Hard Sell or Hard to Sell: Thuy Linh on Contemporary Vietnamese Cinema

Some Vietnamese filmmakers simply try too hard to sell the stories to their audiences, but just how far do they go? A critical analysis brought to you from Thuy Linh of Thanh Nien News, goes more in-depth about techniques used by filmmakers that often miss one key piece to the story: genuine human emotion.

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A combination of scenes from Lay chong nguoi ta (In the Name of Love). Like many other recent movies, its plot and characters are too forced to be convincing.
A combination of scenes from Lay chong nguoi ta (In the Name of Love). Like many other recent movies, its plot and characters are too forced to be convincing.


Luu Huynh’s latest movie, Lay chong nguoi ta (In the Name of Love), a tragic love story involving one woman and two men, falls flat on its face. It could not wrench a tear from me, or from any others I could see in the cinema that day.

What I did find sad, however, was the fact that the filmmaker tried so hard to sell his movie to audiences, and I sympathized with that.

In the Name of Love is about a couple not being able to have a child because the husband is infertile. Out of love for her husband, the wife sleeps with an old friend of theirs to have a child. She has a son and they call him Phuc, meaning happiness. But things take an unhappy turn when the guy she sleeps with, who is violent by nature, tries to get his son back.

Huynh tries all he can to get us interested: cutting back and forth between past and present in what is called nonlinear storytelling to create suspense, ending scenes at their supposedly most dramatic moments to heighten the drama, making the film’s bad guy worse scene by scene to drive the tragedy forward, and other techniques. All of these efforts are painfully obvious.

They remind me of two similar movies released earlier this year: Le Van Kiet’s Ngoi nha trong hem (House in the Hamlet) and Bui Thac Chuyen’s Loi nguyen huyet ngai (Blood Curse), both horror flicks.

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Like Huynh, the two filmmakers use formulas in an effort to make their stories interesting. They make their heroes face one obstacle after another with the obstacles getting more daunting toward the end. But they try so hard that all I can see is their efforts rather than some genuine human feelings that the characters are supposed to capture.

I also see this self-consciousness in more artistic attempts by promising female director Nguyen Hoang Diep.

I recently watched Diep’s second short film, called HaiTuSau (Monday, Wednesday, Friday). She attracted attention with her well-done first short, Mua thu nam (The Fifth Season), about a young housewife’s yearning for sexual and emotional fulfillment with her busy husband. Diep continues to explore this theme in Monday, Wednesday, Friday.

I see Diep’s progress in her second work. In her conceptual world of “husband” and “wife” (Diep does not give her characters names), the unfulfilled housewife this time around has a lover, but characteristic of Diep, who portrays sexual feelings in a gentle but exotic way, the woman does not allow herself to actually have sex with her boyfriend. They just fool around with her letting him taste her skin and the like.

In Diep’s first film, the wife tastes soap bubbles on her fingers while she washes her husband’s clothes and plays with his shirts in his absence to fill the emptiness.

I am sounding more gentle about Diep’s films than I would if I had not seen her in person at the Center for Assistance and Development of Movie Talents in Hanoi at the screening of Monday, Wednesday, Friday because, personally, I do not like these films. The camerawork and characters are too pretentious for my taste. But when I saw her, I realized that Diep’s films are only as important as the filmmaker herself, her struggle to raise money to make movies, her intellectual progress, and her feelings as just another person.

Diep struck me as very passionate. She almost cried when she told a member of the audience, the actress who played the wife in her first film, “I invited you to this screening because I wanted you to know that I still try to make movies” (she has been working more in TV). Then she said that sometimes in real life a woman has subtle feelings that are unreasonable and selfish but she still cannot help having them, and she tries to capture this complexity in her films.

It was then that I suddenly saw clearly why I find Diep’s films and some recent “art” movies by local filmmakers pretentious: I don’t really see the filmmakers themselves in their movies. All I see in Diep’s films, Bui Thac Chuyen’s Choi voi (Adrift), which was scripted by Phan Dang Di, and Di’s Bi oi, dung so (Bi, Don’t be afraid) is an effort to be artistic, to capture contemporary society and the depth of life.

The effect, to me, is contrary: their worlds are not deep, I see more pretension than reality, and cannot identify with their characters. After I saw Diep, I wish in the future, when she makes her third short film – if she wants her “wife” to reflect something about real women – this wife will be more like herself: with a career and normal cares about children and husband, so that the world in her films will feel more honest and true.

Diep herself said: “Men in my films are concepts.” Well, if her woman characters are not concepts then men should not be treated as concepts either. But I have much hope for her. I’m eager to see what her “wife” will do next.

What I am saying is that if local filmmakers want to make great movies, sooner or later they will have to dig deeper within themselves and bring that to light.

