Vietnamese cinema fascinates me, for many reasons.
The films produced in Vietnam are still, for the most part, extraordinarily low-budget affairs, patched together with censored scripts and on-location shoots and frequently embarrassing outcomes. That said, sometimes this enforced economy produces films of some delicacy and artistry, and several times I have seen at festivals and on SBS some really beautiful stuff filmed in Vietnam. Let's face it, as a country it is jam-packed with amazing stories, so occasionally one simply has to rise to the surface. For the most part such films are ignored in Vietnam, where people are much more interested in watching B Grade action flicks from America or Europe, or Korean and Taiwanese Soap Operas. Cinemas are little more than glorified love hotels, so what's showing on-screen is just not important. It is not uncommon to see movie houses screening 1970s Bruce Lee flicks dubbed into Viet, or a marathon screening of the Look Who's Talking films, all dubbed over by a single actor, the English soundtrack barely, but annoyingly, audible.
Then there are Vietnamese film makers working overseas. The most famous is probably Tran Anh Hung, the justly celebrated French-Vietnamese auteur who created a masterpiece with his The Scent of Green Papaya, a film which managed to evoke completely the nostalgic memory of Saigon past while being filmed exclusively on a set in Paris.
Interestingly, almost the entire Vietnamese music industry is based in California, where studios pump out CDs, DVDs and variety concerts consumed slavishly by Vietnamese all over the world - including in Vietnam itself.
The film Spirits seems to be an outcome of this Californian Vietnamese AV industry, featuring American Vietnamese actors and filmed in California, yet telling a subtly spooky series of ghost stories set in Vietnam. It is well done, and for the most part the actors do a good job - I particularly loved Catherine Ai as the shonky middle-aged medium and feng shui expert sent to pacify the ghosts. The movie captures perfectly the Vietnamese conviction about the existence of ghosts, and explores issues of the subjugation of women, the exploitation of grief and, intriguingly, the nature of literature and being a writer. Altogether it is a sophisticated little production that deserves to be better known. See if you can find it.


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