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2014 Chúc Mừng Năm Mới: Việt Kiều Cinema of The Future — Old and New

Let start the New Year with the recent and epic futuristic/romantic/Waterworld-like film from director Nguyen Minh Vo. He's been making this film forever and finally a teaser's been shown on Facebook 4 days ago from today. I found the film trailer on Vimeo uploaded by the cinematographer, Bao Nguyen. The film will have its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival. I’m very excited for this film from the director of Buffalo Boy - one of my favorite films. As a matter of fact, NOUC is the Vietnamese word for "water" and for "nation", so I'm stoked to see what kind of metaphor the director can pull off. Check out the trailer below.

Well, what do you think? It looks great and has some signature images from the Viet Kieu director. It's an exciting time for Viet Kieu to make movies in Vietnam. The Vietnamese Department of Cinematography enthusiastically announces their goal of making Vietnam the top film industry in Southeast Asia by 2030. There is already a new wave of overseas expat filmmakers in Vietnam seeking cinematic opportunity at the same time paving the way for future generation to adapt the Hollywood standard of film production.


The films made under this influence are slicker, prettier, louder, and have that glossy production value that's been missing from past Vietnamese films. Sometimes the slick production overwhelms the simple stories that they’ll trying to tell. They are mostly shot on Red Digital cameras with shallow depth of field, sweeping motorized crane shots, punchy sound design, western operatic soundtrack, cynical overtones, and smooth skin supermodel actresses who look less like Vietnamese and more Eurasian. I truly yearn to see more Vietnamese actresses whose beauty and grace can embody Vietnamese culture and be cinematically compatible with Vietnamese tradition.


However, despite my old fashioned favoritism toward certain aspects of Vietnamese cinema, there are some Viet Kieu directed films that I really dig. So to celebrate the New Year, here are a few films that stick out from the rice field. Trust me. I’ve seen pretty much all of them. And it’s TET 2014! What better way to celebrate than to watch a bunch of awesome Vietnamese movies which are mostly available online.

Vượt Sóng (Journey From The Fall) -2006

There are two journeys in this film. One is of the father and the other is of his family, which are his wife, son, and mother. The first journey is a psychological one and it’s the most complex. Long (the father) feels hopeless for his country’s fate as a result of many of occupation from foreigners. Even if the American wins the war, the Vietnamese people would still be ruled by an outsider, even worst with the communist. He’s torn between escaping by boat and staying to face retribution from the North. He considers escaping a betrayal to the country. However, if he stays, then he’ll abandon his family by not being with them and care for them. The family on the other hand is more instinctual, especially his wife. Just like any mother, she tries her best to protect her son and to survive. That means risking it all to go on a boat. It’s in this dilemma that Journey From The Fall resonates and transcends itself beyond being just another movie about post war immigration.


Note: Long Nguyen is an awesome actor and painter. Look up his painting and see The Seven Psychopath. He’s the best part of that movie!


Ba Mùa (Three Seasons) 1999

This is simply a gorgeous film to look at. Actually there are three features that you need to pay attention to when watch this film. First is the photography by Lisa Rinzler. Then the acting by Harvey Keitel and he’s very good in it without overacting. Then Tony Bui’s writing and directing which is poetic and poignant. Three loosely connected stories taking place in Vietnam that portray various people's lives and how they deal with loneliness, atonement, and hardship during the three seasons—wet, dry, and growth. The film is sad but never dull. It has some very funny moments especially one between the little kid and the American. Like Ham Tran, Tony's also is an alumnus of the Sundance Director’s lab. I don't know what he’s been up to recently. He just disappeared into obscurity after this film. I hope he can make a comeback and not be a one hit wonder.

