Whenever Vietnamese cinema is discussed, it's often criticized as having "notoriously stiff acting", "horrible script" and "embarrassing special effects". Maybe these criticisms are true but there are many great Vietnamese films upstaged by these bad reputations.
In this article of Vietnamese Cinema, we spotlight 20 films that really deserve more attention. Please note, the first 10 films are made by domestic filmmakers in Vietnam, and the next 10 are by overseas Vietnamese called Viet Kieu.
10 Best Films From VIETNAM by homegrown filmmakers CONTROVERSIAL
- Gái nhảy (bar girls) - 2003
When Bar Girls was released in 2004, Vietnamese audience was traumatized by its radical tone and edgy subject. They were stunned by the dark and gritty portrait of Vietnamese urban life. The film felt very different from the majority of films before which were mainly about the war. Bar Girls tells the tragic lives of Vietnamese prostitutes. It shows how they become working girls and the bleak future ahead of them. It deals openly with rape, STD"s, drugs, and crimes. The unpolished cinematography gives it a grimy look and feels as if the filmmakers went all Dogma 95. The most surprising thing is Vietnamese authority, known to be very conservative, allowed the film to be shown at that time making it a breakthrough.
- Bi đừng sợ (Bi, Don’t be Afraid) - 2010
Artsy, moody, Avant Garde, and perverted are some the words to describe this film. Bi, Don't Bi Afraid is about the transformation of the traditional Vietnamese family structure in modern society. The grandfather is the patriarch trying to keep the family together as they experience alienation and existential crises. The film is peppered with kinky explicit perversions including a scene with an ice cube. If you're looking for a traditional narrative, then go somewhere else. Its languid pacing underlines the fragility of the family unit in Vietnam during changing time. Time can change everything including familial values. However, the film does make up its mind for us. Whether this change is good or bad is up to the audience.
- Thương nhớ đồng quê (Nostalgia for the Country Side) - 1995
The previous film is about how modern society changes the Vietnamese family and relationship in the city. With Nostalgia for the Countryside, we see how that affects the people in rural areas. This film illustrates how technology and modern lifestyle make people in the countryside to question their way of life. The main character is torn between his love for the countryside and the hypnotic desire of the modern age manifested by the arrival of his young pretty aunt. The acting of the young actors in the film are exemplary and the ending is poignant and sad. Written and directed by Dang Nhat Minh, the foremost native Vietnamese film director. Like Ozu, his body of work is very Vietnamese but the themes they deal with are universal anyone can relate to. Nostalgia For The Countryside is classically romantic, idealistic and sentimental. Think of it as Vietnam's Days of Heaven.
- Chuyện của Pao (Story of Pao) - 2006
This was Vietnam's official entry into the 2007 Academy award for best foreign language film. Story of Pao takes place in the Hmong village of Northwestern Vietnam. It focuses on a young girl named Pao who goes on a journey searching for her birth mother. The cinematography in the film is gorgeous, including majestic mountain ranges, fog covered rivers, and beautiful terraced rice fields. It stars one of the most beautiful Vietnamese actresses, Do Thi Hai Yen. Her subdued but moving performance gives the character a full arc - going from being a shy village girl to a strong willed forgiving woman. Yen is a very dedicated actress who immerses herself into the role by spending time with the ethnic people to learn their way of life and language. Check out her other films such as Big Father Little Father, Floating Lives, The Quiet American, and The Vertical Rays of The Sun.
- Gánh xiếc rong (The Traveling Circus) - 1988
In the late 80s, Vietnam entered into a market economy, which helped plant the seed for capitalism. The loud gongs heard at the start of The Traveling Circus is a wake up call for all Vietnamese to be cautious of what is to come - the corruption of materialism, greed, superficiality, and illusion. A beautiful and moving black and white film. Provocatively shot with amazing visuals and cogent composition. Directed by the great Viet Linh (who also wrote I See Yellow Flowers On Green Grass), the film details how a ravenous traveling circus exploits the weakness of a naive ethnic mountain village. Centers on a young boy’s obsession with the false act of magic that leads to tragic consequences. Certain sequences in the film bring me to tears and evoke Mizoguchi, Fellini, and particularly The Spirit of the Beehive. Sadly, this coming of age story was banded in Vietnam and is still relatively unknown abroad.
