Closed Minds, Open Doors

Closed Minds, Open Doors

When Le Hoang’s Bar Girls became a box office hit in Vietnam last year, local critics sat up. Its stark depiction of prostitution, drugs and AIDS was considered as the darkest images of Vietnam society ever put on screen. Interestingly, the reaction of international critics was otherwise. Many considered it as turgid, overwrought melodrama.
Yet for those of us working within the region’s cinematic history, Bar Girls is a door opening or a door opener. Due to its strong subject matter and its commercial success, it may open the way for other directors to tackle more divergent subject matter.
Tackling diverse subjects has been a constant obstacle in the film histories of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. All three countries were colonised by the French and were therefore early recipients of film technology. But cinema was inevitably used as propaganda, first as colonial propaganda, then as state propaganda.
Bear in mind that in 1953, the founding year of Vietnam’s state cinema, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed cinema as a means to “organise propaganda on government policies”
The situation was similar in Laos and even more onerous. Even after the proclamation of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1975, the state still mobilised film to “display the point of view of the party and government in the new eraŠ” Vietnam however had a more aggressive post-Liberation cinema. In 1986, the Communist Party reformed the state’s film subsidy mechanism to a market-oriented one. This encouraged filmmakers to tackle new themes. Called the Cinema of Renewal, filmmakers started to offer more criticism in their stories. When Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, film was utilised as state propaganda. By the time Vietnamese troops entered Cambodia in 1979 and installed a new government, films from the 60s and early 70s had all been lost or stolen. What is clearly remembered today are the films of King Sihanouk and Rithy Panh. Rithy Panh provides the extreme contrast to Sihanouk. While the latter mythologises and avoids reality, the former doggedly goes for realism and treats it with an unflinching gaze. From his debut feature, Rice People (1993), his second feature, One Evening After the War (1997) to his many documentaries, Bophana (1996), Site 2 (1989), The Land of Wandering Souls (1999) till his recent S21 (2003); Panh has confronted the horror of the Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge and the pain of post-war poverty. I asked Rithy Panh last year whether there was anything interesting going on cinematically in his country. He said no, not much. The poverty faced by Cambodia and Laos is a major impediment to filmmaking. A few years ago, through the help of French funding, Panh made many workshop documentaries with young directors and these travelled to several festivals. The talent is there. Talent is even more abundant in Vietnam and consistently every year, it is possible to find a few films of festival quality. Vietnam has established itself in the various styles of fiction, documentary and animation. But as my friend, film director, Dang Nhat Minh told me last year, there is a fear that most funds are heading towards television. So the film scene is starved.
Le Hoang’s Bar Girls in a way has turned Vietnamese cinema full circle. In 1938, the first two Vietnamese features, The Ghost Field and The Storm, were considered films about the country’s “black society”. That period of independent filmmaking was short-lived as World War II began. It’s about time to open doors againŠ as well as minds. - Philip Cheah
Vietnam and Laos
In 1953, the founding year of Vietnam’s state cinema, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed cinema as a means to “organise propaganda on government policies, to highlight the achievements and instances of heroic fighting of the Vietnamese people and armyŠto carry out cultural and political education of the people.” Whereas in Laos, the film production system has never been fully commercialised. Till today, whenever festival programmers congregate to talk about Laos, the title that keeps coming to mind is Som-Ock Southiphonh’s Red Lotus, and this film was made in 1988. Even in the book, Film in South-east Asia (2001), Bounchao Phichit, the Laotian founding director of the National Film Archive lists Red Lotus as the most significant recent film! And that film is now more than 15 years old. Like Vietnam, Laos was also in the grip of film as propaganda. Both countries used it heavily in their wars of liberation (till 1975). Yet both countries were never free from it. Even after the proclamation of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1975, the state still mobilised film to “display the point of view of the party and government in the new era and new societyŠin educating the masses and serving the dissemination of the new policies