Although Vietnamese cinema hasn’t often hit the world stage, some well-produced gems have been made here in recent years. I chose these four considering they have achieved much national acclaim, realistically depict life in Vietnam including typical cultural themes, and capture the beauty of the country through their cinematography.
These are all Vietnamese-language movies, made in Vietnam by local or overseas Vietnamese people. I included only movies that are easily available without cost on YouTube and which have English sub-titles.
I didn’t want to choose only the most internationally known movies (but Three Seasons is irresistible), preferring to dig a bit deeper. English-language information on these four movies on the Internet is limited because most of them are not well known abroad. I avoided foreign-made movies because I wanted to study the reality in Vietnam with minimal external influence.
There are lots more available – at least a dozen come to mind right away. So have a look on the Internet and see what tickles your fancy.
Aimless (Lac Loi) - 2013
The Vietnamese version of the classic theme about villagers migrating to the big city to improve their lives. Sometimes the movie drifts into the overly melodramatic but it’s nonetheless a compelling story.
A young couple moves to the big city – Quy (Han Quang Tu) works in construction and Tham (Tran Thuy An) collects papers for recycling. Quy works hard but isn’t always the best partner a woman could hope to find as he’s irresponsible and selfish at times.
The story is intense from the outset as the couple struggles to make ends meet, then tensions build between them as the reality of life in the big city settles in.
A shifty gigolo named Thuat (Dao Van Bich) enters the picture and lures Tham to his home, ostensibly to collect papers he wants to get rid of. Thuat succeeds in seducing Tham with his charm, style, and apparent wealth while in fact he is already in a relationship with an older, wealthy woman who funds his luxurious way of living.
Tham leaves to stay with Thuat and takes up his flash lifestyle, going to classy restaurants and dance halls that Thuat frequents. Quy starts stalking them and violence follows.
It’s later revealed that Tham is pregnant and the viewer is treated with a thought-provoking ending.
The plot of this movie is not entirely unique but the cinematography, acting, and intense interaction between the actors holds it together nicely.
Three Seasons (Ba Mua) - 1999
This low-budget classic won several domestic and international awards and was the first film ever to win both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Movie Festival (1999).
The movie is set in Ho Chi Minh City – written, produced, and directed by Tony Bui, only 26 years old when it was shot. Bui was born in Vietnam in 1973 and moved with his family to the USA during his infancy.
Tony Bui had roots in cinema prior to starting this project – his uncle Don Duong (the main protagonist in Three Seasons) made over 50 movies in his career until his death in 2011.
Don Duong plays Hai, a cyclo (bicycle rickshaw taxi – xich lo in Vietnamese) driver who becomes infatuated with a tough and jaded prostitute Lan (Zoe Bui – no relation to Tony).
Although the main theme of “man falls in love with hooker” has been overused in movies, the film takes several other intriguing and intertwined tacks: a lotus seller’s relationship with a teacher, an American who returns to Vietnam to find his daughter, and a child street vendor who sells cigarettes and trinkets.
The movie begins with a beautifully produced sequence featuring Kien An (portrayed by Nguyen Ngoc Hiep) who works picking lotus flowers and sells them in Ho Chi Minh City. The contrast between the serenity of the lotus pond and the hubbub of the big city is cleverly captured highlighting the difference between traditional Vietnamese life and Doi Moi era “progress.”
Kien An learns that reclusive teacher Dao (Tran Manh Cuong) lives in a temple in the lotus pond. Dao hears Kien An singing a beautiful traditional song (quoted at the end of this article) and invites her to visit him and sing the song.
Dao is stricken with leprosy and has lost his fingers due to the disease – now in its advanced stages – an extra tragic blow because he’s a gifted poet. Kien An takes on the role of scribe for Dao, carefully writing out his poems as he dictates them.
Meanwhile, James Hager (played by Academy Award winner Harvey Keitel) is in Vietnam in search of his daughter from war days that he has never seen. His only lead to her whereabouts is an old photo and the restaurant where he met her mother, across from which he sits all day smoking and drinking coffee.
James spots his daughter in a nightclub and arranges a meeting with her. Armed with a bundle of lotuses purchased from Kien An, they get together and James tries to put closure to the past. The exchange was brief but brilliantly portrayed by Keitel, who could play a lamp post and make it work.
Child vendor Woody (Nguyen Huu Duoc) meets James in a bar one evening during which he loses his case full of goods for sale. Woody’s father is infuriated and tells the boy not to return home until he finds the case, which leads Woody to various adventures.
Hai, the main protagonist, enters in his role as a cyclo driver and promptly rescues Lan, who bursts onto the scene running from two men. Hai whisks her off to a fancy hotel to meet a client. Hai is immediately infatuated with Lan and waits hours outside the hotel for her to resurface.
Lan spurns Hai’s advances, ostensibly because of his low social status as a cyclo driver, but it’s her own low self-esteem and insecurity behind the facade.
Hai dreams of spending a night with Lan just as the rich foreign clients do, but of course the cost of high-class hotels is way out of his reach. He learns of a cyclo race with a first prize of 200 dollars and registers in it.
This lilting theme captures the romantic feelings of this movie perfectly. Here is the English translation:
“Can anyone know how many stalks there are in a rice field? How many bends in a river? How many layers in a cloud? Can anyone sweep the leaves of a forest? And to say to the wind to shake the trees no more? How many leaves must a silkworm eat to make a dress of colors from the past? How much rain must fall from the sky before the ocean overflows with tears? How many years must the moon have before it becomes old? In the middle of the night the moon comes and waits nearby he who can steal my heart I will forever sing joyful songs…”