The cinema has become a much more popular entertainment option and the country’s film industry is capable of doing well.

By KEVIN RAISON on April 16,2019 10:07 AM


Photo: Le Diem

Walking through the open door-shaped hole in the wall, we paid a total of VND40,000 (less than two dollars) for the two tickets after a swift exchange of Vietnamese. “What was that all about?” I ask. Oh, we’re the only ones here so they asked what movie we wanted to see. We proceeded up the stairs into a small room without aircon. There were benches lined up left and right, all facing the screen. In the back sat an unattended computer connected to a projector. The sound of the steps rushing up the stairs behind us let me know how things would go. We took our seats. Well, we sat down - we weren’t really assigned seats, and the guy who sold us the tickets, erm, well there weren’t tickets either … the guy to whom we paid the 40k when we entered sat at the computer and started up the bootleg movie.

That was years ago. Today some Vietnamese cinemas boast a broader range of services and features than I’ve seen anywhere else in the world, albeit with a couple of limited, yet tragic, shortcomings, specifically no plain or buttered popcorn, only cheese or caramel corn. One of the most practical features most people take advantage of is the fact that if one wishes to buy tickets well in advance online it’s very much possible. What’s more is that many movies aren’t just standard these days. Options such as 3D or the immersive novelty of 4Dx can be found in most major cities of Vietnam. While IMAX cinemas have yet to be widely available, there are other novelties to make a viewing experience a bit special. For example, numerous cinemas provide certain VIP theatres with extra-large luxurious chairs. The standard cinema also often offers couple’s benches that are perfect for enjoying a movie together, or, if you wish to go the extra mile, try CGV’s “rap l’amour”, which features large plush beds set in the theatre. Do note, there’s CCTV in use.

In short, the cinema experience in Vietnam has come a long way from the back of the shopping center laptop and projector setup to international-grade multiplexes, though that’s not to say that the former isn’t certainly still available. There have been some other subtler shifts of late as well. For example, Vietnam has revamped their movie rating system to minimize unnecessary censorship. Modeled after a rating system in Singapore, this new system is different in that it seems to be often enforced at many cinemas, whereas in the past it seemed rather easy for under-aged clientele to purchase tickets for any movie. This seems to have correlated with a change in movie content. Traditionally, Vietnamese movies wouldn’t show so much as a kiss. Now, however, it seems a lot of directors have opted for showing as much skin as possible, perhaps for the shallow sake of seeming “edgy” or “modern” or perhaps they feel it adds to the movie. This increased acceptability as to what’s allowed in theaters has led to a backlash at least once however. About a year ago, China released a film that went on to be a hit - “Operation Red Sea”. The film, loosely based on real events, ended up as China’s second-highest grossing movie ever. Naturally the film came to Vietnam and was released into cinemas. Now for any movie to be shown in Vietnam, standard procedure is that it must pass the scrutiny of the Central Council of Feature Film Evaluation and Classification, which is under the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. The people of Vietnam, however, seemed to object to parts of the film. Numerous complaints were launched online and the movie was eventually pulled for review, which it then passed again - but by that point the damage was done. Theaters didn’t have an interest in showing the movie any longer. In short, while the entire system has developed, it seems the people are likewise slow to grow with the times.

But what of the movies themselves? Anyone paying attention at all might have noticed the cinema scene is growing and, especially in the way of action movies, improving. Using one of the most well-known names in Vietnamese cinema as an example, Victor Vu seems to be finally shaking off previous accusations of plagiarism. He has since released numerous well-reviewed films, perhaps most notably “Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass” which received international recognition. Still, this initial investigation marks a potential shift towards valuing the sanctity of an artist’s work. For Vietnam, this would be a big step towards creating an environment where artists feel their work isn’t just going to be stolen and that they can really truly afford to continue developing the industry here.

The cinemas have developed, the regulations have developed, and the creative culture has developed - all setting the stage for a new exciting era of Vietnamese cinema. However, there is a key factor that seems to have not yet developed - the people. Many domestic movies seem to play on all the same old tropes and, indeed, they do well. The most recent of such unimaginative pieces might be the well-received “Cua Lai Vo Bau”, though perhaps well received because it was released over Tet - a time when everyone has too much free time and boredom invariably sets in. The movie is the same old slapstick comedy and love triangle, complete with gaping plot holes, clearly ripped-off plot devices, and an uninspiring cast. Some might argue that the film promotes ideas that many would consider outdated or even downright reprehensible. To begin with, the movie treats the female lead like a thing to be won and suggests that her boyfriend, a selfish deceitful loser who’s incapable of respecting his girlfriend, is the “hero” to be empathized with while the fact that he is unable to respect her as an equal is utterly glazed over. At the same time the movie sends a repeated message that even the notion of considering an abortion, even when the pregnancy would be terminal for the mother, is absolutely out of the question and that withholding the right to make an informed medical decision from a woman is acceptable. Between the loser hero, arguably date-rapist best friend character, and the gold-digger girl who leads on her rich suitor for the benefits, I can’t help but wonder what ideas such a massively well-received movie either says about Vietnam or reinforces here.

This brings me back to one of my first points. While the cinema in Vietnam might now feel like that in other foreign countries, it’s still not the same, be it in film content or snack selection. But each to their own - people are meant to have different preferences. Lucky you’re in Vietnam then, for when it comes to the cinema, above everything else, there are plenty of options to ensure anyone can find a good time.

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