2015 ended with the huge success of Sweet 20 – a remake of Korea’s Miss Granny – which took 102 billion VND to become the highest-grossing Vietnamese film of all time in Vietnam. This made industry insiders eager for the following year. But 2016 was not so good for Vietnamese cinema. Most of the big movies flopped, and overall box office fell by 20 per cent.
2016 opened with Hàm Trần’s Bitcoin Heist (Siêu Trộm, produced by BHD), a slick action heist film set in Vietnam and Taiwan about a group of unlikely criminals – a hacker, a magician, a master of disguise, and a kid – and their attempt to steal a micro-chip from an international criminal. The movie came out during the Lunar New Year holiday, but it failed quite badly at the box office, despite the fact that it received acclaim from film critics.
Tracer (Truy Sát), another big-budget action movie, followed Bitcoin Heist. It was released in April, failed at the box office, and received many negative reviews. Directed by Cường Ngô, and starring his usual leading lady Trương Ngọc Ánh (who made the action hit Rise/Hương Ga with him two years ago), producers CJ E&M expected another big hit after their Sweet 20. A sub-standard script about a female detective who tracks down the gang that kidnapped her brother, meant that the film did badly, even though the production values were quite good.
CJ E&M also produced another action-comedy buddy film, Saigon Bodyguards (Vệ Sĩ Sài Gòn), featuring two big stars, Kim Lý (Huong Ga) and Thái Hoà. The latter was once called ‘King of the box office’, because he was often at the top of the box office with films like Let Hoi Decide (Để Mai Tính 2), Tèo Em (lit. “Little Teo”), and Vengeful Heart (Quả Tim Máu). This time, Thái Hoà plays a bodyguard who’s trying to protect the only son of a big corporate leader. Bodyguards was a special case, as it was the first time a non-Vietnamese-speaking foreign director, Japanese-American director Ochiai Ken, had directed a Vietnamese-speaking feature.
Produced by Hollywood producer Niv Fichman (The Red Violin, Blindness) and Kim Lý, a Vietnamese-Swedish actor, Saigon Bodyguards was expected to break box office records when it came out last Christmas – usually the best season for Vietnamese films. But in spite of good production values, good action choreography, and big names like Thái Hoà, Kim Lý, and Chi Pu, Ochiai’s sense of humour did not connect with the Vietnamese audience. Because of “the Hollywood team”, the 30-plus billion VND budget was way too big to break even.
Thái Hoà had another big flop earlier in July, when he teamed up with the Nguyễn brothers, veteran director Charlie Nguyen, and actor Johnny Tri Nguyen – the team that made the big hit Tèo Em, a road trip comedy that earned 90 billion VND two years ago. Thái Hoà and Charlie also worked together on several successful comedies, such as Để Mai Tính 2, which is the second highest-grossing box office movie of all time in Vietnam. This time, they wanted to make something more serious – a movie about rock culture in Vietnam during the 1990s.
The resulting Fanactic (Fan Cuồng, produced by Chanh Phuong) follows a rock fan who is disappointed with what’s happening in today’s Vietnamese rock scene. He’s suddenly transported back to the 1990s, and gets the chance to change the situation by stopping an influential rock star from falling in love with the girl that made him quit his band, and therefore killed Viet rock.
Fan Cuồng may sound like a comedy, but Charlie and Thái Hoà treated it seriously, and emphasised the drama and romance. Unfortunately, not many audience members care about rock that much, and this 25 billion VND fantasy failed at the box office when it was released in July during the summer movie season, in spite of its stars. Reviews were mostly negative. Charlie and his team even made a video to explain that “this is not a comedy, this is a romantic movie” when they realised the audience thought it wasn’t funny enough.
These tent-pole movies were the four biggest flops of 2016. But they were joined by many smaller ones, such as Găng tay Đỏ (“Red Gloves”), Victory (Sút, directed by Viet Max), Cho em gần anh hơn chút nữa (“Let Me Get Closer to You”, directed by Văn Công Viễn), and The Wealthy Lady (Nữ Đại Gia, directed by Lê Văn Kiệt). Even many B-movies – not B-movie genre films per se, but those movies that are poorly produced and directed with very cheap budgets like TV movies – couldn’t stay more than a week in theatres.
Such failed movies had several problems in common: bad scripts, bad production values in some of the B-movies, and, as far as the foreign directors and Vietnamese overseas directors were concerned, a lack of understanding of the tastes of the Vietnamese audience.
Not all 2016 movies lost money. Even though the total box office, including Hollywood movies, decreased by around 20 per cent compared on 2015, some Vietnamese movies still made a profit, thanks to their moderately low budgets.
As usual, most of the films that made a profit were comedies. The formula was the same for all: they cast popular comedians such as Hoài Linh, Trấn Thành, Việt Hương and Trường Giang – who are already very popular from Vietnamese television game shows – and made the movies with very low budgets, so they could easily break even after the first weekend. Taxi, Em Tên Gì? (“Taxi, What’s Your Name?”) starred Trường Giang, who plays a man who accidentally gets into the wrong taxi when he’s on the way to visit his girlfriend. It turns out the driver is a newcomer who doesn’t know how to drive her taxi properly.
