Viet Nam News
Truyện Kiều (The Tale of Kiều) is a Vietnamese epic by poet Nguyễn Du (1766-1820). It is recognised as one of Việt Nam’s top literary works. The poem recounts the life and trials of Thúy Kiều, a talented young woman who has to sacrifice herself to save her family. She sells herself into a loveless marriage in exchange for her father’s and younger brother’s freedom from prison, not knowing the man she marries is a pimp. He forces her into prostitution.
Lưu Trọng Ninh is the first filmmaker to make a television series about Kiều. Ninh is known for several award-winning motion pictures and popular TV series, including Bến Không Chồng (Wharf of Widows), Canh Bạc (The Gamble), Hãy Tha Thứ Cho Em (Please Forgive Me), Dốc Tình (Give You All My Love) and Hoa Cỏ May (Flower of Grass).
Ninh spoke about his latest project.
Could you tell why you wanted to make a film about Kiều?
Actually, I never really thought about telling Kiều’s story. But I’ll always remember what my father said to me when I graduated from film school in the 1990s: "Please make a film about Kiều. It’s a story that deserves to be a film".
During 60-year history of Vietnamese cinema, there has never been a film about Kiều even though the epic is one of the great works of Vietnamese literature. It doesn’t make sense. Filmmakers should have made dozens films about Kiều by now. This is why I decided to make the series.
Did you encounter any difficulties?
Making a film about Kiều is tough because Nguyễn Du compiled the epic based on a 14th century Chinese Ming dynasty story. I think this is why there are no films about Kiều. One of my great challenges is to figure out how I can portray the literary characters in accordance with Nguyễn Du’s descriptions.
Those who have read the poem know that Kim Trọng is a man who loves Kiều. But they have few details about his life. Other important characters like Hoạn Thư and Thúy Vân also lack detail. This enables me to fill in the blanks with Vietnamese cultural characteristics.
I would guess that most viewers will ask whether the leading actress looks like the character of the poem. I cannot answer this – Nguyễn Du said Kiều had the “beauty of nature”. This is vague, and her appearance cannot satisfy everyone.
How did you try to make this old story new and fresh?
Kiều in film will not be pitied as the character in the poem is. She overcomes challenges and fate. The end of our film will be different from the poem. Kiều has to face to the biggest challenge of her life. We are also introducing several new characters. They are all women and I want them to transmit the spirit of Vietnamese women.
I tried to make Kiều more contemporary rather than dating back 300 years. Her inner beauty and strong will should win over audiences’ hearts.
Some stage directors have brought the story to life in the theatre. What do you think of these adaptations?
I don’t care much about theatre; cinema is quite different. I’m not a representative for how all filmmakers would make a film about Kiều. But the story inspires me so I want to do it. Other filmmakers will come after me and no doubt do a better job telling the story, but I am the first to do it.
Some filmmakers hesitate to make movies and television series about ancient stories because they require big budgets. How have you dealt with this constraint?
I have tried to keep the budget modest. Luckily, the sets and costumes are simple because the story is not set in a palace or an imperial city. I spoke about this with the producers from Việt Nam Television’s Film Studio and they want me to be true to the poem.
I think this will be a cultural event. Many people know the story but will be curious about the film. This is our challenge. The Tale of Kiều is not just about Kiều, but also about the lives of courtesans in the red-light district. — VNS