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Historical film makers face uphill battle

Update: October, 18/2010 - 16:57
Follow my lead: Martial arts master Nguyen Quang Dung (left) plays Monk Phong Viet in the movie about King Dinh Tien Hoang, entitled Dinh Tien Hoang De. — VNS Photo Tuan Vu
Battlefront: King Quang Trung and his wife in Tay Son Hao Kiet (Heroes of Tay Son).
New home: The TV series Huyen Su Thien Do (Legendary History of the Capital's Relocation). — File photos
The Vietnamese movie industry is still struggling to make good historical movies, because of lack of resources and money. Trung Hieu reports.

Nguyen Quang Dung from Hang Bong Street is not a professional actor. He is a martial arts master.

He acts in a historical TV series, Dinh Tien Hoang De (King Dinh Tien Hoang), produced by Ninh Binh Province Television.

"We spent two months filming scenes in rocky caves in Ninh Binh Province," Dung says. "I really like the film, because the script is interesting. Moreover, I had a chance to perform martial arts at Buddhist pagodas, so I was really excited."

He plays the role of a Buddhist monk who teaches martial arts and military science to the King during his childhood. Dung's six-year-old daughter Khanh Huyen also acts in the series and plays the role of the King's childhood friend.

He has also worked as a martial arts consultant for the series and another show, Huyen Su Thien Do (Legendary History of the Capital's Relocation) by director Pham Thanh Phong. The latter show is about King Ly Thai To's decision to move the country's capital from Hoa Lu in Ninh Binh to Dai La (modern day Ha Noi).

These two TV serials are part of a recent string of historical movies that have been produced.

Vietnamese audiences have watched many historical movies, but most of them are produced by directors and studios from the US, China and South Korea. Many people now claim that Vietnamese audiences understand Chinese history better than Viet Nam's history because they have seen so many Chinese films. Vietnamese youngsters are more familiar with South Korea's Dae Jang Geum than with Viet Nam's Queen Le Ngoc Han.

"Historical movies made by Chinese and South Korean filmmakers are very realistic. Their costumes are beautiful, and their actors perform well, so when we watch them we believe what we see on the screen," says Bich Thuan from Ha Noi.

Thuan, along with movie fans across the country, wonders: why can't Viet Nam, a country that has spent the better part of thousands of years defending itself from powerful foreign armies, create a historical film of any merit?

The easy and quick answer would be that the film industry lacks the funds to make such a film, but money is just a small part of the many problems that plague the film industry.

Director Minh Tri says that with the country's vast and dramatic history there are many sensational stories waiting to be turned into films.

"The problem is how we bring these stories to the screen," says Tri. "Actually, we lack the talent that is needed to make these historical films."

Recently, Ly Cong Uan – Duong toi thanh Thang Long (Ly Cong Uan – The Journey to Thang Long Citadel) was not allowed to be aired during the 1,000th anniversary of Thang Long-Ha Noi because cinema authorities and the public concluded that there were too many Chinese elements present in the film. The costumes and scenes did not accurately reflect Vietnamese culture from that historical era.

On the set: A scene from the historical movie about a famous prime minister, Tran Thu Do.
Period piece: King Ly Cong Uan in the movie Ly Cong Uan-Duong toi thanh Thang Long (Ly Cong Uan-the Journey to Thang Long Citadel).
In Viet Nam, historical movies are often made to celebrate important events, including the 1,000th anniversary of Ha Noi and Reunification Day.

In other countries like China and South Korea, filmmakers produce historical movies all year.

"Technology and money are never the most decisive elements when you're making a movie," says director Ha Son.

A historical film must persuade audiences to believe that the story is real. Editors, directors and designers are crucial to the process.

"Not every well-known screenwriter can create a script for a historical film. The writers need to have researched the era thoroughly," says Son. "We still do not have talent in this field. Human resources are vital and the Vietnamese film industry is lacking in this area."

For historical films, the sets, weapons and props are crucial, but Vietnamese filmmakers do not have workshops to produce such items.

Weapons often provide nightmare situations for actors because Vietnamese filmmakers use real weapons on set, says actor Quyen Linh.

"When we worked on Trung Quang Tam Su [a historical film about the Trung Quang Military Camp during a Vietnamese uprising against Chinese Ming invaders], I was so afraid as I watched film designers giving the extras real swords and spears," says Linh. "Most of these weapons were rusty. How did we know that these ‘actors' would not harm us? The only thing I could do was pray that I would not be injured while we were filming the scene."

Film editor Dinh Thien Phuc says a studio is vital to making historical films.

"The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism's Movie Industry Department should ask the State to allocate 1,000ha in Phan Thiet City (Binh Thuan Province) to build a studio. A historical film studio could later be used as a tourism site," says Phuc.

Department head Lai Van Sinh acknowledges that the lack of professional studios has had a negative impact on historical films.

"We don't have a qualified system for studios, while in China they have different film studios for each historical era, including the Tang, Ming and Qing dynasties," says Phuc.

Both State-run and private film companies are not enthusiastic about making historical films because of the effort they require.

Head of the Movie Broadcasting Chamber at HCM City Television (HTV) Nguyen Anh Xuan says the HTV directorial board encourages private film companies to produce historical movies.

"We pay VND180 million (US$9,230) for a social psychological film, but we pay VND400 million ($20,502) for a historical movie. We also save our time table's ‘golden hours' to broadcast historical movies," says Xuan. "We have created these priority policies, but private filmmakers are still not enthusiastic about the genre."

Deputy head of the Movie Industry Department, Le Ngoc Minh, says the problem can't be solved quickly.

Minh says filmmakers should research history, build modern studios and use professional props, costumes and weapons.

"While our movie industry still lacks technical infrastructure, we want to develop a historical film genre, but sometimes we receive negative feedback from the public," says Minh. "This discourages filmmakers as well as investors and distributors."

Although filmmakers have had a difficult time producing movies about ancient history, Vietnamese filmmakers have successfully made films about more recent history. Such films include Lang Vu Dai Ngay Ay (The Then Vu Dai Village), Sao Thang Tam (August Star), Canh Dong Hoang (Deserted Field). All of these films were made during the golden era of the Vietnamese movie industry.

These films are now considered ‘paragons and classics' and are widely available on DVD.

"All these films were produced during the years when the country suffered from economic difficulties, but the State earmarked funds for the industry," says film researcher Doan Tuan.

"These movies capture the reality of the country during those years."

While there weren't many films released to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of Ha Noi, Khat vong Thang Long (Thang Long Aspiration) was the only historical movie about King Ly Thai To that will be aired. The cinema authorities acknowledge that while the film had gaping production errors, the movie is entertaining and captures the Vietnamese leader's story.

"I believe that in the future, our film industry will have better financial and technological resources," says amateur actor Dung.

"Some filmmakers may still hesitate [to make historical movies], but I think we should bravely do it, so we will learn more and improve the quality of the country's historical movies." — VNS

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