Postcard: Hanoi

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 November, 2014, 11:11pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 November, 2014, 11:11pm

Diep Nguyen Hoang says she can feel the groundswell of change rumbling beneath the Vietnamese film industry, but then muffles a laugh when she stresses things are not quite at the stage when we can start using the phrase "new wave".

"There have been a lot of arguments between filmmakers of the past and filmmakers of the future," she says. "What is a good film? What is good cinema? You know, audiences in Vietnam now never want to see films about the war. There are more young filmmakers who think the same way as me. Step by step, writers and directors are turning to other topics, like love, like the social and economic life in Vietnam today."

The 32-year-old director has in recent months been touring the festival circuit with her textured debut feature, Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere. The drama following a pregnant teen as she tries to find the money to pay for an abortion - and presenting the shadier side of modern city life in Vietnam - was named best film at the Venice Film Festival's International Film Critics' Week.

Diep's offering also featured at the Busan International Film Festival last month in an eclectic programme that showcased three other Vietnamese films, including independent filmmaker Nguyen-Vo Nghiem-Minh's 2030, which places romance in a future Vietnam that's underwater after the world suffers cataclysmic climate change.

For international film audiences, Vietnam is perhaps mostly known for the esoteric musing of Tran Anh Hung's Oscar-nominated The Scent of Green Papaya (1993) - which actually was shot in Paris - or as the backdrop to the likes of Frenchman Régis Wargnier's Oscar-winning Indochine (1992) - which was partly filmed in Penang, Malaysia - or as the setting for war movies.

In Vietnam itself, there have been rumblings about how audiences have grown tired of the state-funded blockbusters which are almost always focused on tales from the troubled, war-torn past. In short, these films - such as a recent production marking the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu - recount and remind audiences of glorious victories - except no one seems interested.

"Sometimes there are only one or two people at a screening," Diep says. "It's strange. They are not making money and until recently no one seemed to care, but it makes it sometimes impossible for independent films to find a screen."

With government funds mainly channelled into these historical epics, it has meant filmmakers such as Diep have had to make their own way in the film world. "There're no producers, no distributors and no sales agents to take our films overseas. The cinema system is really only now taking shape, both in Hanoi and in other cities," she says. "A group of us are looking at how film industries overseas work - how they network. You need to learn how to pitch, who to pitch to, how to get your film made."

Although she once harboured hopes of becoming an actress, it soon became apparent to Diep that the only way she could be assured of work was to run the show herself. "Being a director is like being a king and I thought if I became a king I could also join as an actress whenever I wanted," she says.

Among the first steps she took was to enter the Ties that Bind co-production programme, which each year instigates projects between European and Asian filmmakers. That experience directly led to Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere getting made.

"I joined that programme as a producer, but I had no idea what a producer actually did. I felt very shy and embarrassed. Everyone seemed to know everything and I knew nothing," Diep recalls. "But this is how Vietnamese filmmakers can learn and need to learn, and [how] our film industry develops."

Working as an indie filmmaker may have its drawbacks - such as that seemingly never-ending search for funds - but Diep finds the freedom she has been afforded liberating. "I thought a lot about myself and my life, and I realised I have many secrets. I feel I can't tell my secrets to everyone, but if I don't let them out maybe one day they will destroy me. I worry about my future. So fiction is a great release, a great way of letting your secrets free."

It is also a way of telling stories that reflect on contemporary life in her country. "The battles in Vietnam today are everyday life, survival, what the future holds for the country and its people. We shouldn't just be talking about the past."