‘Kong: Skull Island’ is simply the latest in an increasingly long line of films to use Vietnam’s spectacular scenery as a backdrop.

By LE DIEM on September 07,2017 03:20 PM


Photos: L'ESPACE

‘This is an uncharted island in the South Pacific. It has defied discovery until now. Many civilisations spoke of it in legends. The land where God did not finish creation.’ So goes the opening scene from ‘Kong: Skull Island’, the Hollywood blockbuster released earlier this year. The island was found, cinematically speaking, after passing through ranges of immense karst mountains in the sea, which were easily recognised as being part of Halong Bay. Thanks to Mother Nature, Vietnam’s wild and beautiful landscapes helped create a celluloid land of legend. And many other filmmakers have cast their attention towards the country and its spectacular scenery. 

Nature a main character

When director Jordan Vogt-Roberts was asked to make a movie about King Kong, he questioned how to make it fresh, given what’s gone before. Images of helicopters flying over jungles in Vietnam in the 1970s then filled his mind, inspiring him to explore the kingdom of Kong rather than simply retell the classic tale of beauty and the beast.

But where was such a place? Vogt-Roberts scouted a few spots around the world, such as Thailand and Ireland. He didn’t want another version of Jurassic Park, but something different. As soon as he arrived in Vietnam, he knew his Skull Island was here. ‘There was something raw but beautiful and stunning in the colour, shape and nature. It was the island I wanted in my movie,’ he told local media.

After persuading the production company to shoot mostly in Vietnam, Vogt-Roberts and his team of about 200 travelled through large pristine caves such as Rat Cave (which became the house of Kong) and a few other caves and rivers within the Tu Lan Cave system and the peaceful villages of Tan Hoa commune in the central province of Quang Binh, the imposing limestone mountains in the valley of Trang An and Van Long Lagoon surrounded by islands and mountains in the northern province of Ninh Binh, and a flock of storks flying through karst mountains in Halong Bay, shooting various scenes in the movie, sometimes poetic and peaceful and at other times mysterious and magnificent.

The UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Trang An, Halong Bay and the Hue Citadel, as well as well-known places such as Hanoi, HCMC, and Tam Coc (also in Ninh Binh), have appeared in popular movies such as Pan, another blockbuster in 2015, the latest version The Quiet American from the early 2000s, Indochine, the French movie that won an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film in 1993, and L’Amant (The Lover), a French movie based on the semi-autobiographical story of a French woman who lived in Saigon in the 1930s. Lesser known areas in the north, like Dong Van and Meo Vac karst plateaus in Ha Giang province and Ba Be Lake in Bac Kan province, provided the background in Ciel Rouge (Red Sky), a new French movie shot in Vietnam and released in France in July and coming to cinemas in Vietnam in October.


The director of Ciel Rouge, Olivier Lorelle, chose these locations as they are pristine and beautiful, not touristy, and have never appeared on screen previously. ‘The charming and mysterious Ba Be Lake, set among old-growth forests and limestone mountains, Dong Van and Meo Vac’s rough cliffs of limestone, and the houses and scenes in the villages of ethnic minority people are stunning,’ he said. ‘I didn’t need to change much, just keep what we recorded. It brought the poetic beauty of Vietnam’s nature to the screen, with the two main characters, a French soldier and a Vietnamese prisoner of war, falling in love during French colonial times. Nature then became a third character in the movie.’

Vietnam’s natural beauty inspired these artists more than they expected. When the Kong team were on a boat heading out to mountains and caves in Trang An, Vogt-Roberts decided to improvise a scene with a long dialogue sequence not originally in the screenplay. Similarly, when shooting in Halong Bay, the Indochine team got caught in a storm. They sought a place to shelter, but director Régis Wargnier had another idea. He put the two main characters into a small boat, which became one of the movie’s most romantic scenes. ‘The rain inspired me, as it was a hero who saved them from a dangerous situation,’ he told a meet-up with audience members before the movie was screened in Vietnam. ‘Every day, working in Vietnam surprised me in an interesting way.’