Usually, when artists are honest and mature enough to understand themselves and the world, even if their characters are fantastic aliens, their works will feel honest and true. Audiences can pick it up right away.

With “commercial” cinema, where audiences do not expect much and filmmakers do not have to give much, the bar may be lower. But I suspect even with pop culture and entertainment, if people want to make money they will eventually have to return to the basics, namely honesty and truth. Audiences cannot be fooled for too long.

Though I do not put In the Name of Love at the same level as the disastrous movies of recent years with their silly characters, costumes and plots, it suggests the same underestimation of audiences who pay to be entertained.

Good art and good entertainment are not all that different. There should be, as screenwriter Doan Minh Tuan said about a story idea, “a seed of truth” in them. Filmmakers may work very hard on technical aspects (like Chuyen’s hard work with visual effects in his horror movie) but story ideas are not receiving the care they deserve.

When I watched the trailer of In the Name of Love, which shows a sex scene, a naked woman standing in a street market, and two men fighting each other over a son, I thought it was about a wife who sleeps with another man to give her infertile husband a baby and then falls in love with this guy, one or both men get jealous and fight for her love and son, and she is somehow punished for the whole thing.

Though such a story would make this movie another one about women’s sexual passion and sense of duty, it would at least make sense. But the movie does not make much sense. The wife, Lua, is so selfish and stupid that for her husband’s sake she sleeps with a man, Linh, who used to love her and is violent by nature. Then when Linh tries to take his biological son back through violence, she punishes him.

No matter how hard Huynh tries to sell this story, I just could not buy it. The husband, Khanh, is infertile but tells his wife that he is fine with just the two of them. She does not mind not having a baby either. So, why does the movie force her to sleep with the other man and cause whatever tragedy that happens afterwards? Because there is some “commercial” formula that says the plot should be driven forward regardless? Or, is it because the filmmaker believes that Vietnamese men want children or sons so much that they do not mean it when they say they are fine with not having them, and Vietnamese women are so devoted to their husbands that even if their husbands mean what they say, they still do something that is irrational and cruel to somebody who is not their husband? Or, that audiences who only expect “entertainment” will accept such a premise, if this film is meant to entertain (it was considered good enough to be entered at the recent Toronto International Film Festival but did not win any prize)?

But the movie’s bad guy, Linh, played well by actor Thai Hoa, is interesting. He is an angry man. Unfortunately, the movie does not explain why. If this movie focused on him rather than Lua and the infertility plot, it may have been much better.

Every day Linh paints his face, dons the traditional costume of the “God of Wealth,” and sells lottery tickets on the streets to earn a living.

Does this double life make him angry? This guy strikes me as somebody with so much external pressure of living that he needs some resources within himself to balance it. Failing that he would need women. But the women in the movie just hate him. The movie mentions briefly that Lua rejected him to marry her current husband, and his wife also left him because of his violence. So long before the film’s story begins, this guy is doomed.

The potential of this character and the lackluster character of Lua as well as the too symbolic Vietnamese wife in Huynh’s earlier movie Ao lua Ha Dong (The White Silk Dress) remind me of Diep. I instinctively feel that the picture of “husband” in Diep’s films is not convincing though her “wife” is interesting. Does this have anything to do with Diep being a woman and Huynh being a man and that they are both yet to reach the intellectual maturity that allows them to see the other side of the picture?

I hope local filmmakers, “commercial” and “artistic,” come up with a story, a character, or just an idea that is complete and believable, and then use appropriate cinema techniques to express it.

Only then will there be a chance of Vietnamese movies winning anything important rather than just minor prizes or being invited to international film festivals for the sake of diversity.


Thuy Linh lives and works in Hanoi. She graduated from UMass Boston with a BA in English and has a Certificate in Screenwriting from the Film Studies Program, a 10-month program of the Hanoi University of Social Sciences and Humanities (in partnership with the Ford Foundation).

She is a translator/reporter/editor for various English newspapers in Hanoi and HCMC such as VietNamNet, Saigon Times, Sai Gon Giai Phong, and Tuoi Tre. At present, she works as a translator/editor for the “fiction” section (translates and edits contemporary Vietnamese short stories) and a film critic for Thanh Nien. This article originally appeared in Thanh Nien.


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  1. I’ll be trying to provide some critical basis for my column, but yes, it isn’t academic criticism. I’m writing for a newspaper, and at Thanh Nien, for now, we assume our readers are mostly foreigners living in Vietnam, who don’t care much about local cinema. So I’m partly to introduce local cinema as well. The other day, one reader of this group said I should provide info about where to buy the DVDs or watch the movies. Well, to be consistent with what I always urge local filmmakers, I’ll take things slowly, gradually define and clarify and add details as needed. Because I want to accommodate a lot, so the ground I’m standing on is pretty slippery. But creating the most basic common ground to me is the first and only way to get things start now. People from all sides complain too much, in Vietnam. I don’t pretend to be objective. If I have to patronize, I’ll patronize. If the column sounds too much about me, it’s necessary. For me, one thing isn’t as good as another, at the moment, I’ll make my own personal decision, and only hope it won’t be too subjective. Huy Vu: yes, Hotboy is a decent film. If I was an investor, I’d bet on Vu Ngoc Dang and Victor Vu.

