Through a Vietnamese Lens

July 13, 2006


By Ron Gluckman
555 words
Apr 28 2006
The Wall Street Journal Asia
(c) 2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. To see the edition
in which this article appeared, click here

HO CHI MINH CITY -- The world doesn't pay much
attention to Vietnamese cinema, and it's easy to see
why. The Communist government maintains strict control
over the movie industry, resulting in a flood of
state-funded films with nationalist themes. Finally, a
new law allowing for films made by private firms may
help put Vietnamese flicks on the map.

At least one promising director is seizing this
opportunity. Othello Khanh, the owner of a major
Vietnamese film-production company called CreaTV,
hopes to make homegrown cinema that will make a splash
overseas. Before recent changes in local law, this
wouldn't have been possible. Privately-made films were
only recently authorized, but a lack of investment and
scant possibility of profit in a country with few
cinemas has kept the industry grounded.

The real change came in November of last year, with
the announcement that local film companies could
partner with overseas entities to make films in
Vietnam, as long as the company making the movie was
majority-owned by Vietnamese or ethnic Vietnamese. The
Paris-born Mr. Khanh's Vietnamese background allowed
him to make the cut.

The curly-haired Mr. Khanh, seated atop a piano stool
in the swank new Park Hyatt Saigon Hotel, dreams of
using film to give the world a glimpse of contemporary
Vietnam. "We want to create a new Vietnam realism," he
tells me. "We want to show this country in the midst
of renewal, how it is now, how people live." His debut
feature, "Saigon Eclipse," will be mostly in English.
Shooting begins next week, and he plans for the film
to be in cinemas by Christmas.

A new "Vietnamese realism" is most sorely needed. At
the moment, the outside image of the country's cinema
is mainly limited to films produced by foreigners and
which focus on the Vietnam War. Films like "Platoon,"
and "Apocalypse Now," were all filmed outside of
Vietnam. "The Quiet American," was shot locally, but
is similarly mired in the country's past.

Saigon Moon focuses on problems facing contemporary
Vietnam, such as the movement to modernize the
country's film industry, and Mr. Khanh's personal role
in this endeavor. His script draws on personal diaries
dating back to 1995, when Mr. Khanh first arrived in
Vietnam. He was recruited by the Vietnamese government
to help modernize the local TV industry.

As part of his bid to make Saigon Eclipse appeal to
overseas audiences, Mr. Khanh assembled an all-star
cast of local and overseas Vietnamese actors. Brothers
Johnny and Dustin Nguyen hail from America, while the
hot young half-Vietnamese actress Marjolaine Bui comes
from France. Domestic stars include Nhu Quynh, whose
25-year career was launched by "Indochine."

The barely million-dollar budget for "Saigon Eclipse"
is all privately raised. While this may be pocket
change by Hollywood standards, it is still four times
what most local features cost, according to Cat Vu,
who writes for Lao Dong newspaper and has covered
Vietnam's film industry for 30 years.

For now, profits are not Mr. Khanh's main priority. He
says a deal is nearly complete for Saigon Eclipse's
international rights, which would make it the first
locally produced film to win wide release. "In
Vietnam, the only way for a film to be successful is
to export," he says. At the very least, such films
will better provide the world with a glimpse into
today's Vietnam.

--- Donny Tran <> w

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