When the CJ Cultural Foundation and CJ CGV Vietnam started the CJ Short Film Project in Vietnam in 2017, the film-makers assigned to the selection and mentoring committees had no clue their choices would be so successful as to earn acclaim at some of the world’s top international film festivals.
China and South Korea each held their own iterations of the CJ Short Film Project, though the films selected in those countries failed to reach the same level of international praise as those from Vietnam, according to famed Vietnamese film-maker Phan Dang Di.
While Di and his colleague are not shy in admitting that Vietnamese cinema has quite a long way to go before it can arrive at the same strata of international success as its Asian counterparts, they do believe the success of the CJ Short Film Project in Vietnam is a telling indicator of what is to come for the local industry.
Pioneering the industry
The CJ Short Film Project is not the first attempt at giving local film-makers a chance to shine in the global spotlight.
Twenty years ago, the Ford Foundation launched a project to fund 10 Vietnamese films over a 10-month period.
In the project’s first year, Nguyen Hoang Diep and Bui Kim Quy, two female film undergraduate students, were amongst the selected candidates.
Diep and Quy were given cameras, access to post-production rooms, and financial support as part of the project, and the results of their work paved the way for a new generation of Vietnamese film-makers.
Quy’s 'The Cushion' and Diep’s 'The Fifth Season' resonated so much with their audiences that the Ford Foundation opened a Master Class for young film-makers the following year and invited French director Tran Anh Hung to mentor rising talents in the local film scene. Amongst these rising talents was Di.
Hung is a Vietnamese-born French film director and screenwriter, whose films have received international fame and acclaim, including 'The Scent of Green Papaya,' which was nominated for an Oscar and won two top prizes at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993.
The students in Hung’s Master Class, aside from mentorship, were each given US$12,000 to finance a short movie – a budget Di described as enough to produce 20 short movies or, humorlessly, to buy a large piece of land in the suburbs.
Di spent the next year scouring Hanoi for actors to cast in his short 'When I’m 20.'
With expectations high, the stress of filming was so intense for Di that he opted to sleep on a wooden sofa for the ten days he had been filming his project in order to avoid oversleeping.
“At that time, [all of the students in the project] were about to or had just graduated from film school,” Di shared.
“We were a bunch of ignorant film-making enthusiasts who had dreamed of making a movie but had no knowledge of international standards.
“One beautiful day, we found ourselves being taught by world-famous directors and being given money to make movies the way we wanted, that was more than enough to make anyone run at full speed.”
|Five young film-makers are selected for their excellent projects at the third CJ Short Film Project. Photo: CJ Short Film Project|
‘Short empowers long’
Over the next few years, Di began attending international film festivals around the world.
It was during this time that he realized the important role that organizations such as the Ford Foundation and CJ Cultural Foundation played in helping unknown independent film-makers take important steps in their careers.
Without these organizations, young film-makers, such as Di, Diep, and Quy would not have had the exposure they needed to access funding for their eventual feature film debuts.
Di’s 'When I’m 20' qualified for the 2008 Venice International Film Festival (VIFF), allowing him to successfully raise $600,000 to fund his first feature film 'Bi, Don’t Be Afraid!', which won two prizes at Cannes Critics’ Week in 2010 and many other awards at film festivals around the world, including in Vancouver, Hong Kong, and Stockholm.
“Four years after enabling me to make a short film, the $12,000 helped me, an unknown director from an equally unknown film industry, get 50 times as much money for a feature film,” Di said.
“That was something I would never have dreamed of while sleeping on a wooden sofa during the production of my first short a few years ago. No way.”
Besides 'When I’m 20' and 'Bi, Don’t Be Afraid!', Di scripted feature film 'Adrift,' which was directed by Bui Thac Chuyen and won the FIPRESCI Prize at the 2009 VIFF. It was also nominated for Best Screenplay at the 2010 Asia Film Award.
His second feature film 'Big Father, Small Father, and Other Stories' was the first Vietnamese film selected for the Official Competition section at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival.
He has also directed an episode of 'He Serves Fish, She Eats Flower' – a mini-series about Asian cuisine and flavors produced by HBO Asia.
Di’s production credits include 'Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere,' a feature directorial debut by Nguyen Hoang Diep that won the Critic Award at Critics’ Week and the 2014 VIFF.
|Young actors and actresses that were trained by Autumn Meeting, a non-profit cultural organization founded by Vietnamese film-makers Phan Dang Di and Tran Thi Bich Ngoc, meet at a gala dinner, November 20, 2022. Photo: Mi Ly / Tuoi Tre|
A new generation
Now industry veterans, Di and others who helped build the local film industry are attempting to pass the torch to their successors.
Along with producers Tran Thi Bich Ngoc, Di founded Autumn Meeting, a non-profit cultural organization, in 2013 to provide film-makers from 18 to 40 years old in Vietnam’s central region with educational training workshops led by experienced film professionals from around the world.
Autumn Meeting has allowed Di and Ngoc to find truly amazing talents who have produced amazing works, including 'Blessed Land' by Pham Ngoc Lan, 'Live in Cloud-Cuckoo Land' by Vu Minh Nghia and Pham Hoang Minh Thy, and 'Stay Awake, Be Ready' by Pham Thien An.
'Blessed Land' was shown at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival, 'Live in Cloud-Cuckoo Land' competed at the 2020 Venice International Film Festival’s Orizzonti Short Competition category, and 'Stay Awake, Be Ready' entered Director’s Fortnight, an independent section held in parallel to the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
“As a film-maker, I am glad that Vietnamese short films have made it into leading film festivals,” Di commented.
"Young directors put a lot of effort into cinematic language and personal style with their debut works, which have helped Vietnamese shorts stand out in recent years."
While hailing those achievements, Di has called on the government for support for young film-makers.
“In the past 10 years, although many young Vietnamese directors have made headlines at international film festivals with their works, they have never received any support from the state budget,” Di explained.
“Their films have been entirely paid for by foreign funds and private investment, which will eventually reach their limits.”
Di emphasized that the nature of cinema is a collective work, strongly influenced by money, time, the management capacity of the film industry itself, and in broader terms, the country.
“Without government funding, it remains difficult for even experienced film-makers to continue the journey,” he said.
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