- Cánh đồng Hoang (The Wild Fields) - 1979
In the next two films, we are diving into controversy because these two films are propaganda films by the Communist government in Vietnam. However, regardless of their ulterior motives, one cannot overlook the mastery in their filmmaking quality. The Wild Fields is a film in the tradition of socialist realism, made after the war to commemorate the heroic sacrifices of the people that help win the war for the North. The story is about a Viet Cong family's daily life and how that's affected by their involvement in the war. It's very well written especially when it focuses on the hardship of having a family and being Viet Cong guerillas. For example, one shocking scene where the baby nearly drowned and the outraged husband slaps the wife. It's truly a gut wrenching scene regardless if there is a war or not. And it gives depth to these flawed characters. Technically, the film is a marvel to look at. The black and white camera work is very dynamic, which is unusual for a film of this type. There is a sequence where actors have to swim through the rice field with a baby trying to evade a helicopter. The camera is right there with them giving the film a very documentary feel. We see a lot of creative camera works especially during the snake scene, which reminds me a lot of another film called I am Cuba. A must see if you like films about the Vietnam War. I mean how many American war films do you see that have a female as the main character?
- Cô gái hà nội (Little Girl of Ha Noi) - 1975
Near the end of the Vietnam War, the United States and the governments of South and North Vietnam were all exhausted. They all wanted to end the war. The collapse of a peace conference in Paris resulted in operation Linebacker II, AKA Christmas Bombing of 1972 in Hanoi. Basically, Nixon used this good-cop-bad-cop tactic to coerce the North to yield to the terms in the Paris conference. Why? Because he wanted to be re-elected. It's one of the worst war atrocities - the Dresden of the Vietnam War. Unquestionably the civilians on the ground were the people who suffered. Little Girl of Ha Noi was actually filmed at the time. The war torn backgrounds were real. It's one of the most remarkable accomplishment in Vietnamese cinema. As always in Vietnamese films, the bleak story is of a little girl who searches for her missing family in the rubble after the bombing There are bittersweet moments in the film such as when she flashbacks to being with her family who have perished in the bombing. It reminds me of Grave of The Fireflies and Ivan’s Childhood. Technically, the film is very advance. There are long sweeping dolly shots and even sequence where the filmmakers incorporate animation. Little Girl of Ha Noi is not just a propaganda film, it's an anti-war film that echoes the meaning behind the famous quote "lions led by lambs". While military leaders start wars behind closed door, it's the innocent common men and women who have to pay the ultimate price.
- Land of Suffering
Made in the early 70s, shown twice in South Vietnam, and shelved for over 20 years, Land of Suffering depicts a family being torn apart during the Tet offensive in the city of Hue. Real actual footage of people fleeing the city were used in the film. In perhaps his only acting appearance, Trinh Cong Son, a legendary Vietnamese antiwar songwriter/poet/artist, is a frail, weary, romantic, quiet, but hopeful survivor - a perfect personification of a nation that's been trampled on by colonial powers for more than a thousand years. This long lost masterpiece is a fitting companion film to Little Girl of Hanoi. Both films depict the sacrifices of civilians during the war and encourage Vietnamese nationalism. It's interesting to see the different approaches each film take in dealing with the war. Little Girl of Hanoi promotes a call to arm and has a vengeful militaristic tone, while Land of Suffering emphasizes on the healing powers of love and art. A scene where Son plays his guitar and another shows a couple meeting secretly to rekindle their love summarize what it has to say. To sing and to love are the two best remedies for suffering. These two films need to be seen and analyze together to understand the mentality of North and South Vietnam during the war. One is an unapologetic propaganda for fighting back while the other is a prayer for hope, compassion, and unity in the face of tragedy.
- Thằng Bờm (Bom, The Bumpkin) - 1987
This is one of the funniest films I've ever seen. It's not rigid, serious, and depressing like the other Vietnamese films. What makes it distinguishing is that it shows Vietnamese cinema is not mainly about wars. It can poke fun at itself and laugh at itself. Loosely based on a folk song mothers and grandmothers sing to little children to put them to sleep, the film tells the story of Bom, a yokel who is being educated to become a scholar. Particularly hilarious are some of the misunderstandings involving Bom, his father, and his teacher as they struggle in instill in him some social skills. The entire production is top-notched including fancy and colorful sets, costumes, and has crème of the crop actors at the time. There is a surreal dream sequence that includes a dance performance and displays very high production value. Sprinkled with parody, jokes, and reinforced by very expressive and stylized acting – especially the delivery of dialogues, the film feels like an exuberant parade. Plus, the reason why it’s one of my most beloved Vietnamese films is of sentiment. One of the things I remembered from childhood was while watching this film over at my neighbor's house, the government censored it and showed a different movie.
