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Interview with PHAN Gia Nhat Linh

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We sat down with Vietnamese director PHAN Gia Nhat Linh to get a sense of the current state of the film business in Vietnam. PHAN made his directorial debut with “Sweet 20” in 2015, a remake of Korean blockbuster “Miss Granny”. His second film, “The Girl From Yesterday”, screened at this year’s festival.

# What genres of local films do audiences want to watch?

It’s hard to say because the audience is responding to local movies in completely unexpected ways. Last year there was the comedy “Jailbait” that became Vietnam’s most successful film of all time. Nobody thought it would be so big, not even the filmmakers who only hoped it would break even. Charlie NGUYEN produced the film but even he turned down the opportunity to invest. It made 172 billion dong (US$7.6 million). That’s more than “Skull Island”, which broke records a month before. Until “Jailbait”, the top films in Vietnam were are all Hollywood movies. “Jailbait” is a little bit risqué; it’s a romantic comedy about teenagers who blackmail a playboy with a sex tape.

# Is the box office still growing at 50% every year?

Actually, 2016 was a very bad year for Vietnamese movies. CGV told me that the box office for local films declined 20% on the previous year, even though there were more movies. The highest grossing local film was Veronica NGO’s “Tam Cam: The Untold Story”, which made about 70 billion dong (US$3.1 million). No film broke the 100 billion dong milestone.

# And in 2017?

Last year, a handful of local movies such as “Jailbait” made a lot of money, but most are still losing money. Even so, producers are still experimenting with new genres. There are more dramas than usual, and they are high quality. For their own safety, studios still make romantic comedies. The importance of the Tet Lunar New Year holiday period has been declining but it made a comeback this year. It’s not the only season though to make money at the box office. We have our own Golden Week in late April, Independence Day in early September, and a strong December. The summer belongs to Hollywood movies.

# What are the all time Vietnam box office hits?

“Jailbait” is still number one. But a new movie just came out last month during Tet called “Superstar Superdumb”; it is now the second highest-grossing local film at 106 billion dong (US$4.7 million). In third place is my directorial debut, “Sweet 20” on 105 billion dong (US$4.6 million), just ahead of Charlie NGUYEN’s “Let Hoi Decide” at 102 billion dong (US$4.5 million). There is a new film on release now called “Gogo Sisters”, a remake of the Korean film “Sunny”, that may also break 100 billion dong.

# How was the box office of “The Girl from Yesterday”?

While it had strong admissions, box office was only about 70 billion dong (US$3.1 million). Last year, the Korean-owned exhibitor CGV lowered the price of tickets by more than half from 105,000 dong (US$4.60) to 49,000 dong (US$2.15). “The Girl From Yesterday” was the first victim of this promotion. CGV has perhaps opened too many cinemas and wanted to make moviegoing more affordable. When CGV lowered their ticket prices, Galaxy and BHD had to follow to compete. So the box office of all films has declined since then. During Tet last month they raised the ticket prices back up just for the Lunar New Year period, and “Superstar Superdumb” did make a lot of money.

# Is the box office still dominated by Vietnamese-American directors?

Actually, all their recent films have flopped, including Charlie NGUYEN’s rock music movie “Fanatic”, Victor VU’s superhero movie “Loi Bao”, and Ham TRAN’s action-comedy “Bitcoin Heist”. But Ham’s “ATM for Galaxy" is doing okay. Now the three highest-grossing films are by Vietnamese, headed by LE Thanh Son’s “Jailbait”. More and more directors are shooting super-low budget films so as not to lose money. They are in all kinds of genres and some are good. So there’s still an opportunity for new directors to emerge.

# Do Korean exhibitors still dominate the Vietnam market?

Koreans now own 70% of cinema screens in Vietnam: CGV represents about 40%, Lotte about 30%. Overall, their expansion has benefited the local film scene. The Korean-owned cinemas are generally of much higher quality. They also bring in a lot of indie films that weren’t distributed before. And we’re now getting Hollywood blockbusters more quickly, sometimes a week before they open in North America.

