Tue, May 02, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Movies enjoying a renaissance in Vietnam

AFP , HANOI

For most of the past 30 years, Vietnam's cinema-goers have had little choice but to watch home-grown communist propaganda films peddling moral messages for the masses.

But as the country has opened up in recent years, so has its film industry, and Hollywood blockbusters now share the billing with local features that increasingly deal with themes the country's aspiring youth can relate to.

In the three years since the government opened the industry to the private sector, Vietnam has seen leisure spending take off, swept along by economic growth that topped eight percent last year and a young population -- two thirds of the country's people are under 30.

"Cinema is an entertainment they can be proud of, a way of showing off, of being trendy," says Phan To Hong Hai, marketing manager from Thien Ngan-Galaxy, a production company and distributor.

In May last year the firm opened a three-screen complex in the southern business hub of Ho Chi Minh City, a major development in a country that has barely 60 screens nationwide.

Last Wednesday, an eight-screen cineplex with over 1,100 seats opened in the capital Hanoi, operated by Ha Noi Megastar Media JV Vietnam, a joint venture between British Virgin Island-based Envoy Media Partners Ltd and Vietnam's Phuong Nam Corporation.

It promises to bring movies from studios including United International Pictures and Disney.

At the end of the war and reunification in 1976, "cinema had become an art and industry entirely funded and managed by the state," explains Benjamin Saglio, attache for audio-visual culture to the French embassy in Hanoi.

But state productions ran out of steam in the 1990s, due to a lack of funding and the government diverting funds to sectors deemed more important to national development.

A lack of fresh ideas and an outdated perception of film were also at fault.

"Films still focused on the war with melodramatic productions. Audiences started to lose interest," Saglio says.

When the industry was first opened up in 2002 and 2003, new actors began to appear on the scene.

Cinemas quickly began to fill up, despite the ready availability of cheap pirated DVDs.

A real breakthrough came when locally-made low-budget feature Dancing Girls, with its heady portrayal of drug addicts in the sex trade, scored a stunning success at the box office.

"Until that time, movies had praised moral values, mostly rural ones," explains Michael DiGregorio of the Ford Foundation in Vietnam, which finances film schools. Dancing Girls was the first movie aimed at young urban people and not at their grandparents."

Dancing Girls revealed the magic combination that would win over cinema-goers was simplicity and an ability to connect with the younger generation's material values and aspirations.

Subsequent box office hits have shown that younger filmgoers want a hero that they can relate to -- someone who dreams of becoming a model or a singer, who wants to travel and above all is looking for love.

As for US, South Korean or Hong Kong films, there is more and more demand for sub-titled original versions.

Vietnamese now want pleasant cinemas with comfortable seats and original versions, "not state movie theaters where [movies] are still dubbed with only one voice for all the characters", says a 24-year-old English student who identifies herself as Linh.

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