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Culture Vulture (Mar. 06 2013)

Making historical films is a challenge for Vietnamese directors who do not have large outdoor studios to shoot in and who can not find relevant props and costumes. Many seminars have been held by the Department of Cinematography to improve the creation of historical epics, but these have so far had little effect.

A film entitled Ha Noi – Winter 1946 is a rare production centred around 20th century Vietnamese history. It was directed by the international award-winning filmmaker Dang Nhat Minh and was presented at the recent Toronto Film Festival. Minh spoke about the difficulties creating historical films in Viet Nam.

What obstacles do you think face productions of historical films in Viet Nam?

At present, we still canot differentiate between historical films (or chronicles) and films that include history. This has led to many arguments and debates among critics.

Some films do not seek to recreate history accurately, but their stories happen to be based upon historical events and famous people. The filmmakers fictionalise tales in order to offer a new interpretation or idea to audiences.

This is a common device used in films. However, critics and historians in Viet Nam approach the work as if it is a piece of historical research rather than a piece of entertainment, and are critical when it is loose with the facts. This is not fair for the filmmakers. A clear distinction must be made between history and fiction in order to promote creativity in literature and cinema.

I think the historical films should truthfully reflect the events recorded by scientific research where possible, but storytelling must come first and foremost.

Many historical films were made to mark the 1,000th birthday of Thang Long – Ha Noi and several of them were criticised for perceived inaccuracies. Do you think in this instance that this is fair?

Many historical films have caused debates about unsuitable costumes. We do not have many historical documents or items showing what the people wore in the past.

Additionally, it is logistically very hard to recreate the background of the citadel and houses and vehicles as they were at that time.

Like I said before, the creativity and ideas in films are more important than these details. However the absence of this kind of historical aspect is undeniably a weakness in Vietnamese historical films. Not many filmmakers are successful in recreating the past on screen.

We should follow mainstream historic research more. We criticise Vietnamese historical films for looking like they are set in China, but we don’t have any research about costumes worn by mandarins so we don’t know clearly how they would look.

Historical films have struggled to find investment from both State-owned and private studios. Why is this?

There are many reasons. The main one is a lack of talented filmmakers in the country. For a long time, films have been especially commissioned and produced to mark nationally celebrated days. These projects can easily receive money from the State, but they are not especially interesting.

It is difficult for a film to be good if the director is not passionate about the project. Sadly, their own ideas are more likely to struggle for funding.

We should not blame bad films on a lack of financial resources though. Money is needed to make a film but talent and confidence are more important still.

Do you think filmmakers should bide their time until conditions improve before making historical films?

When will they have good conditions for making historical films? I don’t see any promotion from the cultural authorities to make life easier for historical filmmakers.

I’m sure that it is very difficult to find an imperial robe from the latest Nguyen dynasty in the 19 – 20th century. Nobody stores the ancient costumes from different dynasties. This will not change any time soon. We need to make the industry more professional and this is a long way off. — VNS

By vivian