of the government in the construction and development of the socialist system”. From 1989 till the present, film production has slowed down due to lack of funds and outdated equipment. Nearly all the cinemas in Laos have shut down. Instead, video has functioned as the alternative and there are more than 100 video stores supplying home entertainment. Vietnam however had a more aggressive post-Liberation cinema. In 1986, the Communist Party reformed the state’s film subsidy mechanism to a market-oriented one. Predictably, production started declining as state funds disappeared. Yet, this encouraged filmmakers to tackle new themes. Called the Cinema of Renewal, filmmakers started to offer more criticism in their stories. For instance, Dang Nhat Minh’s The Girl on the River (1987) attacked a bureaucrat’s hypocrisy or Le Dan’s Black Cactus (1991) told the inter-racial tale of a black man and a rural girl. But as film critic Ngo Phuong Lan points out: “each Renewal film has generated both high praise and harsh criticism. That is not difficult to understand, given that for decades people had been accustomed to one-sided thinking, listening and speaking.” Ngo cites The Girl on the River as an example: “When the film was first screened, it created a debate because, until then, in Vietnamese films, revolutionaries from the executive cadre were necessarily good persons representing virtueŠThe important point to note is that before Renewal, such a truth could not be told.”
Cambodia
In Cambodia, truth was just as rare. The early colonial films by the French were mostly documentary advertisements for Cambodia as a tourist destination and a business location. The young King Sihanouk is generally regarded as the first Cambodian filmmaker. While he started making his films in the 40s, they were only privately exhibited and not shown to the public until the mid-60s. After Cambodia gained its independence in 1953, the Office of Film began film production only in the early 60s. While movie-going was popular in the 60s, it was not until the end of the 60s that full sound films could be easily made. Yet the war changed all that. When Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, film was utilised as state propaganda. By the time Vietnamese troops entered Cambodia in 1979 and installed a new government, films from the 60s and early 70s had all been lost or stolen.
It was no surprise then that video became important by the mid-80s and by the early 90s, nearly all movie theatres in the capital, Phnom Penh, had closed. What is clearly remembered today are the films of King Sihanouk and Rithy Panh. Since 1960, Sihanouk has made 31 fiction films and 12 documentaries. While his films were intended to improve the standard of Cambodian filmmaking and communicate his leadership ideals to his people, they are very clumsy in form and his critics have attacked them for their unrealistic depiction of Cambodia. In a strange way, Sihanouk is South-east Asia’s answer to Ed Wood. Both had a passionate love for cinema, it’s only that the former had state funds to draw from for his film productions. And while Cambodia doesn’t have a drive-in movie culture, Sihanouk had travelling projection teams to ensure that his films could be seen even in remote provinces.
Rithy Panh provides the extreme contrast to Sihanouk. While the latter mythologises and avoids reality, the former doggedly goes for realism and treats it with an unflinching gaze. From his debut feature, Rice People (1993), his second feature, One Evening After the War (1997) to his many documentaries, Bophana (1996), Site 2 (1989), The Land of Wandering Souls (1999) till his recent S21 (2003); Panh has confronted the horror of the Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge and the pain of post-war poverty.
Opening Doors
I asked Rithy Panh last year whether there was anything interesting going on cinematically in his country. He said no, not much. The poverty faced by Cambodia and Laos is a major impediment to filmmaking. A few years ago, through the help of French funding, Panh made many workshop documentaries with young directors and these travelled to several festivals. The talent is there.
Talent is even more abundant in Vietnam and consistently every year, it is possible to find a few films of festival quality. Vietnam has established itself in the various styles of fiction, documentary and animation. But as my friend, film director, Dang Nhat Minh told me last year, there is a fear that most funds are heading towards television. So the film scene is starved.
Le Hoang’s Bar Girls in a way has turned Vietnamese cinema full circle. In 1938, the first two Vietnamese features, The Ghost Field and The Storm, were considered films about the country’s “black society”. That period of independent filmmaking was short-lived as World War II began. It’s about time to open doors againŠ as well as minds.

--Philip Cheah

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