Vietnamese film paradox: the more criticized, the more awards

The problem lies in a huge gap in the mindset of the local film industry regulators and the world movie critics.


Despite the flood of criticism of local film regulators and some audiences at home, the Vietnamese film titled Vi (Taste) by director Le Bao won the ‘Grand Prize’ in the ‘New Talent Competition’ category at the 2021 Taipei Film Festival 2021.

The prize announcement was made online on September 28.

Honored at International Film Festival

“First-time filmmaker Le Bao has composed a delicate, sensory meditation that conjures up many a thought in the viewer’s mind”. Quote & Photo:

After many days of consideration and discussion, the jury which includes director Chen Yu Hsun, actress Ariel Lin, and film producer Stefano Centini finally decided to award the Grand Prize and NT$600,000 (about US$22,000) to the movie Vi by Vietnamese Director Le Bao.

According to the jury, the film features “succinct shots and a unique aesthetic that creates an isolated, pristine, and poetic space. An instant look into the lives of five socially marginalized people has inspired contemplation about the nature and needs of life. The film is a bold work of an emerging director.”

Vi is the debut film of director Le Bao. He said that he conceived the idea of making the film years ago based on his high-school memories. Back then, riding the bus to school with him were many colored people. Bao was obsessed by these men who seemed to have overcome some significant challenges.

Earlier, the film won the Special Jury Award – Encounters section in the Berlin International Film Festival that took place in March 2021. 

… but generated controversy at home

Vi gives questions that “are humans really so superior to fearful, naked animals, bound as we are to turning around in circles, whether in small cages or around the globe?” Photo: Jenna Duong

The film tells the story of Bassley, a Nigerian footballer living in Vietnam who has been unable to make a living because of a leg injury. He and four middle-aged women he sometimes works for decide to escape the disappointment of their daily lives. They move to an old house where together they create a special world for themselves.

The five go about the basics of human existence together- cleaning, cooking, eating, sleeping, and having sex.

Despite receiving two international film awards in one year, Vi was banned in Vietnam and lashed out by a shower of negative opinions from both local regulators and some audiences.

According to Vietnam Cinema Department, the film is banned because of the 30- minute- long nude scene of four female characters and the Nigerian footballer.

The ban was signed by the Director of the Cinema Department Vi Kien Thanh alleging that the film violates the Cinematography Law.

Thanh said the film evaluation board did not opt for censoring the sensitive scenes and letting the film hit the screen. If so, half of the film would have been cut.

Earlier this year, the makers of the award-winning film were also fined VND35 million (US$1,522) for submitting it to the Berlin Film Festival without permission from Vietnamese authorities.

Things seem to be getting worse when Le Bien Pictures Co., Ltd – Vi’s producer has just announced that they will withdraw ownership of the film, accepting to give up the copyright so that Vi will become a Singaporean cinematic work.

Divergent views

A scene from the movie The Third Wife by Ash Mayfair. Photo: Jenna Duong

Vi, however, is not an exception. Recently, the movie The Third Wife (directed by Ash Mayfair) which won several prizes at international festivals, was pulled out of local theaters in 2019 amid criticism for containing intimate scenes of a 13-year-old actress.

The movie Rom (debut film of Tran Thanh Huy) was also barred from movie houses nationwide although it won the New Current Award at 24th Busan International Film Festival in 2019 and the Best First Feature award at the 24th Fantasia international film festival in 2020.

The prohibition showed the difference in viewpoint between the local film authority and international movie pundits, according to director Phan Dang Di, director of the movie Bi, Don’t Be Afraid which won many international awards.

“These Vietnamese films left an impression of Vietnamese culture and people with international audiences, however, mainly the dark sides,” Di said. 

For example, while The Third Wife tells the story of 14-year-old May who becomes the third wife of a wealthy landowner. The young girl soon finds that, having given birth to a son, the first wife exerts greater influence in the family than the second, who has only three daughters, and that the only way to gain security and independence is to give birth to a male child.

The Rom tells a story about a 14-year-old boy, a lottery seller who earns commissions only when he picks the lucky numbers for his slum neighborhood’s debt-ridden dwellers.

Di and local film experts have also agreed that there is no reason to not make a good dark movie. However, it is a fact that not every filmmaker is able to do it at the moment. Some suggested a limited release for these kinds of movies only for research and references. However, the option is still being considered as it has never been stipulated in any regulation.

A scene from Rom – the debut movie by Tran Thanh Huy. Photo: Jenna Duong

Views and awards differ among juries, according to Director of the Vietnam Cinema Department Vi Kien Thanh. “There are many films that though winning international awards are not appreciated by local experts because of the different cultural standards,” he told The Hanoi Times.

Therefore, in order to reach the ultimate goal of a film, it is also necessary to have regulations to prevent motion pictures from possibly ‘crossing the line’ movies like The third wife, Vi or Rom in the future.

In the talk called “Who agrees, raise your hand!” regarding the film Vi that was organized by the Cinema Department on September 26, Thanh said the cinema authority will create a “green stream” for licensing Vietnamese films by young filmmakers who have ‘bold and breakthrough thoughts’ to legally attend international film festivals.

However, “the license for a film to attend an international film festival is totally different from the appraisal license issued by the National Film Appraisal Council when the filmmakers want it to be released domestically,” he said.

And so, the fate of the internationally award-winning films that ‘crossed the line’ remains unclear. Though these cinematic works by Vietnamese young independent film directors will still have a limited opportunity to reach their audience.