Vietnam’s film industry: Past, Present and Future
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 state-owned 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 skill set 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 film-making 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.”
Othello shooting in Hanoi 35mm circa 1996
As with many other industries here, over time the government’s attitude toward movie-making 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.”
Irene Trinh – portrait by Ngoc Tran
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 USD 300,000 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.”
Truong Ngoc Anh, Dustin Nguyen & Othello on location at Qbar Saigon
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 USD 8.8 million, while in 2015 Phan Xine Linh’s Em La Ba Noi Cua Anh brought in USD 4.76 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.”