- The Story Of Kindness or How to Behave
Out of all the films on this list, The Story of Kindness is the boldest, simplest, and yet the most complex. It's a documentary film stemming from the promise of one filmmaker to another. Tran Van Thuy, the director, along with his film crew, undertakes a journey to fulfill the dying friend's wish - to make a film about kindness and suffering. On a surface level, this might sound pretentious which is why it either got accused of being overly preachy or politically subversive. Looking deeper, the film derives the meaning of kindness and misery from its content as well as its form - cinema itself. By interviewing various Vietnamese from all walks of life, we get an idea of how engrained kindness is in the root of all Vietnamese. However, the reality of Vietnam's violent history racked with poverty is chipping away at this compassionate foundation. When living in a country plagued by war, one's belief in kindness can get murky. Furthermore, this is an introspection to documentary filmmaking itself. A documentary filmmaker's duty is to tell the truth, regardless of opposition. However, where do filmmakers draw the line between art and exploitations. Thuy reflects on his life as a documentary filmmaker and from this we start to ask questions: what is the purpose of cinema? or Art? What is the artist's responsibility? Is she/he responsible for his/herself, the world, or the sake of art itself?
10 Most Influential Films From Vietnam By Viet Kieu Filmmakers 2017
Recently, according to popular theater chains in Vietnam, home grown films have failed to attract Vietnamese audience during the 2017 Tet holiday. However, Vietnamese cinema is still growing tremendously. During the recent decade, overseas Vietnamese filmmakers are returning home to invigorate the film industry. They bring new skills and offer a higher quality model of film production. These filmmakers are called "Viet Kieu". To celebrate their contributions, let's take a look at some of the game changers in Vietnamese cinema made by these directors.
- Journey From The Fall
Directed by USA's Ham Tran, the film paints an inclusive picture of post-war refugee experience. Up to this point, there has never been a film about the boat people told from their own perspective. The story is of a Vietnamese family caught up in the turmoil after the fall of Saigon. There two journeys in the film. The first is psychological and it’s the most complex. It centers on Long, the father. He feels hopeless for the country’s fate due to foreign occupations. Even if the American had won the war, the people would still be ruled by an outsider, the communist. On the other hand, he’s torn between escaping by boat and staying to face retribution from the North. He thinks escaping is a betrayal to his country. But 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 the wife and her mother in law. Like any mothers, they would do anything to protect their love ones and to survive. Evident in a scene on the boat when the mother had to make a painful decision to save her daughter in law. These dilemmas are what make the film resonates and transcends beyond being just another movie about refugees.
- The White Silk Dress
This film is a "sweepic" and a “weepic” about a family's excruciating journey to survive after the collapse of the French to the inevitable rise of the Viet Minh. The story begins with the mutual romance between two lowly servants in a wealthy Vietnamese colonial family. They hid their forbidden love from the cruel French puppet Vietnamese master. At their secret wedding, he gives her a Vietnamese traditional silk dress that has been passed down from his impoverish lineage. Throughout the movie, this couple would face unbearable hardship such as humiliation, poverty, violence, and emotional turmoil. The script does an excellent job with giving us a big picture as well as little snippets of tender personal moments. Sort of like the David Lean movies. What ultimately holds this film together is the symbolic Vietnamese white silk dress. On one level, the dress is a symbol for the unbreakable bond between the man and the woman. On a deeper level, it represents the strength of all Vietnamese women. The film's matriarchal undertone of female sacrifices and resilience is meaningful in the context of Vietnamese history. The white silk dress was heavily criticized by the political party in Vietnam as well as the Vietnamese Diaspora abroad. Perhaps it's inevitable since the film is made for the poor uneducated hard working folks, the common women and men and their families getting caught up in the middle of worldly conflict.
