ON THE silver screen

Many odd things can come your way in Vietnam, like playing a minor character in a film set in the Mekong Delta.

By JOE A on January 07,2020 09:41 AM

ON THE silver screen

PHOTOS: HOANG MINH THUY

There are a few common ways to make a living as an expat in Vietnam: teacher, embassy employee, business, and to a lesser extent entertainment. I’ve been an English teacher since I arrived, but I travel around the country and spend my free time learning about the local culture, so I occasionally share my passion by writing in the media. One opportunity, however, recently opened up to me and allowed me a grand new experience of the country while getting a glimpse into the world of Vietnamese film.

A friend of mine who works in the film industry happened to be doing last minute casting on a film while I was taking a short vacation in Ho Chi Minh City. I fit the bill for one of the characters in the movie so she asked if could sign on. I have done a good deal of travel in the north of the country, but this was my first time in the south, so it was appropriate that the part I was to play in the film was a foreign backpacker on his maiden voyage through the Mekong Delta. For me this meant a paid vacation to a place I already wanted to see, with the added value of the memory of getting to work creatively while there.

Like anyone new to a professional field, I was nervous. The set looked exactly like what you see in movies and, honestly, I felt bit overwhelmed. There were people doing make-up, producers on phones, people running around with coffee, actors rehearsing lines, and the director speaking with the cast individually to make sure we all knew what to do. This is when some crew members came to me with an elephant shirt, conical hat, and giant camera. In real life I was a tourist undercover, but for this film I had to seriously look the part of the most stereotypical backpacker possible.

Within minutes my nerves had dissolved due to the attitude of everyone on the set. I couldn’t believe how friendly and accommodating the environment was. I expected there to be a high level of stress, but instead of pressure to do a good job the director emphasized a sense of camaraderie, which had the effect of making everyone want to do their best. I settled in fast and was ready to get into character.

I was the only foreigner in the film and even though it was a small speaking part I was there for a bit of comic relief. The director’s note to me was to be excited about everything I see and come off as an out-of-place idiot. Since I actually was excited about everything I saw and felt a little like an out-of-place idiot it reminded me of the lyrics from a Beatles song: “They’re gonna put me in the movies ... and all I gotta do is act naturally.” The set was at a camping retreat on an island in the Delta, and whenever I was on camera I was to be gaping at the beauty of the landscape or taking pictures, so my job was to make a conscious effort of absorbing the wonder of the Delta. I’ve crossed the mighty Mississippi River, but I was not ready for what I witnessed here. The size of the Mekong is difficult to convey, but it felt like crossing a massive lake whose ends stretch out to forever. Just when we’d crossed a bridge and hit land we made it on to another bridge and back over a river. I don’t know how many times you can cross the Mekong heading south, but each time is larger and more expansive that any river I’ve ever seen, and they all feed from the same source.

One of the beauties about being on set is how little time you actually spend filming. But I say that as someone with a small part in the film. Others were working most of the time. The director was either setting the next scene, checking the quality of previous shots, or actively shooting. I, on the other hand, got to relax in the jungle, on a small tributary by the river. All the catering was done by local people cooking their traditional meals and since we were at a popular tourist destination there was a band of Vietnamese musicians singing and playing every time a new tour would come in. This added up to a pretty nice day.

For the times I really was acting I won’t say it was easy, but I can’t overstate how important it was to have a good director. I believe my low confidence made me nervous at first, but with the help of good direction I could be proud of what I was doing and have faith that the outcome would be good. Honestly this insight really opened my eyes about what goes on behind the scenes in a movie. Sometimes a famous actor I love can have a good or bad part, and a lot of the credit or otherwise for that goes to the director and camera crew. When everyone works together, performing their best with a good leader at the helm, the product turns out to be a compelling piece of art.

ON THE silver screen

Another reason for this good turn of events could have been a unique custom they have in Vietnam. Before each new filming location there is a special ritual performed to bless the set to ensure a good shoot. I’ve seen this custom in houses and even businesses before, but I really did not expect it on a movie set. First, they gather fruit and drinks on a table then pray to Buddha and the gods of the land so that all the spiritual beings are appeased before we can do anything to displease them. This certainly must have worked because the whole process felt like a success.

One other surprise was the length of time in a day spent working. Shooting began early in the morning before I even arrived on set and went on late into the night. Lighting is so important in a film and that meant that if we wanted scenes at night then we’d have to stay up until we got it right. The scenes in the dark were also some of the most difficult to film and required the most preparation and coordination. In fact, the last scene of the night took the most shots of the whole film. We were very tired and seated in front of a camp fire with smoke blowing into our eyes. Tensions were a bit high and tempers were definitely short, but luckily we were able to finish without any mishaps and get back to our hotel for some much-needed sleep.

The following day was a late start and early finish that concluded all filming for the project. We then had a nice little wrap feast and parted ways. I had a small part in the film, but I was made to feel important and I was able to share in all the joy that came along with making a movie.

All Comments (0)

Other news

Midday slumber

02PM, 12 December

Though far from being the only country in the world to have a lunchtime nap, the inventiveness of Vietnamese people in sleeping pretty much anywhere is incredible.

  • VnEconomy - Nhịp sống kinh tế Việt Nam và thế giới

Vietnam EconomicTimes © 2014. All right reserved

An electronic media of Vietnam Economic Times - Thoi bao Kinh te Viet Nam.

Other publications of the contents this website as well as their reproductions must be approved in writing by Vietnam Economic Times.

Editor-in-Chief: Professor Dao Nguyen Cat

Licence No 04/GP-PTTH&TTDT on April 23,2014

Head Office: 98 Hoang Quoc Viet, Cau Giay District, Hanoi

Tel: (84-24) 375 2050 / Fax: (84-24) 3755 2058

Email: info.theguide@tbkt.vn ; editortheguide@gmail.com