  2. “Despite an absolute glut of international films to be watched, studied, learned from, etc., I cannot think of a single interesting Vietnamese narrative film made in the past 10 years (and I’m not talking about Tran Anh Hung who, despite his ancestry, we may consider more French in his sensibilities than someone who lived their entire life within Vietnam)”

    Jamie, I suggest you check out two films. The first is Journey from the Fall (Vuoi Song, 2006) by director Ham Tran, and the second is Lost in Paradise (Hot Boy Noi Loan, 2011) by director Ngoc Dang Vu. I consider these two films to be the high water mark of Vietnamese cinema so far. They are thoughtful, lovingly executed and compelling. It is not that Vietnamese directors are incapable of making good films, but most of the time they’re falling all over themselves trying to sell tickets. There isn’t a dearth of fresh ideas, just the lack of willingness to carry them out. In some ways you can’t blame the filmmakers because of the economic of the film business in Vietnam right now. Unlike the big studios in the US that can absorb multiple failures, profit margin in Vietnam is so tight that production companies are rolling the die with every film. Having a film bomb meant that they might not be around to make another one. Hence we see the endless attempts to pander to the audience with sex, attractive actors, mindless actions etc. The good news is eventually the audience will begin to demand more as their taste matures, and then we can see some real progress.

  3. I agree with Audrey Chin’s comment. This article is less about the films than the author. The author makes quite a number of claims without much supporting evidence from the films. And lines like these seem unnecessarily condescending: “Usually, when artists are honest and mature enough to understand themselves and the world, even if their characters are fantastic aliens, their works will feel honest and true.”

  4. I just did not get these comments actually.
    The writer, who is Vietnamese, is saying she does not “get” the themes of these movies. As an overseas Asian, I entirely “get” the themes. What I don’t “get” is her misunderstanding about the themes.
    I didn’t’ watch the movies but I’d suggest that what she’s really saying is that the films do not adequately express their premises. If she wants me to “get” what’s she’s saying she ought to be talking about sketchy scripts which under-characterize the main players, poor acting, bad pacing etc. in it’s particular aspects.
    A rant about her distance from the themes cannot be considered a critique!
    It appears that film criticism too needs to go a long way in Vietnamese cinema.

  5. I couldn’t agree more with this author (as well as the comment adjacent to mine). So-called Vietnamese cinema is in a true poverty of identity and ability. Where are the truly original scripts? Where is one good actor? (I’m not talking about a person able to indicate an emotion but to truly represent one on screen). Where are the emotionally and intellectually mature directors in Vietnam? Despite an absolute glut of international films to be watched, studied, learned from, etc., I cannot think of a single interesting Vietnamese narrative film made in the past 10 years (and I’m not talking about Tran Anh Hung who, despite his ancestry, we may consider more French in his sensibilities than someone who lived their entire life within Vietnam). Where are the interesting producers? All of the above sadly absent. Vietnamese cinema has regressed in the last 30 years to the point of vanishing in a swirl of immature moodiness substituting for narrative structure and pouty-lipped thespians staring blankly until they are directed to over-emote the obvious. It’s laughable until one realizes the true depth of the problem and then it’s tragic. No amount of lighting, camera movement, CGI or sound design is going to compensate for the lack of one single good idea.
    The salvation of this situation and the condition of Vietnamese cinema will come from the margins and not from the center. It is going to come from some kid with a camera, no money, no baggage trying to be someone they’re not, who is going to shoot what’s real and not what he or she thinks is going to sell or make them known – but what comes right from life and it will be made without anyone asking for permission. They are going to make this move because they have to, because they cant not make it.
    One last point, Vietnamese filmmakers have nothing to learn from America. And little to learn from Europe. They have everything to learn from the regional neighbors and colleagues whose experience, situation, circumstance is so much more closely related than anything in the West. Forget Hollywood. Forget all of it. Go get a small digital camera and for God’s sake, get original and get real. Until then, there’s nothing I’m interested in watching which says Made In Vietnam.

  6. I feel that Vietnamese cinema in general is in that weird stage where the filmmakers are trying to run before learning how to walk. Unlike in the US where the technical and storytelling techniques of cinema evolve side by side through many decades, the film industry in Vietnam is still very young. Filmmakers have access to all the tools and technology of modern film-makings but they have yet to learn storytelling basic such as pacing, tone, character development etc. This either leads to simplistic and ridiculous films or overly artistic wrecks like you mentioned.


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