- The Rebel
When other movies failed commercially in Vietnam, the rebel became the cornerstone of Vietnamese entertainment. It captures the heart of Vietnamese audience due to its exhilarating fight scenes, astute cinematography, and the handsome cast. There is nothing to write home about regard its script or the acting, although Dustin Nguyen''s risky performance is worth noting. The Rebel stands out for its acrobatic action scenes. Absent are the fast cuts, and computer generated effects accustomed to in Western action movies. We see clearly the actors performing their own stunts. The martial arts they use in the film is Vo Vi Nam, a traditional Vietnamese fighting style involving the principles of training hard and soft, the body and the mind. The film's choreography reflects this philosophy to certain extend. Each fight scene has a varying tempo. Some punches are slow and others are fast and brutal. Certain fight scenes, depending on who is fighting, are precise and abrupt, while others are slow and like a dance. Consider a duel between the main protagonist and antagonist. The former is flashy and graceful like a bird while the latter is brutish and violent like a crazy ox. Overall, you see this film for the martial arts and it’s worth every second. Lastly, the reason it's number two on this list is how impactful it is. The Rebel brought popularity to Vietnamese film industry from audience at home as well as internationally and forever changed the landscapes of Vietnamese cinema.
- Cong Binh Lam Le Documentary
Cong Binh: The lost fighters of Vietnam highlights the devastating effect of French colonialism. At the start of the 2nd Great War, when most French workers went to the front to fight, the French government used Vietnamese peasants from Vietnam as substitutes to keep their factories running. These Vietnamese workers are called "Cong Binh". Through translation, "Cong" means labor and Binh for soldiers. These are the forgotten soldiers of labor that survived through demoralizing conditions. They lived in fear under Nazi regime, and after Nazi's defeat, discriminated by occupying Allied forces. Worst of wall, their own country treated them like outcasts upon their return in the 1950s. South Vietnam sees them as communist sympathizers since they support Ho Chi Minh's fight for Vietnam's independence and the North though they were spies for the French. Le Lam, the director, was educated in France, made the film with diverse and meaningful visuals, such as the use of Vietnamese water puppetry, and lots of archival footage. Best of all are the interviews of these individuals in their twilight years. They are full of dignity, pride, and unbreakable sense of nationalism. We learn that not only do these Vietnamese survived, they triumphed and led successful and happy lives.
- A Time Far Past
Based on Le Luu's very popular novel, A Time Far Past is an epic tale on the life of Sai from the end of the French colonial period to the rise of the Viet Minh. Taking place in the north, the film recounts several events in Sai's life: his marriage to an 18-year old Tuyet when he was only 12, his military career, a relationship with another woman, and how he comes to terms with his life at the end. The most interesting and tragic development of the film is Sai and Tuyet's relationship. Her family married her off to Sai, which was only 12 years old, hoping that his family's revolutionary activity can protect them in the future. This marriage is in itself creepy and immoral but given the strict Confucian society and the volatile political landscape they are living in, we can understand why Tuyet is being so dutiful as a wife to a 12 year old husband. The acting from the actress Phuong Dung Ho is terrific. She portrays with nuance a woman who understands her doomed fate and accepts it. Technically, the movie feels extremely authentic. The actors all look ordinary as if they belong to that place and time. Hung Tran's cinematography makes use of stationary camera works and available lighting to achieve a vintage tone. Huu Phuc Dang's score is unforgettable and brings to mind a sense of lost, sorrow, and yearning. Ho Quang Minh's direction and writing is straightforward and down to earth focusing on the lives the characters instead of the political upheaval setting. At the end, when Sai and his family pose for a group photo, we see a glimmer of hope between him and Tuyet. Notice what the photographer says into the end credits.
- The Buffalo Boy
The word "exotic" has always been associated with South East Asia. Rarely, do we see a film that deviates from this. Mua Len Trau is one of them. It is cold and callous. Its unique story about buffalo herders touches on the vicious cycle of violence in their lives. At the farthest southern region of Ca Mau, a vast wetland where water gives and take mercilessly, so are its inhabitants. People in this movie survive by stealing and doing cruel things to one another. The director, Nguyen Minh Vo successfully depicts a masculine landscape involving people against the indifference of mother nature. No doubt, the tonality of the film reflects the director's personality. Vo's background involves much mathematics. Perhaps, that's why the bulk of film feels very calculating and studious. 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. The acting is very stiff and unemotional with minimal dialogues punctuated by vulgarities. In the end, I understand the main character’s resolve. I don’t feel sorry for him because he never feels sorry for himself.
