Vietnamese filmmakers challenge censors

Sex, violence and LGBT relationships have long been taboo for Vietnam’s film censors, but they are now finding their way into the open as a new wave of directors push the boundaries set by the nation’s conservative communist leaders.

The latest movie to test the waters is Chi Chi Em Em – or Sister Sister – featured at Asia’s biggest film festival this week after a strong performance at the Vietnamese box office.

A psychological thriller about love, deceit and revenge, the film has same-sex intimate scenes and a complex narrative focused on adultery and trauma – the type of movie that may have struggled to be made just five years ago.

“When I told them about the script, a lot of people said ‘you should just save your time, it’s going to get cut’, ” said Vietnamese-American director Kathy Uyen.

“But I want to tell daring stories about modern women who are strong and quirky, and full of passion, ” said the 39-year-old.

“I don’t let fear hold me back, ” she added, before the movie was screened at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea this week.

According to government guidelines, Vietnamese films must demonstrate “good ideological content” to pass the censorship board – and pornography, violence and hostility towards the state are not allowed.

But the board is often accused of censorship beyond its remit.

Last year, filmmaker Phan Dang Di told state media the approval process was akin to “torture”, while others have admitted they self-censor to avoid an exhausting back-and-forth.

Fear of falling foul of the censors – and a conviction that cinemagoers prefer easy-to-watch romcoms – meant directors rarely dared to experiment in the past, says film critic Le Hong Lam.

But he believes the scene is changing thanks to a new generation of filmmakers, who are pulling audiences along with them.

“Over the past five years – and especially during the last two – there has been a shift in topics of Vietnamese films, ” he said.

“These show that Vietnamese audiences are open to new topics, they’re not just coming to cinemas for fun. They want films that make them think.”

Rom, a gritty tale of Ho Chi Minh City street kids working in the illegal lottery business to survive, was another game changer, said Lam.

Despite bagging a top prize at Busan last year, the film was fined for screening without approval, and took months to clear censorship hurdles – sparking controversy in the media and on social media.

“I think that after this... the censorship board in Vietnam has started to make changes to catch up with modern tastes, not cutting things on a whim like before, ” said Lam. — AFP

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