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 subtitles.
I didn’t want to choose only the most internationally known movies, preferring to dig a bit deeper. English-language information on these four movies on the Internet is limited because most of them are not 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.
In the first part of this article I covered Aimless (Lac Loi) and Three Seasons (Ba Mua).
Pao’s Story (Chuyen Cua Pao) - 2006
Pao’s Story captured several Vietnamese Golden Kite (the highest-level awards of the Vietnam Cinema Association) honors in 2006 and best film at the 2007 Vietnamese Film Festival.
This touching story of a Hmong tribe girl and her family stars the highly talented Do Thi Hai Yen in the title role. The movie is set near Dong Van in Ha Giang Province, a breathtakingly beautiful mountainous region in northern Vietnam.
The family leads a simple life typical of ethnic minorities in that part of the country, eking out a living raising goats and growing vegetables.
Sim (Do Hoa Thuy) and husband Chung (Ngo The Quan) face increasing pressures from the extended family to produce a son but they are unable to conceive.
Chung leaves the village to work on a road before the impending rainy season and returns with another woman Kia (played by Nguyen Thai An), who joins the family as Chung’s second wife.
Sim finally gives birth but the baby is a girl, much to the disappointment of the extended family.
A poor season of crops coupled with the birth of an unwanted daughter give new mother Sim the perfect excuse to leave baby Pao, Chung, and Kia in the village while she sets off for the lowlands to open a shoe stall in the market.
Kia replaces Sim as mother and wife and delivers a highly valued baby boy Trai (Nguyen The Hoang) a couple of years later, much to the delight of the family. Sim returns to the family from time to time to a lukewarm reception, and the frequency of her visits gradually subsides over the years.
Sim finally returns years later to stay with the family but tension once again builds in the house so she decides it’s best to leave again.
Young adult Pao sometimes bumps into a flute-playing young man named Chu (Tran Doan Tuan) when she goes to the village and becomes smitten with him over time. They visit a large local market together and Pao is dismayed to see her birth mother Sim with an unknown man at a food stand.
Kia disappears in a mysterious river accident and Chung becomes depressed and begins to drink heavily. Pao wants to find Sim and take her back home to care for her father, and sets off for Sa Pa, then Son La, in search of Sim, finally finding her.
An emotional reconciliation follows with Pao pleading with Sim to return home to care for Chung, but the request is in vain as mother Sim has a new husband.
Pao returns home and settles back into life, mysteries are solved, feelings reconciled, and life lessons learned, but not without a surprise twist in the story.
All in all a great coming of age movie that sends many powerful yet subtle messages.
The Floating Lives (Canh dong bat tan) - 2010
Set in the Mekong Delta and based on a novel by the same name in Vietnamese (which translates literally to “Boundless Rice Field” in English), this low-budget movie packs a sad yet powerful punch.
Prostitute Suong (Do Thi Hai Yen also of Pao’s Story fame - see below) is beaten and chased by an angry mob of women in a village, then rescued by a teenage boy Dien (Vo Thanh Hoa), who lives a nomadic lifestyle with his father Ut Vo (Dustin Nguyen) and older sister Nuong (Ninh Duong Lan Ngoc).
They escape on the family’s boat and the boy’s father finally and reluctantly agrees to take the prostitute in. The family lives on the boat, drifting from one rice field to another, raising ducks and doing casual jobs.
The film is set early in the millennium when the H5N1 bird flu caused worldwide panic. The family is forced to evade authorities to keep their livelihood intact. The prostitute bribes officials with sex so they will turn a blind eye to their ducks, thus proving her commitment to the family.
The children’s mother abandoned the family a few years earlier, causing the father to burn their home in rage and embark on the nomadic lifestyle. The film centers around the integration of the prostitute into the family – as a replacement mother for the children and potential partner for their father.
The outstanding cinematography frames the simple family lifestyle, exuding an aura of mystery and serenity, in a natural rural river setting. There is a mixture of sadness about the past and hope for the future as the relationships develop.
The transparency of the characters grabs the viewer and doesn’t let go.