- I see Yellow Flowers On Green Grass
How can someone not love a movie like "I See Yellow Flowers on Green Grass"? Here is a film that is as innocent and delightful as the characters in it. The story is about the affections that two brothers have for the same girl. Told in a vivid 3-act structure. The first act involves the playful interactions between them. Their childish activities are pure fantasy and nostalgia for someone from that time and place. During this segment, the film takes its time for the audience to care for its main characters. The second act is about reality. Whenever adult-like emotions - such as love and jealousy - come into play, there are drama. Here is where the main conflict takes shape. We see what happen when children's raw emotion takes over and how they struggle to cope with them. Finally, the third act wraps it up by showing how fantasy and reality complement each other. There is a little plot in the third act that was wisely told using magical realism in order to conclude the film. At the end, love and forgiveness triumph over tragedy, poverty, and even death. The casting of the actors are perfect. Even their physical appearances mirror their characters. For example, the cunning older boy looks angular and chisel in contrast to his rounded innocent faced younger brother. Looking at the bigger picture, the film is about children's emotional intelligence. They make mistake, learn from it, and forgive.
- Owl and the Sparrow
Vietnamese films tend to be bleak given its history of ravaging wars and colonialism. The Owl and The Sparrow is a welcoming change from the desolate tone in the majority of other home grown films. Its story is heartwarming and hopeful. A little girl struggles to make it on her own in a big city but has the kindness to connect two lonely people. The ending is very optimistic that it almost recalls Charlie Chaplin. Directed by Stephan Gauger, who was born in Vietnam and raised in the USA, using the style of camera verite that would make the Dardenne brothers proud. The making of the film is in itself a master class of how to shoot a low budget film in Vietnam. Gauger shot the film himself using portable DV camcorders along with a very small but resourceful crew on the busy streets of Saigon with mostly natural lighting. The actors had to improvise based on the loose script. Shots were mostly kept tight with lots of camera movements. The result is a film that captures a sense of being in the presence. By making the films guerrilla style with a touch of Dogma 95, Gauger has opened the door to indie filmmaking in Vietnam. Hopeful, this style of filmmaking gains traction in Vietnam since its strict cinematography laws and lack of resources make traditional filmmaking techniques impractical.
- Three Seasons
Three Season is a sumptuously lyrical film that interweaves stories against the backdrop of Vietnam's economic change. The characters and plots all work together to portray loneliness, atonement, and hardship during the three seasons—wet, dry, and growth. Although, this portrait might not reflect entirely Vietnam's brutal reality, it shows the country as very exotic, mystical, and dreamy. Perhaps this is the reason why the film was allowed to be made at the time even with the sensitive subjects. By diverting from this harsh reality, the filmmaker was able to please censorship and made the first American feature drama shot entirely in Vietnam after the war. Lisa Rinzler's cinematography is the highlight. Using different color palettes to express the film's take on Vietnam's transformation through time. It also incorporates elements that are instantly recognizable as being Vietnamese - lotus flowers, cyclo, folk songs, elegant women wearing conical hats, and the traditional Vietnamese dress "Ao Dai". Through these cultural trademarks, the filmmakers are able to comment on Vietnamese society regarding its past, future, and present. Tony Bui, the director, who came to the US when he was an infant, returned to Vietnam in his early twenties hoping to connect with the culture and people. Three Seasons is a progression from Tony's naive and poetic preconception of Vietnam before he visited it toward the experience that he went through in reality.
Cyclo is visionary, bold, experimental, and be warned it is rather depressing. Directed by Tran Anh Hung, which means traditional narrative is out the window, expository dialogues are forbidden, and lots of symbolic scenes. What is left is just bare bone cinema -a stream of images connected together to give audience an ecstatic experience. And what an experience. The same can be said of feeling the sublime or the apocalyptic when in the presence of the Sistine Chapel or Dante's Inferno. Certain images in Cyclo are so rich that our senses are almost overloaded by them. We are left numb and disturbed. Hung is such a master of synthesizing his influences from other world class directors. Watching Cyclo, we feel fingerprints of Bresson, Scorsese, Cocteau, Bunuel, and of course Di Sica, but the film feels very fresh. The plot is about a poor guy who went on a rampage when his rickshaw is stolen. His journey leads him from one violent deranged character to another. It even drives him almost to complete insanity. The cinematography by Benoit Delhomme and production design by Benoit Barouh utilizes colors and sets to bring the protagonist's consciousness to the screen. Cyclo is also about the cycle of violence and the corruption of innocence. This is a very angry film. There are many lonely, scornful, social paths in the world of the movie. At the end, there is no escape from this world. So far Tran Anh Hung is the only director made a movie representing Vietnam nominated at the Oscar - his first feature Scent of the Green Papaya. Here, he takes big risks with Cyclo, making a film VERY different from his first. Shot in Saigon and was immediately banned by the Vietnamese authority. It is way ahead of its time and not only is it a great Vietnamese film but one of the greatest films I've ever seen.