# What has been the impact of Korean studios producing films in Vietnam?

CJE&M introduced the Korean film production system to Vietnam, including professional script development, workshopping and investment. They believe in raising the production quality of Vietnamese movies as a chief way to increase box office over time. Lotte is more focused on its exhibition business, and in expanding its shopping malls. CJE&M has perhaps been moving too fast for the local market. They want to make good quality local movies, but sometimes those films haven’t made money. For example, while their 2016 horror “The Housemaid” had very strong production values, it only broke even; they recently sold remake rights to the US. Other flops include “Tracer” and “Saigon Bodyguard”. But in retrospect, one can say that CJE&M have been very successful, especially with their remakes. In fact, they are the only company to make successful remakes. Other companies have tried and failed.

# Is it easy for you to find investment after two hits?

I have many options right now. Actually, after my first movie “Sweet 20”, everything became easier for me. That’s how I could make my second movie. Without the success of “Sweet 20”, I could not have done “The Girl From Yesterday”. My next movie is a film for kids called “Trang Ti”. My producers and I aren’t happy with the quality of films released during Tet. They’re often bad, lowbrow slapstick comedies. We want to change that. We hope that our kids film can launch a new franchise. The first film will be released in the summer of 2019. If it’s successful, we’ll make a sequel for Tet. It’s an adaptation of a Vietnamese comic book; one of the first successful comic books in Vietnam. It’s with Veronica NGO’s new production house Studio 68. It’s first film was “The Tailor” and the second is LE Van Kiet’s action film “Hai Phuong”, which is now shooting.

# Is there a new generation of actors emerging in Vietnam?

It’s still the same famous actors that are the most popular with audiences. But every year we have one or two new faces. For example, “Gogo Sisters” stars HOANG Yen Chibi who became popular for her secondary role in “The Girl From Yesterday”. She’s a new talent who is heading towards becoming a big star.

# What is the state of local film criticism?

It’s quite a poor environment. Not just because of the poor knowledge of the critics, but because a lot of them are also doing PR for movies on the side. So there’s a conflict of interest. When you read a bad review, perhaps it’s because they didn’t get hired to promote the film. And many of the studios pay for media sponsorship. If they pay a news channel, it will only publish good reviews. And the other media may write bad reviews because they lost the contract. It’s at a low point.

# Are films mostly dependent on the theatrical market?

There’s no income from ancillary in Vietnam. There are some new apps and channels like K-Plus who pay for the rights of films. But it’s not like one can make money outside of the theatrical release. In Vietnam, one of the biggest problems is still copyright infringement. People even live-stream films during the first day of release! Even when they arrest the person, the paperwork necessary to prosecute is too complicated so the police often give up and nobody gets punished. For “Sweet 20”, CJE&M hired a company in Korea that specialize in preventing that: spotting uploads and reporting them. But local studios don’t have a budget for that. Veronica NGO actually went on the news and cried, begging people to not live-stream “The Tailor”.

# How many major film studios are there now?

The big six are CJ, Galaxy, BHD, Chanh Phuong, Studio 68, and HK Film. CJE&M VN has now become CJHK, but HK still produces films independently. More Korean studios are coming to Vietnam including Jaywalk Media, who made “Blind” and its China remake “The Witness”, and Kross Pictures, who have co-produced April release “100 Days With You” with Galaxy.

# Are the state studios still relevant?

They don’t make movies any more. The biggest one, Vietnam Studio, was sold to a shipping company! It made no sense! All the artists and staff in the company were furious because they were bought for their land and real estate. Many people were fired and it become a huge scandal. There was a lot of public crying by the studio’s in-house actors, but they hadn’t been making movies for years anyway. I don’t know what happened to their cameras and other filmmaking equipment.

# And how is the independent filmmaking scene?

We continue to develop young, struggling filmmakers. PHAN Dang Di is still running his Autumn Meetings workshop in Danang every year. And he still invites international filmmakers there to mentor independent directors. There’s a new film called “Third Wife” by first-time female director PHUONG Anh; it’s an arthouse film aiming for foreign festivals having had some prominence at projects markets in development. One of the stars is TRAN Anh Hung’s wife. There’s a low-budget independent film in post-production called “Rom” by TRAN Dung Thanh Huy. HK sponsored the equipment. It’s about underground lottery ticket sellers in Ho Chi Minh. Two filmmakers were selected to Cannes’ Ateliers last year, but both are still struggling to get finance.

- Interview conducted by Stephen CREMIN

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