthens ties with the international community, filmmakers have broadened their traditional repertoire of war stories and Communist-era propaganda films.

The new generation is tackling everything from horror, vice and action to romantic comedy and social themes.

Writer-director Luu Huynh says a major filmmaking trend is "Vietnamese telling Vietnamese stories that are relevant to life in Vietnam today. There is movement away from war-stricken Vietnam and a realization that Vietnam has more to offer than its history of conflict and poverty."

Phuoc Sang Entertainment's "Ten," the first co-production between a privately owned Vietnamese company and a foreign production house, also has just wrapped, marking yet another milestone in an industry that remained closed to the outside world until three years ago.

"Ten," produced with Korea's Billy Pictures, is "an important experience for us, as the future of our industry will depend on co-productions and collaboration with producers from around the world," Huynh says. "Through these collaborations, we hope to break out onto the international platform yet still maintain our cultural identity."

Though their topics are revolutionary in Vietnamese terms, anti-government sentiment or social subversion is not on filmmakers' agendas.

"Saigon Eclipse" was made with 100% government support, Khanh says, indicating a dramatic shift from hard-line Communist positions. "We can be progressive and work within the system and not be reactionary against the government," he says.

Theatrical distribution, however, remains a challenge. Vietnam, with over 85 million people, has only about 30 quality movie screens out of a total of 70. The crunch is expected to ease slowly, with 100 new screens promised over the next decade by MegaStar Media, which is opening its new Cineplex in Ho Chi Minh City in August.

Already, MegaStar Media has dramatically changed Vietnam's theatrical landscape. The company offers Asian and Western titles at two complexes, with wall-to-wall screens and Dolby Digital sound. Another four complexes are being planned.

Budgets are also still a concern, though raising money is less difficult than it used to be. Average local budgets are between $300,000 and $400,000.

New records were set this year with Chanh Phuong Films' "The Rebel," which cost $3 million, according to Vietnamese-American producer Jimmy Nghiem Pham. "When we showed it overseas, people thought we spent $10 million to $15 million," he says.

Set in the early 20th century during Vietnam's struggle against French forces, "The Rebel" was watched by more than 50,000 people in its opening fortnight.

"Everything is much cheaper to do here. That's why a lot of Vietnamese filmmakers living overseas are coming back," Pham says.

There's another impetus. "Right now it's very easy to organize locations," Pham says, adding: "If you get a permit from the government, you can pretty much go anywhere to shoot."

Government agencies contacted for this feature declined to respond to questions about the domestic film industry.

Jonathan Landreth in Beijing contributed to this report.
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