Gai Nhay: Vietnam's Gritty Reality Film

A film that has shaken audiences with its potent combination of sex, drugs, and HIV/AIDS, set against a stark portrayal of the lives of young prostitutes, is just as effectively forcing Vietnam’s film industry to take a long, hard look at itself.

Moviegoers watching Gai Nhay (Bar Girls) directed by Le Hoang, gape at graphic scenes like a gang rape and a tight close-up of a young girl injecting heroin into a pale arm, and the film’s grim urban setting—a startling departure from the usual conservative cinematic themes—is striking the right note with young audiences.

“I have never seen such dark scenes in a Vietnamese movie,” said 23-year-old student Le Thu, which is just the reaction that Le Hoang and members of his young crew, like 34-year-old cameraman Pham Hoang Nam, wanted from their audiences.

“We have to change our approach toward producing movies,” said Pham. “The only answer to the problem is to show films that audiences want to see.” The film is a departure from the genre that Hoang is well known for—war films like Luoi Dao (The Knife’s Edge), Chiec Chia Khoa Vang (The Golden Key), and Ai Xuoi Van Ly (The Long Journey). “The film hits all the right spots by dwelling on the most pressing but exciting aspects in our society,” said Le Duc Tien, director of the state-run Liberation Film Co., which produced Bar Girls. “Films that deal with realistic drama of everyday life are much more appealing than those focusing on war.”

Overworked cash registers at the box office are proof that his assessment is right on target. The film has grossed over US$300,000 in the three months since its release, a huge achievement for a locally made film, and has knocked aside foreign imports like South Korean soap operas and Hong Kong thrillers in the rankings.

“The film has attracted such a large, young audience because it deals with social issues that they see around them every day,” said Tran Van Hien, director of the Thang Long cinema, whose seats filled up for four weeks when Bar Girls was screened. For Tran, the numbers were unprecedented—shows rarely attract more than two or three dozen young viewers who usually prefer watching video CDs and DVDs of Hollywood productions.

Yet the success of Bar Girls is due as much to Hoang’s talent as it is to the new thinking at the Ministry of Culture and Information. In Vietnam, a few state companies are allocated funds to produce films to be shown in state-owned cinemas. Film scripts must be vetted and approved by the ministry’s Department of Cinematography before the cameras begin rolling.

With socialist Vietnam treating film as a medium best employed to educate the masses, its control of the industry has been heavy-handed and predictably dull, its output being overly serious films that held little appeal for young audiences whose tastes changed as the pace of  Vietnam’s doi moi, or economic reform grew. Hoang explained the approach under such a statist system. “Filmmakers usually choose scripts treating traditional subjects—war memories and socialism building—because it is the safest way to win state approval and funding,” he said, and added that he wanted to “make something more enjoyable that people are interested in.”

His opportunity came with the advent of new thinking at the ministry. At the end of 2002, the ministry unveiled a new policy that abolished the pre-filming censorship of scripts and permits the establishment of private film studios. The aim, said the ministry, is to encourage competition, initiative, and investment to revitalize Vietnam’s film industry. “The new policy will have a great impact on the industry,” said Nguyen Phuc Thanh, director of the ministry’s Department of Cinematography. “From now on, private producers can choose the stories and scripts they want. We aim to provide better conditions for young filmmakers to produce quality movies to satisfy young fans.”

Bar Girls was an early vindication of the new approach and has proved that an unconventional story can be successful both cinematographically and financially. Having cost US$78,000 to make, it has already grossed several times that.

“The success of Bar Girls means that despite limited state funds, filmmakers can turn out movies that respond to the need of the public,” said young cameraman Vuong Tuan, refuting the hackneyed argument advanced by many producers that limited resources do not make for interesting movies.

Private filmmakers in Vietnam have in fact produced films with their own funds, but only under the license of state-run film companies. These are usually video films with uncomplicated and light storylines—a love affair or saucy domestic scandal. Derogatorily called “instant noodles” by the serious filmmaking set, these films recover costs quickly and then profit.

Inevitably, Bar Girls has come in for its share of criticism. It has been compared with Hoang’s earlier work and found wanting, and the idea of films for entertainment as a solution that will help shore up Vietnam’s film industry has been questioned by some.

“To solve our problems, we need to look at longer-term solutions,” said the director of the Vietnam Film Co., Nguyen Van Nam. “We need to pay attention to serious movies to attract audiences rather than blindly follow their temporary tastes.” The company is famous for its quality films that have won awards at international film festivals—like last year’s Season of Guavas and this year’s Me Thao.

International awards, however, have not whetted a young audience’s appetite for entertainment at home, and when these films are screened in Vietnam, the empty seats far outnumber those occupied. It is a lesson not lost on Hoang, who said, “We can’t fully develop the film industry without producing hit movies.” And a hit is what Bar Girls undoubtedly is.