Mùa len trâu (The Buffalo Boy) - 2004

Unlike a typical Vietnamese film, which is melodramatic and seems to beg for the audience’s sympathy, Mua Len Trau is cold and callous. The acting is stiff and the dialogues are rigid with a lot of cursing. People in this movie survive by stealing and doing cruel things to one another. The film portrays harsh life in Ca Mau, a wetland at the tip of Southern Vietnam. The best part is the setting. Water floods vast rice fields and people live on boats or riding on the back of swimming buffalo. Director Nguyen Minh Vo depicts water as being indifferent to the inhabitants. Water gives and takes mercilessly. You need to just go with the flow. The music by Tiet Ton That is also very hard-edged. You don’t hear the normal mournful tune of Vietnamese traditional pluck instrument. Instead, the minimal use of the flute evokes mystery and dark secrets, which there are plenty. In the end, I understand the main character’s resolve. I don’t feel sorry for him because he never feels sorry for himself.

Xích Lô (Cyclo) -1995

Some people call Xich Lo pretentious and artistic crap. I disagree. It’s as exciting as a movie can get. There’s a mix of Taxi Driver, The Bicycle Theft, and no doubt paying tribute to the great Robert Bresson. Some of the scenes in the movie are so surreal that you wonder if director was on drug when writing his script. The only quirk is the director’s wife. I think she’s hugely miscast in this movie. You can barely understand her lines. However, the main actor is perfectly in his role. Le Van Loc is skinny, hollow faced, and has dark skin is the epitome of living in poverty. You look at him and believe that he’s gone through some tough shit. There is a scene that is extraordinary. That scene involves a helicopter transported by a truck. Also, there is an obsession with different kind of liquid (piss, semen, blood, sweat, water) which is implied in several key scenes. Overall, it’s a beautifully twisted journey into a very dark contemporary and very humid Vietnamese city that is still wounded by imperialism and war.

The Rebel (Dòng Máu Anh Hùng) -2007

Most Vietnamese know about this movie. It's very popular. The Rebel pretty much revives the Vietnamese commercial movie industry. People were amazed at the handsome production value of the film. I think that people don’t give enough credit to one crucial part that makes it entertaining and perhaps gives it a lot of potential. That is the martial arts style called Vo Vi Nam used by the actors in the film. It’s a very acrobatic and showy style of martial arts in Vietnam. Fortunately the cinematography, fight choreography, and editing did justice to show off the fighting by allowing long slow motion shots so the audience can see the moves. Johnny Tri Nguyen’s agility as a martial artist is shown very effectively in the fight scenes. There is nothing remarkable about the story or the acting. You see this film for the martial arts and it’s worth every second.

Thoi Xa Vang (A Time Far Past) - 2005

Source: The Center for Southeast Asian Studies
Courtesy of Phuong Nam Films

It’s loosely based on Le Luu’s very popular novel called A Time Far Past. Everything about this movie is done right. The directing style is very straight forward with no gimmicks, no quick cuts, no operatic grandeur mis en scene, and no sentimental close ups of actors nor any fancy lighting. Ho Quang Minh usually uses available lighting and frames the shots in medium or wide and frontal angle to keep the audience at a distance respecting the movie characters' way of life. All the actors look authentic for the parts they play. You can really believe they are peasants who live, breath, and die in that time period at that place. Their hair, skin, and mannerism are all spot on. Not one actor looks out of place and time. How do I know this? Well, I was in a similar place—village during the late 80s. They way they speak are also authentic. Unlike a lot of other Vietnamese films, the dialogues are natural. People expresses themselves in fragments and don't sound like they're reading a book when they talk. The main character's voice is coarse and coy signifying his internal conflict. The theme music is unforgettable and it invokes a sense of lost and yearning. It reminds me of the theme for the movie Joy Luck Club and The Godfather. Director Ho Quang Minh is the first Viet Kieu to make a film in Vietnam with his Karma, which I haven't seen. You can clearly see he’s influenced by Chinese filmmakers like Jiang Yimou, Hou Hsiao Hsien, and Edward Yang. The highlight acting is from actress Phuong Dung Ho who plays Tuyet. The last scene which is certainly very powerful and it summarizes the entire movie. Into the credits, listen to what the photographer says.

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