Bệnh Viện Ma (“Ghost Hospital”) was a horror comedy with Trấn Thành, who plays a doctor who works at a haunted hospital where some ghosts try warn him about dangers. Lật Mặt 2 (“Face Off 2”) was a 15 billion VND budget action comedy directed by singer-turned-actor/director, Lý Hải. The film took 40 billion VND. Chờ em đến ngày mai (“Wait for You Until Tomorrow”) was based on a popular book about a love story between a fan, a famous singer, and a thief who magically turns into a dog and has to help the fan make her dream come true in order become human again. Nắng (“Sunshine”), starring Thu Trang, Hoài Linh, and Trấn Thành, was about a mentally-ill woman who has to raise her daughter until when she is accused of a crime that she didn’t commit. Nắng made more than 60 billion VND, with only a budget around 10 billion VND, becoming the most profitable film of 2016.
However, Nắng, produced by Nhất Trung, was accuse of being a rip-off of the Korean hit Miracle from Cell No. 7 by moviegoers. Audiences also pointed out that Nhất Trung’s hit 49 Days (2015) was similar to the Korean hit Hello Ghost, which tells the story of a man who commits suicide and is followed by three ghosts.
The Last Egg (Gái Già Lắm Chiêu) was another film accused of ripping off foreign movies. It was about a young girl who tries to get pregnant when she finds out that she’s going to become infertile. The original was an Australian movie, Not Suitable for Children, about a young man who tries to get girls pregnant when he finds out that he is running out of sperm (!).
Some other ‘survivors’ which barely broke even included Vòng eo 56 (“Waist of 56”), directed by Vũ Ngọc Đãng (Lost in Paradise), based on the scandalous life of the “queen of lingerie” Ngọc Trinh, who in real life was accused of being the escort/girlfriend of a wealthy married man. Trinh’s boyfriend invested the money for one of the most popular directors in Vietnam, Vũ Ngọc Đãng, to tell her life story – a country girl who lives in poverty with her family in Can Tho, and tries to change her life by going to Ho Chi Minh city and working as a model.
The story is very similar to Long Legged Girls (Những Cô Gái Chân Dài), Đãng’s first feature, which he made 13 years ago. Ngọc Trinh played herself in this biopic. It received mixed reviews, and female audiences wanted to boycott it since it romanticises the love of Ngọc Trinh and a married wealthy man, and portrays her as an innocent girl who is made to suffer. That hurt the box office of this movie, even though people talked about it for a month.
Others films included When Will We Love (Bao Giờ Có Yêu Nhau), directed by Dustin Nguyen, a drama romance about love between two people throughout different lives. The House Maid (Cô Hầu Gái) was directed by first time director Derek Nguyễn, and produced by CJ E&M and HKFilms, and made enough money to cover its budget. Set in French colonial times, this horror drama follows a girl who starts working for a young French General’s family. Before she finds out the truth about the ghost that haunts her, she falls in love with the general. Sai Gon I Love You (Sài Gòn Anh yêu Em), a multi-story movie about love in Sai Gon, was directed by a group of young first-time directors. 4 Năm 2 Chàng 1 Tình Yêu (“4 Years, 2 Boys, 1 Love”), a teenage romance directed by first-time female director Luk Vân. It’s about a high-school girl who can’t get over the feelings she has for her rich classmate after he dies in a car accident.
2016 was another year for new voices from Vietnamese cinema, even though these movies were not as strong as in 2017. Newcomers included Luk Vân (“4 Years, 2 Boys, 1 Love”), Derek Nguyễn (The House Maid), Nguyen Tuan Anh (“Red Gloves”), Võ Thanh Hoà (“Ghost Hospital”), Đồng Giao (“Sunshine”), Văn Công Viễn (Cho Anh Gần Em Hơn Chút Nữa – “Let Me Get Closer to You”), and Ngô Thanh Vân (Tam Cam: The Untold).
2016 was also a year of “distributor wars” in Vietnam. In May, eight local distributors and studios, including Galaxy, BHD and VAA, teamed up to sue South Korea’s CGV for putting them at a disadvantage by using its market dominance to claim an unreasonable share of box office revenue from Vietnamese films. CGV screens and distributes throughout the biggest multiplex cinema chain in Vietnam – up to 40 per cent of cinema screens. The lawsuit happened when CGV kicked BHD’s Bitcoin Heist out of their cinemas after one week during the Lunar New Year season.
According to the statement in the lawsuit, other distributors claimed that “with the overwhelming number of cinemas in the market, CGV has been imposing an unreasonable revenue sharing ratio on movies distributed at its cinema chain. Vietnamese movies produced by CGV and screened at other theaters have a share ratio of 55/45, of which CGV enjoys 55 percent of the profit. Domestically produced movies released at CGV’s theaters have the opposite ratio of 45/55 in the first week (CGV gets 55 percent share), and that falls in later weeks.” However, the lawsuit was dismissed by the government after a review, stating that CGV was following fair trade laws.
