Vietnamese directors challenge film censors

HANOI • Sex, violence and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) relationships have long been taboo for Vietnam's film censors, but they are now finding their way into the open as a new wave of directors pushes the boundaries set by the nation's conservative communist leaders.

The latest movie to test the waters is Chi Chi Em Em - or Sister Sister - which was featured at Asia's biggest film festival last week after a strong performance at the Vietnamese box office.

A psychological thriller about love, deceit and revenge, the film features sex scenes between women and a complex narrative focused on adultery and trauma - the type of movie that film-makers might have struggled to make just five years ago.

"When I told them about the script, a lot of people said, 'you should just save your time, it's going to get cut'," says Vietnamese-American director Kathy Uyen.

"But I want to tell daring stories about modern women who are strong and quirky, and full of passion," the 39-year-old adds in an interview with Agence France-Presse ahead of the movie's screening at the Busan International Film Festival.

According to government guidelines, Vietnamese films must demonstrate "good ideological content" to pass the censorship board.

Pornography, violence and hostility towards the state are not allowed.

But the board is often accused of censorship beyond its remit.

Last year, film-maker Phan Dang Di told state media the approval process was akin to "torture", while others have admitted they self-censor to avoid an exhausting back-and-forth.

Fear of falling foul of the censors - and a conviction that cinemagoers prefer easy-to-watch romcoms - meant directors rarely dared to experiment in the past, says film critic Le Hong Lam.

But he believes the scene is changing thanks to a new generation of film-makers who are pulling audiences along with them.

"Over the past five years - and especially during the last two - there has been a shift in topics of Vietnamese films," he says, referring to Le Van Kiet's Hai Phuong, or Furie, which tells the story of a former gangster thrust back into her past when traffickers kidnap her daughter.

"These show that Vietnamese audiences are open to new topics - they're not just coming to cinemas for fun. They want films that make them think," he says.

Rom, a gritty tale of Ho Chi Minh City street kids working in the illegal lottery business to survive, was another game-changer, said Lam.

Despite bagging a top prize at Busan last year, the film was fined for screening without approval and took months to clear censorship hurdles, sparking controversy in the press and on social media.

"I think that after this... the censorship board in Vietnam started to make changes to catch up with modern tastes, not cutting things on a whim like before," says Lam.

Rom director Tran Thanh Huy is convinced the winds of change are blowing through Vietnamese cinema, but says it will take more than one film to shift the status quo.

"It needs a lot of voices and a lot of films to create a real change," the 30-year-old says.

Determined to make innovative films with unconventional narratives, he screened a version of Rom at the Busan festival with an ending "open to interpretation", but was forced into a different, happier conclusion by censors.

Still, the film took in US$2 million (S$2.7 million) over its first week in Vietnam.

Filmgoer Tran Hien Vy, a 21-year-old from Ho Chi Minh, says the new approach by directors and censors should win over young people.

"The conservative film style cannot make us spend our money and time to go to cinemas," she says.

Chi Chi Em Em is another example of progress, according to director Uyen.

"The thing I feel really happy about is that when we sent it to the film censor board, they only asked me to reduce this one love scene by about 30 per cent and take out two or three cuss words, and that was it," she says.

Her film depicts events "that happen every day in our lives", she adds. "I don't think I portrayed anything shocking, but in Vietnam this is new."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2020, with the headline 'Vietnamese directors challenge film censors'. Subscribe