- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2006

HANOI

For most of the past 30 years, Vietnam’s moviegoers have had little choice but to watch homegrown communist propaganda films peddling moral messages for the masses.

However, as the country has opened up in recent years, so has its film industry. Now Hollywood blockbusters are sharing billing with local features that increasingly deal with themes to which the country’s aspiring youth can relate.

In the three years since the government opened the industry to the private sector, Vietnam has seen leisure spending take off, swept along by economic growth that topped 8 percent last year and a young population — two-thirds of the country’s people are younger than 30.

“Cinema is an entertainment they can be proud of, a way of showing off, of being trendy,” says Phan To Hong Hai, marketing manager from Thien Ngan-Galaxy, a production company and distributor.

In May last year, the firm opened a three-screen complex in the southern business hub of Ho Chi Minh City, a major development in a country that has barely 60 screens nationwide.

On April 26, an eight-screen cineplex with more than 1,100 seats opened in the capital, Hanoi, operated by Ha Noi Megastar Media JV Vietnam, a joint venture between British Virgin Island-based Envoy Media Partners Ltd. and Vietnam’s Phuong Nam Corp.

It promises to bring movies from studios including United International Pictures and Walt Disney Pictures.

“Megastar will be able to bring the latest movies to Vietnamese audiences at the same time with other countries in the region,” says Edward Shrugue, managing director of Envoy Media and chief executive of Megastar Media.

At the end of the war and reunification in 1976, “cinema had become an art and industry entirely funded and managed by the state,” explains Benjamin Saglio, attache for audio-visual culture to the French embassy in Hanoi.

However, state productions ran out of steam in the 1990s because of a lack of funding and the government’s diversion of funds to sectors deemed more important to national development.

A lack of fresh ideas and an outdated perception of film also were at fault.

“Films still focused on the war with melodramatic productions. Audiences started to lose interest,” Mr. Saglio says.

When the industry was first opened in 2002 and 2003, new actors began to appear on the scene.

Hanoi-based BHD, a subsidiary of the Vietnam Media Corp., moved into production and distribution, while the South Korean firm Good Fellas opened its Diamond Multiplex Cinema (DMC) in Ho Chi Minh City, showing U.S. blockbusters, South Korean and Hong Kong movies and some Vietnamese productions.

Cinemas quickly began to fill up despite the ready availability of cheap pirated DVDs.

A real breakthrough came when a locally made low-budget feature, “Dancing Girls,” with a heady portrayal of drug addicts in the sex trade, scored a stunning success at the box office.

State media said the movie’s budget was around $80,000 and profits went up to $700,000.

“Until that time, movies had praised moral values, mostly rural ones,” explains Michael DiGregorio of the Ford Foundation in Vietnam, which finances film schools. “‘Dancing Girls’ was the first movie aimed at young urban people and not at their grandparents.”

Subsequent box-office hits have shown that younger moviegoers want a hero to whom they can relate — someone who dreams of becoming a model or a singer, who wants to travel and above all is looking for love.

Vietnamese also want nice cinemas with comfortable armchairs and original versions, “not state movie theaters where [movies] are still dubbed with only one voice for all the characters,” says a 24-year-old English student who identifies herself as Linh.

According to the Ministry of Culture and Information, 15 movies were produced in 2004 and 65 were imported, including 38 American and three French films as well as South Korean, Hong Kong or Chinese movies.

Rising interest in film is part of a broader culture of leisure and entertainment that is taking hold in Vietnam.

In late February, Megastar Media announced its ambitious plans.

“We forecast that Megastar will occupy between 30 and 50 percent of the market share by 2010, with 10 bundles of cinemas — 100 screens — in major cities,” said Phan Thi Le, chairwoman of Phuong Nam Corp., at the time.

In early March, Warner Bros. joined forces with Galaxy. Though the U.S. giant has not divulged details, Paul Miller, the studio’s senior vice president for finance, described Vietnam as “a vibrant, emerging filmgoing market.”

Domestic and foreign film companies alike face one major remaining obstacle that evokes cinema’s dark days: the censors’ stranglehold.

Many expect the censors’ grasp to weaken with time, in line with many other changes that have taken place in this communist country in recent years.

“Censorship may change with the young generation,” Mr. DiGregorio says. “It will move along with the exploration of more flexible ideas of morality.”

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