This is not the first time the CGV cinema chain has had legal trouble with local distributors and studios. Before the theatre chain was acquired by CGV, it was called Megastar. In 2010, local studios sued Megastar for forcing other theater chains to raise their ticket prices to the level of Hollywood blockbusters for big name movies distributed by Megastar, if the chains wanted to screen them. That lawsuit didn’t go anywhere, and it ended when CGV bought Megastar in 2011.
However, in August 2016, BHD and VAA again brought up the issue when they couldn’t negotiate with CGV on the profit share for their new movie, Tam Cam: The Untold (Tấm Cám: Chuyện Chưa Kể). Ngô Thanh Vân (The Rebel, Clash, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2) was the producer, director and star of this fantasy, based on a Vietnamese version of the Cinderella fairy tale.
The budget was quite large, around 20 billion VND, and the film featured many action sequences, period sets, and tons of CGI shots. Without the support of CGV, BHD and VAA (Ngo Thanh Van’s studio) might have lost their money, especially as many big budget films, including Fan Cuồng, had already failed at the box office earlier in 2016. At the press conference, Ngo Thanh Van broke down in tears, accusing CGV of blocking Vietnamese movies. “I felt very shocked and saddened by the news,” she said, and burst into tears.
The image of a Vietnamese actress crying because her effort and passion to make a good movie was being denied by a big Korean corporate cinema multiplex created an outrage on the internet. Many audience members decided to boycott CGV, offered support to Ngo Thanh Van’s movie. Even when a CGV representative tried to explain to the public that they distributed many Vietnamese movies, including Vietnamese indie and art-house films such as Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere, The Last Journey of Madame Phung, Gentle, and others, the audience didn’t seem to care.
In the second press release about this incident, CGV’s CEO Dong-won Kwak raised the question about whether the drama surrounding this situation was engineered to camouflage business malpractice. “The ratio of ticket box profits has been carefully deliberated [by CGV] to maximize the investment in the local film industry. No company could suddenly alter the agreement without a valid reason. This is especially when the reason given is baseless and was rooted in a rumor perpetuated by a group of people capitalizing on nationalism for their own personal gain,” Kwak said in the announcement.
His concern seemed reasonable when Tam Cam: The Untold eventually made more than 60 billion VND at the box office, even without showing in CGV cinemas. It became one of the top five Vietnamese films at the box office in 2016. But the VFX company that worked hard on this movie went bankrupt after the movie was released – a story similar to the VFX company Rhythm and Hues which worked on Ang Lee’s Life of Pi.
After Tam Cam had been out for one month, another producer tried the same strategy to promote his film, Red Gloves. This was about a female Vietnamese-American assassin who came back to Vietnam to assassinate a dangerous criminal and then was chased by her teammate. He asked CGV to pull his movie out of the theater chain since although CGV distributed his movie, they didn’t show his movie in as many screens as he expected. He also cried at his press conference, but that didn’t help the movie overcome its low quality.
Two months later, the producers of Vệ Sĩ, Tiểu Thơ và Thằng Khờ (“The Bodyguard, The Beauty and the Fool”) wanted to sue CGV for showing their movie on fewer screens than other films. But the lawsuit didn’t happen because the claim was just too ridiculous, and the movie was so awful that nobody cared to see it anyway. The producer CJ E&M’s Saigon Bodyguard of copying their ideas, since both movies had similar plots involving bodyguards and car chases, explosions and action sequences, and kidnapping clients. All the scandal didn’t win the film any attention from audiences.
The most recent trouble for Vietnamese filmmakers in 2016 involved a child actor, who starred in the slapstick road trip comedy, Lost in Saigon (Chạy đi rồi tính).This “wannabe” family film was labeled NC16 by the Cinema Department. Because of this sudden restriction, its actor, Trọng Khang, who is only 11 years-old, couldn’t go to watch his movie at the premiere; he burst into tears when he heard of the news. The filmmakers, Nam Cito and Bảo Nhân, who co-directed and produced the film, had no idea why their movie was restricted. No one knows if it did badly at the box office because of the age restriction, or because it was a loud and bland film.
2017 started with low quality Vietnamese movies during the Lunar New Year holiday, and Chinese and Hollywood blockbusters dominated the box office once again. But Vietnamese producers are trying new genres and new topics, and putting money into unusual movies, such as Lô Tô (“Lottery Tickets”). This is inspired by the documentary The Last Journey of Madame Phung, about a troupe of transgender travellers. Dạ Cổ Hoài Lang (“The Exile”) is based on a popular play about two Vietnamese old men who are lonely in America), and Có Căn Nhà Nằm Nghe Nắng Mưa (“A House Under Rain and Sun”) is about a mother who is waiting for her son to come back after he was accused of murder and ran away. They are dramas, with lead actors in their 50s, and audiences have reacted to the trailers quite positively.
A young generation of indie filmmakers are also getting ready to shine in 2017, with their projects getting some attention from international film festivals. Names to watch include Ash Mayfair Nguyen Phuong Anh (The Third Wife), Truong Minh Quy (City of Glass), Tran Dung Thanh Huy (Ròm), Le Binh Giang with (KFC), Le Bao (Taste), and Pham Ngoc Lan (Culi Never Cries).