Director and film critic Ba Vu was wistful when he spoke admiringly about the way South Koreans showed respect for their national hero, Admiral Yi Sun-shin, the naval commander of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897).
Vu was in HCM City last month to attend the premier of Roaring Currents, a 16th-century historical epic written and directed by Kim Han-min. The film’s protagonist is Admiral Yi Sun-shin.
All the South Koreans watching the film came dressed in their formal best, adding to the solemn atmosphere created in the houseful cinema hall.
Vu said he was struck by how starkly the reception accorded to the South Korean production contrasted with the way Vietnamese war and history themed films is typically greeted by the audience.
When feature film Song Cung Lich Su (Living with History) by noted director Nguyen Thanh Van was screened at the National Cinema and some other cinemas in Ha Noi on National Day, September 2, just a handful of tickets were sold.
Song Cung Lich Su portrays the journey of a group of young people to Dien Bien Province after getting to know about the historical Dien Bien Phu Victory through documentaries and other sources.
In fact, the Kim Dong Cinema located in the heart of the city couldn’t sell a single ticket in two weeks.
The film’s failure to make it at box office has raised deep concern among all stakeholders – the public, the filmmakers, film critics and researchers – about the effectiveness of State-funded works.
While most discussions thus far have dealt with the subject and content of the film, the lack of proper promotion and marketing has come up in more recent comments.
For a film that cost roughly VND21 billion (roughly US$1 million) to make, just VND30 million ($1,450) was spent on promotion.
Something similar happened last year with Nhung Nguoi Viet Huyen Thoai (The Legendary Writers) directed by Bui Tuan Dung.
“The film would have reached many more people if at least VND1 billion was spent marketing it. I think a large number of Vietnamese are interested in watching homemade movies, but they do not get to learn enough about such works, said Pham Duong, a frequent cinemagoer.
The The Thao & Van Hoa newspaper said most readers commenting about the film on its website thethaovanhoa.vn said they found its name strange.
“A film’s success depends on three factors: good script, excellent acting, and efficient popularisation,” researcher Tran Quang Duc was quoted as saying by the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.
“The history and war-themed films that I have watched typically miss out on one or more of these factors, mostly the script.”
HCM City-based director Nguyen Quang Dung said the issue was not whether the film was good or bad, but the core purpose of investors.
“For private film studios, money-making is their top objective. This may not be so important for State studios business, so they don’t care much about distribution,” he said.
“All private movies set aside a certain amount for promoting the film.
“However, as far as I’m concerned, a film should be attractive enough in terms of its script, actors and actresses and so on if it targets to win audiences’ hearts through PR campaigns.”
No business sense
Song Cung Lich Su’s director Van admitted that in making the film, not much importance was attached to the matter of doing business. The focus was on conveying historical messages to the audience, he said.
Explaining the film’s failure to sell tickets, Van said it was shown at small-scale and less competitive cinemas.
“We did contact private cinemas, but not all of them said “yes” because they have to make profit and loss calculations,” the senior director said.
Van also felt that although the film was not successful in Ha Noi and HCM City, it does not mean that it would not reach Vietnamese audiences.
“State-funded films are normally distributed and screened through traditional channels – mobile cinemas and cinemas in all cities and provinces,” Van said, adding that he would work with Ha Noi Youth Union to screen the film in universities and other educational institutions.
Critics say this approach is not likely to save films commissioned by the State, especially given that commercial cinemas are themselves struggling to find audiences.
Studies by the film industry show that mobile cinemas, some 300 of which exist nation-wide, did not enjoy a rosy life last year. Most of them are equipped with outdated equipment and unlikely to show new films in the best possible light.
In a commentary titled Admiring and Feeling Sorry after Watching Roaring Currents in the weekend edition of The Thao & Van Hoa, film critic and director Vu posed a question: “If Viet Nam can make such a great work [like Roaring Currents] on our national hero General Tran Hung Dao, how many Vietnamese would go to the cinemas and show their national spirit?”
Asked to comment on Song Cung Lich Su, Vu told Tuoi Tre : “In my opinion, Viet Nam will not be able to make any historical or war films (of comparable quality and success) for at least 10 years, simply because we lack manpower and material resources in this field.”
He has a point, given that a series of recent films, some of them critically acclaimed, like Nhung Nguoi Viet Huyen Thoai, Dam Me (Passion), Rung Den (Black Forest), Vu Dieu Dam Me (Passion Dance) and Choi Voi (Adrift), were all taken off local cinemas after just two weeks.
Film week to celebrate Ha Noi Liberation Day
Song Cung Lich Su and several other State-funded cinematographic works will be screened between October 8 and 14 to celebrate the 60th Ha Noi Liberation Day.
Among the other noteworthy works are feature film Ve Mien Thuong Nho (Towards the Land of Longing) and the documentary Doctor Tran Duy Hung, A Hanoian. Doctor Hung is the first chairman of Ha Noi Administrative Committee, now the Ha Noi People’s Committee.
All these works will be copied into DVD format and screened nation-wide through mobile cinemas.
The event is co-organised by the Department of Cinematography, Viet Nam Feature Film Studio, Feature Film Studio No 1, and Viet Nam National Documentary and Scientific Film Studio.