Vietnamese cinema began in the 1920s when several silent documentaries and a single feature were produced. Talkies arrived in 1937. The majority of movies made during Vietnam’s successive wars were either propaganda films or works of social commentary.
Since the late 1980s, the number of films produced in Vietnam has fluctuated. However, the industry has recently experienced an upsurge and the works of such directors as Tràn Anh Hùng and Tony Bui are screened regularly on the arthouse circuit.
The following directors are known as “Việt Kiều”, meaning “Overseas Vietnamese”, a term often used to describe people who left the country because of its political upheavals.
Đặng Nhật Minh, who was born in Huế in 1938, is widely considered one of Vietnam’s leading film directors. After setting aside plans to follow his father’s career path and become a doctor, he began making documentaries in 1965, during the Vietnam War, and moved on to feature films in 1975.
Minh traveled to France to study cinema in 1985. The films he saw there moved him greatly, and he is quoted as saying they “gave me food for thought about my future in filmmaking, making me rethink the characteristics and traditions of Vietnam”. He returned to Vietnam that year to make the melodrama When the Tenth Month Comes (Bao Gio Cho Den Thang Muoi).
Many of Hùng’s films take place in farming villages, in keeping with his desire to portray the lives of Vietnam’s rural pool and the ways their lives differ from wealthier people. Hùng’s films have developed an international following for their nuanced depictions of social issues.
In 1999, he became the first person from Vietnam to be presented with the Nikkei Asia Prize for Culture.
Trần Anh Hùng is considered to be in the frontline of Việt Kiều cinema. Born in Đà Nẵng, in central Vietnam, in 1962, he is a French director of Vietnamese descent. He first moved to France when he was 12, shortly after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Hùng’s visually driven meditations of life in Vietnam have received acclaim internationally. His first feature, The Scent of the Green Papaya (1993), was set in Vietnam though shot entirely on a sound stage in Boulogne, France.
It tells the story of Mui, a servant for a wealthy family, and is set in 1951. Mui has been interpreted as the personification of pre-war Vietnam, and is depicted as peaceful, calm, and curious about the world. It won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993 and became the first Vietnamese film nominated for an Oscar in 1994.
Hùng’s follow-up film, Cycle (1995), has a similarly innocent protagonist, but this time the story is much more violent and the young hero becomes corrupted by gangs in his desire to escape poverty. Cyclo in particular has received international acclaim, winning the Golden Lion at Venice.
The last film in what some consider to be Hùng’s “Vietnam trilogy” is The Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000). It centres on three sisters who live in Hanoi and is a gentle, slow-paced look at a month in their complex family life.
Tony Bui was born in Vietnam in 1973. He was two when his family left the country one week before the fall of Saigon. Based in California, he visited Vietnam several times before making his first short film, Yellow Lotus (1995), which won a cluster of national and international festival awards.
Bui’s Three Seasons (1999), which was the first American film to be shot entirely in Vietnam, won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It reflects Bui’s own feelings regarding the changes wrought on Vietnam and the Vietnamese people by westernization.
The film follows three people in the city of Ho Chi Minh and shows the ways in which these lives intertwine. The first protagonist is a xich lo driver called Hai, who falls in love with a prostitute named Lan. The second story is about a young orphan girl, Kien An, who befriends a poet with leprosy and devotedly writes his poems for him.
The third story involves a five-year old named Woody, who braves storms to sell ornaments to tourists in order to make money needed to survive. The films reveal the director’s commitment to depicting the marginalised members of a rapidly changing Vietnamese society, something for which he has received widespread acclaim.
Unlike many Vietnamese directors, Minh Nguyen-Vo avoids focusing on war in his film. As a youth, he considered cinema an escape from the suffering of conflict. “During the Vietnam war,” he recalled, “I grew up in a small town where my family ran a theatre. I could sneak in and see movies. There was a lot of fighting around town between the Americans and the Communists. Movies were my escape from the atrocities of war, and a window to the rest of the world.”
Born in 1956, he spent 16 years as a physicist at the University of California before studying cinematography there. Influenced by Japanese samurai epics, American Westerns, and the many moving dramas made in India, Nguyen-Vo uses beautiful imagery to counteract the grimmer aspects of life.
He filmed Buffalo Boy (2004) in the flooded lowlands of South Vietnam.
“I was struck by the special visual climate of the area, where water covers the land for many months,” he said. “Survival becomes very difficult, and families have to send buffalo elsewhere to find grass. There’s something magic about seeing water cover the lands, which later become green rice fields.” This landscape is the backdrop to a turbulent family drama involving rival herdsmen.
Nguyen-Vo’s 2014 film, 2030 (Nước), is a science-fiction romance set in Southern Vietnam, where much of the land is flooded due to global warming.
Born in Ho Chi Minh City, Luu Huynh left at 16 to pursue filmmaking at the University of Minnesota. He later moved to California, where he attended the Art Center College of Design and Filmmaking. He returned to Vietnam in 1994,
He first worked as a director for the popular Vietnamese variety show Paris by Night. A segment he directed in 1997 created controversy and is now banned in Vietnam.
His 2006 film The White Silk Dress (Áo lụa Hà Đông) is one of the most expensive Vietnamese films ever made and his most successful. It represented Vietnam at the 80th Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category and has won various awards. Huynh’s The Legend is Alive (2009) received six Golden Kite Awards, including Best Film