The actors were also inspired by the landscape at times. Tom Hiddleston, also star of The Avengers and Thor, had never seen places for shooting like in ‘Kong: Skull Island’. It helped him do his work more easily as he did not have to imagine that they were exploring an untouched island because it was real.

From these inspirational artists came greater exposure of some of Vietnam’s hidden beauty. Ba Luc, an engineer who lived in Quang Ninh, home of Halong Bay, for 15 years, was surprised by the exotic places he saw as he watched the film. ‘I didn’t know how beautiful Vietnam was before that,’ he said.

Other attractions

Vietnam has something else that also makes it a second-to-none filming location.

When L’Amant’s director, Jean-Jacques Annaud, first came to Vietnam in 1989 looking for location to shoot in, he was disappointed with the poor infrastructure and accommodation in the country. He then headed to Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines, which have been used many times for films about Vietnam. But he returned to Vietnam, because ‘the other countries had better facilities but lacked a colonial Indochinese spirit and French architecture. Nowhere can replace Saigon and the Mekong Delta,’ he told local media. ‘The more I searched in Saigon, the more surprises I came across. There were many signs of the French everywhere, including the high school where the author studied. Saigon at that time was an odd city, like a live museum of 19th century colonial architecture.’


Scenes shot in Saigon and the Mekong Delta were lively in the movie, making it more interesting than the book, according to Jerome Boulo, a French maths and science teacher living in Vietnam. ‘The book is good but from the movie I could see the beautiful landscapes of Saigon and the Mekong Delta and the daily life of people at the time,’ he said. ‘It was quieter, more peaceful, greener, and more poetic than today, though something familiar remains in local life.’

Agreeing, Kieu Trang, a resident of HCMC, said she was surprised to see how Vietnam had changed so slowly, despite there being many more high-rises today, compared to the scenes in L’Amant and The Quiet American. ‘There were ferries, canals, dirt roads in the countryside, busy life in Cho Lon [today District 5 and 6 in HCMC] with its Chinese area and food stalls, street vendors, baking heat, and sudden rain squalls,’ she said. ‘I could definitely see the ambiance of my hometown and also learned something about a past that no longer exists, like the clothes, the vehicles, and the live music from beautiful French singers at cafés.’

The oppressive summer heat and high humidity and the drizzle of spring in Vietnam are obvious challenges for the film teams, especially the actors. But these are unique features that can make a scene more impressive, according to Phillip Noyce, director of The Quiet American.

Moreover, the daily life of local people, the street food and beverage culture, footpath barbers, and many other types of businesses along the streets also caught the eyes of directors, as Vietnam not only has its wartime history as a movie subject but also something interesting besides.

French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, known for his ‘trilogy’ of L’Odeur de la papaye verte (The Scent of Green Papaya), Cyclo, and À la verticale de l’été (The Vertical Ray of the Sun), the last two of which were shot in Vietnam, brought the life, culture, and habits of Vietnamese to the screen. Though shot in France, The Scent of Green Papaya captured the spirit and ambiance of Vietnam and a regular family in the 1950s, and it was nominated for an Oscar in 1994 - the only Vietnamese-speaking movie to have been nominated. It won a few French awards, such as the Award for Youth French Film and Golden Camera Award at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and the 1994 Cesar Award, the national film award of France, for Best First Work, as well as the Sutherland Trophy from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).

The upcoming Ciel Rouge also relies on poetic scenes in Vietnam rather than high-end technology, according to director Olivier Lorelle. ‘We wanted to give the audience slow moments, to think and feel about love and people in the modern world, which is so busy, so noisy, and so fast,’ he said.

Meanwhile, Jordan Vogt-Roberts felt that he had a mission to put Vietnam on film in a way that people had never seen before and which would make them want to visit the country as soon as they could, as he become more immersed in it every day and hoped to understand every little piece. He also wants to live here and head back and forth to the US. He has been named Honorary Tourism Ambassador by the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, for his passion in bringing ‘unchartered’ areas in Vietnam to a worldwide audience.

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