Here's Why You Should Check Out Vietnamese Movies

Blogs - Vietnam: Jan. 2, 2018

This summer, history was made. Audiences in Vietnam flocked to Jailbait (Em chưa 18), a romantic comedy chronicling the devious machinations of a 17-year-old girl as she attempts to blackmail an older man to make her ex-boyfriend jealous.

The film, released in late April, shattered box office records by raking in almost US$9 million and became the highest-grossing film in Vietnam’s history, international as well as domestic.

Video source: CGV Cinemas Vietnam

It might seem obvious that a Vietnamese movie would hold the box office record in the country. However, in recent years, as more foreign movies have been shown alongside domestically made counterparts, Vietnamese movies had fallen by the wayside.

Does Jailbait’s enormous success mark a turning point for Vietnamese cinema?

A Rocky History

Or maybe a more pertinent question: why was Jailbait so enormously popular to begin with? After all, it fell in the vein of the majority of Vietnamese movies released since the early 2000s, when the country’s mainstream movie industry began to gain ground.

Timothy Bui, international film director and founder of the Vietnamese developing company Happy Canvas, has a theory. “It was strong storytelling,” he said. “It dealt with a prom, which you don’t have in Vietnam—just in international schools. It gave audiences a glimpse of something foreign, but also really universal. And it felt fresh.”

cinemaImage source:

Fresh is the keyword here, according to Bui, and exactly the quality that the film industry has missed in Vietnam since 2015.

“2015 was the recession of Vietnamese cinema,” Bui said. “Up until then, you could have made a movie for US$200,000 in your bathroom and it would sell out, because it was new. And then all the studios, without progress, kept turning the same product out, while the audience’s taste got more advanced.”

An article published in 2016 by VietnamNet estimated that Vietnam’s film industry was worth US$100 million, a drop in the bucket compared to Thailand and Korea.

“The main argument is, ‘Why would I pay VND60,000 for a Vietnamese film when I can pay VND60,000 for The Avengers?’” Bui asked.

What Does Vietnam Want?

Talk to an expat, or even a local, and chances are they will choose to see the latter over the former, though it wasn’t always this way. Bui said that the Vietnamese audience is nationalistic, takes pride in the country’s creations and wants to support their homeland’s artists.

This might just be the problem.

“I had a talk with a theatre,” he said. “I told them they have to be more selective. Their response to me was, ‘We’re going to give them three showtimes, because we’re trying to support and encourage’.”

After a deluge of low-budget, poorly developed domestic movies entering theatres in the past few years, Vietnam’s audience has come to expect this low level of quality. As Stephane Gauger, Vietnamese-American director, said simply, “[The audience] got burned, and now they don’t trust the movies people are putting out.”

For Gauger, who as been developing movies for the Vietnamese audience since he first worked on Three Seasons in 1997 (released in 1999) as the cinematographer (a movie that Timothy Bui produced), has come up with a broad list of do’s and don’ts for the Vietnamese audience.

According to Gauger, first and foremost, the movie’s got to have comedy, paired with the right amount of heart. “They need the laughs; they need the relief,” he said. Due to the budget restraints, he considers it a bad idea to delve too deeply into action, a foray that a well-funded Hollywood movie can accomplish much better. Horror might work, although there’s a cap—rather than feeling thrilled, he suspects many Vietnamese will just feel uncomfortable instead.

Video source: Video Detective

But romantic comedies? This is a genre that’s been around for decades, so the savvy director had better do something different. “That’s why stuff has to be high concept now,” he said, referring to larger-than-life themes like body switching and time travel.

“People want something different from the standard boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. They need a little bit of a twist.”

Gauger’s newest movie, Kiss and Spell (Yêu đi, đừng sợ), is a case in point: based off the Korean movie Spellbound, the romantic comedy tells the tale of a magician who is afraid of ghosts, courting a girl who has seemingly paranormal abilities. The movie, released in August, won the Audience Prize at the Danang Film Festival in November.

Video source: Galaxy Cinema (Official)

Training for the Future

For Bui and Gauger, two directors who first made their name in Hollywood and who are now committed to developing Vietnamese cinema in-country, the differences between the two working atmospheres go beyond budget and climate.

cinemaImage source:

Both noted, for example, a lack of experienced, professional crew people, which can ultimately hinder the success of a project. For Gauger, who’s currently writing a treatment for a situational comedy that takes place in a Vietnamese university, his current obstacle is finding a suitable writing partner. “My production company will say that they have a great screenwriter available, but she’ll just be really good at thrillers, not comedies. Or, there’s another girl who’s done great work, but she’s shooting in England right now. So, there’s a need, a demand for writers.”

Bui said he constantly yearns for a consistent and dedicated assistant director. Rather than seen as a career in and of itself, like in the United States, in Vietnam, “It’s a placeholder. Everybody wants to direct, so they might take the job for one project, but they’ll be directing the next year.”

Another occasional fly in the ointment, censorship, tends to affect three categories in particular—sex, violence and politics—though Bui noted that his newest movie, the horror film The Housemaid (Cô hầu gái), marked a turning point for Vietnamese cinema in general. “Before The Housemaid, if you were to make a ghost story, then at the end of the movie, the ghost couldn’t exist. It had to be in your imagination. But we were able to find a middle ground.”

cinemaImage source:

Bui has recently opened a development company, Happy Canvas, to help young Vietnamese screenwriters develop their scripts on a deeper level than previously expected; Gauger is focused on making crowd-pleasing movies that entertain but don’t pander. Will Vietnam’s audience learn to embrace their country’s cinema once again?

“It’s hard,” Gauger said. “You’ve got to basically weed out as many bad movies as you can, develop new talent, develop better scripts… You’ve got to get the faith back.”

Banner Image source: