September 26, 2018 – 6:58 am


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Kfc, the first ultra-shock gore-fest film by Le Binh Giang, would seem an aberration in a country where Nationalist cinema dominated from 1953 till 1986, the year when the Doi Moi (Renewal) Period ushered in new freedoms. For example, when the state opened cinema exhibition to the private sector in 1995, the first cineplexes were built and, along with it, came commercial films. For the first time, Vietnam fans saw horror movies. By Philip Cheah.

Vietnam as a name did not exist until after 1945. From 1887, the territories of Vietnam - Annam (Central Vietnam), Tonkin (North Vietnam) and Cochinchina (South Vietnam) - were part of French Indochina, until the declaration of independence by Ho Chi Minh in 1945.

Prior to that, the first sound film in the local language was The Ghost Field (Canh Dong Ma, 1938) plus many other titles produced by nationalist-minded filmmakers. Cinema only became of national importance when Ho Chi Minh set up the Vietnam State Enterprise of Film and Photography within the Ministry of Propaganda on March 15 1953. This was considered as the Founding Day of Vietnamese national film. As the resistance war against French colonialists climaxed, documentary production increased, for example, Nguyen Tien Lui’s Dien Bien Phu Victory (1954), making film the official tool to forge patriotism, national pride and belief in military victory. This first documentary marked the birth of Vietnamese film.

Before 1964 (the year that the United States formally entered the war in Vietnam), only two to three films were made each year, but from 1965-73, annual production rose to four to five titles. In contrast, for the same period, 307 documentaries were made compared to 36 features and 27 cartoons.

The war ended in 1975 and the most significant change for the film industry took place nearly 11 years later. In 1986, Doi Moi or the Renewal Period was launched at the Sixth Congress of the Vietnam Communist Party and reversed the economic foundation from one of subsidisation to an open market. This change fostered an openess to divergent thinking and candid portrayals in film. For the first time, individual expression was sanctioned.

1986 would be the year where the seeds of independent filmmaking steadily grew from. Without the Doi Moi or Renewal Period, much of the new independent initiatives from the TPD Centre (Centre for the Assistance and Development of Movie Talents, founded in 2007), Hanoi DocLab (founded in 2009) or YxineFF, an online short film festival (founded in 2010) to the Autumn Meetings (founded in 2013), would not have been welcome.

In fact, you wouldn’t even see the likes of Le Binh Giang’s Kfc (2016), an indie ultra-violent gorefest revenge thriller today. And we almost didn’t as well since Le wasn’t allowed to graduate from the University of Ho Chi Minh when his Kfc script was deemed too violent by the school’s examiners.

Being in a market economy, filmmakers such as Le face another kind of pressure - a struggle to remain relevant and competitive against other media such as online streaming and television. Government subsidies were slashed when Doi Moi began, and the number of state-produced films sharply declined due to the high cost of production and financial risks.

The digital revolution at the end of the ’90s was the silver lining in the film industry’s dark cloud. And while Le could have no hope of state funding, digital film production was cheaper and there was still the possibility of independent funds. His application to the Autumn Meetings in 2013, that filmmaker Phan Dang Di was instrumental in founding, was successful. When he won the Autumn Meetings’ award for Film of the Future, he secured some funding and made a few short films, before he realised his dream project - Kfc.

Is there any coincidence that the first sound film was The Ghost Field (1938), and now the first ultra-shock gore-fest film, Kfc, also deals with horror? Or that When The Tenth Month Comes, the first Vietnamese film to enter the US after the war ended in 1975, is about the spirit world? Vietnamese cinema has its own share of strangeness and Kfc is not such an isolated aberration. Kim Quy Bui’s Inseminator (2014) was also banned in Vietnam for its surrealist sexuality. And if you react violently to Kfc’s fragmented narrative - flashback to flash-forward - you can see parallels in Siu Pham’s experimental Homostratus (2013).

While state agendas have always haunted (sic) Vietnamese cinema, its filmmakers are naturals at going against the grain. Dang Nhat Minh’s When The Tenth Month Comes (1984) is a classic example. This was the first film (since Vietnam’s Founding Day of National Film in 1953) to bring the spiritual aspect of Vietnam culture on screen. In fact, there was some uneasiness in communist party circles concerning this.

And if you consider it from another point of view, Dang’s film was an exercise in experimental tradition. After decades of nationalist filmmaking, When The Tenth Month Comes presents a narrative where the living and the dead are interacting and in conversation. Instead of a flashback or a flash-forward, this was a flash-beyond, when the protagonist meets the ghost of her deceased husband in the yin-yang market on the Day of Forgiveness. After years of straightforward messages of patriotism, nationalism, military sacrifice and revolutionary glory, Dang’s film prefers to meditate on personal sentiment, individual suffering and longing. This comes through poignantly in the film’s poem:

“When the tenth month comes,
And rice ripens in the storm-softened fields,
I will leave behind my days of longing,
Of hope filled with loss and hardship.
No clouds, no tears will blind me,
When the tenth month comes.”

To go further back before Dang’s film, we encounter Pham Ky Nam’s Ms. Tu Hau (1963), one of the two masterpieces of early Vietnam film (the other being Nguyen Van Thong’s The Passerine Bird, 1962), and we can see more clearly how stylistically advanced When The Tenth Month Comes was.

Ms. Tu Hau stands out for its realistic cinematography. The suffering of the protagonist who is raped by French soldiers, whose husband is killed in the war and whose child is captured, is emotively framed rendering a psychological depth not often seen before in early Vietnamese film.The first independent documentary films - Nguyen Trinh Thi’s Love Man Love Woman and Tran Phuong Thao’s Workers’ Dreams - travelled to film festivals in 2007. Many others continued this burst with other award-winning documentaries such as Jakeb Anhvu’s Blush Of Fruit (2012) that exposed the underbelly of charitable orphanages. 2007 was also the year that the TPD Centre (Centre for the Assistance and Development of Movie Talents) was founded. One of the Centre’s directors is Bui Thac Chuyen, who is represented here by his award-winning Adrift (2009), a tale of female sexuality in modern Vietnam.

Since 2009, when documentary and video artist Nguyen Trinh Thi founded the Hanoi Doclab workshops, short independent documentaries have been screened at various film festivals, including Hard Rails Across a Gentle River (an anthology of four short films) that won Special Mention at Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (2011). Doclab films have a personal and experimental approach to filmmaking that has been pushing the boundaries of the state-controlled film industry. One outstanding piece in this selection is the banned, At Water’s Edge by Do Van Hoang, that documents a tradition of nude swimming for health benefits. It’s a startling observational piece that uncovers the extraordinary in the lives of ordinary people.

When Doi Moi was first introduced in 1986, it was meant to be a planned renewal. But the force of the changes was unpredicted and unstoppable. In this tsunami of change, there will be many new waves.

Note: This essay was first published for the Griffith Film School’s Showcase Cinema programme held on September 20-22 2018 in Queensland, Australia.

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