While most Westerners are familiar with films like Full Metal Jacket, The Quiet American, Rambo, or those of Oliver Stone and Chuck Norris, oversea Vietnamese are most fond of films from Viet Kieu directors like Ham Tran, Victor Vu, Charlie-Dustin-Johnny Nguyen, Luu Huynh and most famously is Tran Anh Hung. However, very few people are aware of the movies made in Vietnam by native Vietnamese directors. This is my first post so I’d like to share with you some of the best I’ve seen in that category. They aren’t very well known. I am sure there are many more I haven’t seen so drop me a comment to let me know of a hidden gem.
Currently these are the ones that I really admire.
Keep in mind these films are made by native Vietnamese filmmakers. In a different blog, I’ll do another list of films made by Viet Kieu filmmakers. Also I’m not going to go into too much detail like synopsis because I don’t want to ruin anything.
I encourage you to search for them online and see them. Unfortunately most of them are in Vietnamese with no subtitles.
10. Đất phương Nam (Song of the south) -1988
Ok, so it’s not a film. This is an 11-hour TV mini-series shot on video based on the novel Đất Rừng Phương Nam by the great Vietnamese author Đoàn Giỏi. If you want to know about Vietnamese history and culture, start with this series. It’s a mix of Huckleberry Finn and some of Charles Dickens plus a touch of Suttree. This epic story entails many unique characters and intriguing plots weaved together into episodes portraying injustices during French Colonial Vietnam.
9. Gái nhảy (bar girls) - 2003
When Vietnamese audience saw this, they were shocked. It was groundbreaking to Vietnamese film standard for its gritty depiction of modern life in Vietnam. Specifically, I like the actresses in this film. Their acting is very good. Dialogues are naturally spoken with a Southern Vietnamese accent since the film takes place the south. Unlike a lot of other Vietnamese films which mix up accents. Not only did Bar Girl revive interest in the subject of social commentary in the film industry, it broke the box office record when released and became a model of genre film to attract young audience.
8. Chuyện của Pao (Story of Pao) - 2006
Pao is played by Đỗ Thị Hải Yến, which I think is one of the most beautiful actresses in Vietnamese cinema, the others are Lê Vân and Thúy Loan. There is something about these actresses. They don’t look like Western supermodels like the new talents but has that countryside-beauty aura to them. You can instantly recognize them as someone from Vietnam. Besides that, I think Yen is an incredibly brave actress. She portrays PAO’s transformation from a shy girl to a headstrong woman with powerful subtlety fantastically. The film is slow and contemplative with beautiful cinematography. Its music score is also a highlight.
7. Bi đừng sợ (Bi, Don’t be Afraid) - 2010
Non-narrative, radical, artsy, moody, courageous, poetic, and Avant Garde. These are the words I’d like to tag this film. Don’t Bi afraid to see it. There is a lot of sex/nudity in it which is unusual for a Vietnamese’s film. What I love most about it is the pacing- languid and meditating. Clearly this was made for the international festival circuit. I hope there will be more films like this in Vietnam. The director knows what he’s doing and he seems to have a remarkable sense of time in cinema.
6. Chơi Vơi (Adrift) -2009
Another art film with obvious influence from Tran Ang Hung’s Vertical Rays of the Sun. It’s about a young woman’s journey to sexual awakening. The conclusion is a reflection on social issues in modern Vietnamese society that is considered a taboo, like LGBT and such. Plus, it’s very erotic because it's written by the director of Bi Don’t Be Afraid. I think that this and # 7 give us a peek on one of the unique identities of Vietnamese film- snail pace art film. It’s also interesting to see the differences between these types of films vs those funded by the government or those made by overseas Vietnamese. It’s fascinating.
5. Gánh xiếc rong (The Travelling Circuit) - 1988
This beautiful neo-realist masterpiece from Viet Linh has provocative visuals and told with sprinkles of magical realism. It tells the story of young boy’s naïve perspective of the real word and implies the circuit as a symbol of lost of innocence in adulthood. Reminds me a lot of Mizoguchi and The Spirit of the Beehive, and Hou’s Puppet Masters. This coming of age story was banded couple years in the motherland for some subversive ideas. A clash of artistic intend with political insecurity. I think this film influenced what I called the “Tragic Deus ex machine” in later Vietnamese films. That means a tragedy sudden spring out of nowhere to wrap up the plot toward the end. It’s intriguing.
4. Thương nhớ đồng quê (Nostalgia for the Country Side) - 1995
Dang Nhat Minh is my favorite Vietnamese director. Up and coming filmmakers should learn from the master. Like Ozu, his body of work is really Vietnamese but the themes are universal anyone can relate to. Even though he’s most famous for When the Tenth Month Comes, I still think Nostalgia is his best. Highlights of the film are the cinematography, film score, child acting, and the screen direction from the master—which is very straight forward and sentimental. Another reason to see this film is the actress Le Van who stars as a modern woman who's influenced a young boy's rite of passage. Think of it as the Vietnamese Days of Heaven.
3. Cánh đồng Hoang (The Abandoned Fields) - 1979
It’s a war film from a different perspective- the Viet Cong. I love its black and white hand held cinematography. A scene when the wife and the husband wade through water with their baby in a basket trying to hide from an American helicopter is particularly resonating. Plus, the relationship dynamic between them are shown with great attention to details in many scenes. An intriguing alternative to how Hollywood portrays the Vietnam War. I didn’t have any problem with its casting of the antagonists. Actually I applaud it. Hollywood has been casting Chinese actor to play Vietnamese roles for years (see O. Stone’s films). See it and you know what I mean.
2. Cô gái hà nội (Little Girl of Ha Noi) - 1975
America dropped A LOT of bombs on Hanoi while Kissinger/Nixon played good cop/bad cop. This film actually was shot during that time. This is a remarkable accomplishment in Vietnamese propaganda cinema, sort of like Triumph Of The Will. I like the way it portrays ordinary people who get caught up in wartime. It’s not just misery though. There are some tender and uplifting moments. Technically, the film is a marvelous mix of animation, Tarkovskian tracking shots, and flashbacks. Reminds me of Grave of The Fireflies and Ivan’s Childhood.
1. Thằng Bờm (Bom, The Bumpkin) - 1987
Not a lot of people know about this humorous film. Even the Vietnamese are unfamiliar with it. Directed by Le Duc Tien, who if I'm not mistaken is the director of Giai Phong Studio, which produced numerous successful Vietnamese films including Trang Anh Hung's Cyclo and Minh Nguyen-Vo's The Buffalo Boy. It’s based on a folk song mothers and grandmothers sing to little children to put them to sleep. This film is a bold masterpiece. It's got nudity, sex, dark countryside humor, satirical scenes, and wonderful acting – especially the delivery of dialogues and mannerism of the actors. Also, the reason why it’s my most beloved film is of sentimental value. When I was little, I was seeing this movie on a B&W tv ran on an acid battery. But at the start of the film, the censorship board pulled the plug and replaced it with When the Tenth Month Comes.