What’s more to good films than commercial success?

May 21, 2017 - 09:00

A new drama-comedy film has been taking young Vietnamese audiences by storm, achieving dramatic commercial success since its premiere on April 28.

Viet Nam News

By Bảo Hoa

A new drama-comedy film has been taking young Vietnamese audiences by storm, achieving dramatic commercial success since its premiere on April 28.

Grossing VNĐ150 billion (US$6.6 million) up to last Tuesday with two million tickets sold, Em Chưa 18 (Jailbait) broke the country’s box office sales records in less than a month and became the highest-grossing Vietnamese film at the Vietnamese box office.

It has also made its way to the top 3 highest-grossing films in Việt Nam of all time, just behind Kong: Skull Island and Fast and Furious 8.

Centered on the young, rich and open-minded demographic in the country’s largest city Ho Chi Minh, Jailbait tells the tale of a bait-and-switch romance between Linh Đan (played by Kaity Nguyễn) – a 17-year-old student from a bilingual school, and Hoàng (Kiều Minh Tuấn) – a handsome yoga instructor who is almost twice her age.

In an attempt to get back at Tony (Will) – her cheating boyfriend, Linh Đan tricks Hoàng into having sex with her and blackmails him into becoming her new boyfriend with a video recording of their intimate moments. Terrified of going to jail for getting it on with a minor, Hoàng plays along while holding a grudge against the relationship, until one day they both realise they are falling in love.

With a medium budget of VNĐ12 billion (US$529,000) and a cast of relatively unknown actors, how can Jailbait’s commercial success be explained? High school students and twenty-somethings expressed mixed opinions when asked about the film.

“It’s easy to understand, sentimental, gentle and hilarious,” said Thiên Ngọc, 16, from the capital city’s Trần Phú High School. “It was a refreshing story, but the impression didn’t last long.”

A fresh storyline and an attractive female cast were part of the appeal for college sophomore Phương Thảo from Thăng Long University. “But [the film] is actually void of meaning despite being highly entertaining,” she added.

Older audiences agree that Jailbait is just entertainment, but feel a certain sense of detachment from the lifestyles portrayed on screen. Forty-something Bình Nguyễn – a keen filmgoer from Hoàn Kiếm District – said the film was a waste of time.

“It was based on American culture and lifestyle, even though it was filmed in Việt Nam,” Bình said. “I think it will be better targeted to overseas Vietnamese after completing its run here in the country.”

Not too hung up on Jailbait’s content, Nguyễn Hoàng Hải, director of CH CGV Việt Nam – the main distributor of the film, said a well-planned release strategy played an important part in its success.

Jailbait is one of the rare Vietnamese films that has offered previews since April 21, which were shown to be effective as the film had grossed some VNĐ60 billion ($2.6 million) by the end of a long national holiday on May 1, he said.    

“We didn’t expect much from Jailbait but it has exceeded audiences’ expectations, fuelling the word-of-mouth effect,” he added.

Jailbait’s director Charlie Nguyễn has revealed that he will be inviting Kaity Nguyễn to participate in his coming film project.

“The new film is inspired by the Japanese original Key of Life, in which Kaity will play a female hacker, allowing her a chance to prove she’s not a one-dimensional actress,” he told Tuổi Trẻ (Youth) newspaper.

“I’m putting a lot of faith in this girl,” he said.

Amid all the fuss about Jailbait and how it has broken Vietnamese cinema records, I wonder if we have somehow equated a ‘legitimate’ film with a ‘commercial’ film.

Like the majority of audience members, I got the impression that the story was entertaining but largely meaningless.

It’s rather nonsensical to hope for commercial films to be ‘meaningful’, but imagine for a moment we’re idealists who want to see good films that really touch people.

And let’s say we want cinema to remain the seventh form of art, as it has been titled, and believe that art should be based on, and reflect real life.

Having said that, I think more films should portray the different emotional aspects facing teens and young adults, instead of consistently churning out stories in the ‘romance’ mold.

The themes of romance and young love can be exploited, but should be done in a way that illuminates other important aspects of life. Think of how The Perks of Being a Wallflower teaches us that we all have problems and love can help us overcome them, and how The Fault in Our Stars encourages viewers to stay positive and strong in the face of adversity.

Or better yet, make films like Dead Poets Society and force the audience to question the relationships they hold and the importance of the self – themes which I believe should be instilled in the next generation.

As idealists, isn’t it the role of art to cultivate cultured minds, and help people see events and emotions on the wide, and nuanced, spectrum that we call life? — VNS