Director Phan Dang Di
Late last year CAMA caught up with Phan Dang Di, one of the most talked about filmmakers in Vietnam. His short film, When I am 20 grabbed international plaudits at the Venice Film Festival, while at just 22 he wrote the script for Adrift as his university thesis. That film went on to win the International Film Critics Award at Cannes in 2009. This year his first solo feature-length, which he both wrote and directed, Bi Don’t be Afraid, was released around the world.
Your short film, When I am 20 was the first Vietnamese film ever to be selected for the Venice Film Festival yet it was banned in Vietnam, what was the reason for that?
Maybe it was because of the subject. That film is about a young girl who becomes a prostitute. She has to take care of her grandmother and also has a boyfriend who is the same age, around 20. They love each other very deeply and even though the boyfriend knows that his girlfriend is a prostitute, he doesn’t care. They always sleep together, not to have sex, just to sleep in a small bed in a small room in the top of a building with a low ceiling. They feel it’s ok and sometimes the girl talks to the boy about her sex partners for fun. The girl thinks it is a game. The film was banned, not because of the sex scenes, but because of the subject. The censorship committee thinks that the film shows a very dark image of Vietnam.
That’s quite interesting because one of the most famous books in Vietnamese literature is the Tale of Kieu by Nguyen Du and the main character Kieu is also a prostitute.
Yes, but Kieu is different because at the end Kieu feels regret about being a prostitute but in my film the young girl feels very comfortable about this subject, like it is a funny game. The people from the censorship committee think that it is impossible. But anyway that film gave me a very big opportunity because it was the first time I was known by foreigners because Venice is a big festival. I told them the film was banned and that I couldn’t go to Venice for the festival and that the film was being held by the censorship committee so they had to screen the film using a DVD, not the original film. They had a conference, talked about it, and decided it wasn’t fair for the artist, me.
After that did they help you in any way?
Not directly, but after that I had a new film project, Bi Don’t Be Afraid and was able to find funding due to the success of When I Am 20. Altogether I had about 600,000USD to make Bi Don’t Be Afraid. With that I was able to go to France to do the post-production and show it at Cannes where it was selected for Critic’s Week winning best script.
Can you explain when you started it?
It was made in 2009 and finished in May 2010 when I presented it for the first time at Cannes. From there it went to many other festivals around the world, 40 festivals in 30 countries over 3 continents.
Was it shown in any of the big Vietnamese cinemas like Megastar?
Yes, but the box office wasn’t really good. When the film was released in Vietnam the censorship committee requested 5 minutes of cuts.
Wow, that’s a lot, which parts did they want to cut?
Almost all the sex scenes, even those between the husband and wife.
I’ve seen the uncut version, if those scenes are cut then I don’t think it makes any sense.
Yes, without those scenes the audience doesn’t understand what happened or why.
In Adrift and Bi, Don’t Be Afraid the role of women seems to be quite negative, do you agree that’s true of your films?
No, not really negative. I think in my films, the women sometimes look like the victim but in fact, they are very strong. In my point of view, Vietnamese women are very strong, much stronger than the men. The men are weak like babies, but when women interact with the men they are always silent and never fight with them because they know that the men are weaker than them. Outside of that, I think that one of the very important things in Vietnamese culture is family values. But I think only the women help to keep the family together because the men are like kids, only looking for pleasure for themselves. The women are at home taking care of the family. Sometimes the kids are kids and at other times the kids are men who never became adults.
Your films are also very sexual, in that sex is central to the films. Why is that? Is there something you want to express in that?
Because in my point of view the most important subjects for film, life and literature are violence and sex. I think they are the main themes. That’s why I often talk about sex and show it from different sides. With me, when you want to talk frankly about sex you should show it. I want to face up frankly with it. So I shoot some scenes which are quite graphic. I think Vietnamese film makers have been afraid for a long time of censorship and the thinking of other people. That’s why they don’t want to go to the limit, but I don’t want to accept that, I want to go through the limit and see what is happening behind the curtain. That’s why I choose to show graphic acts.
Your films tend to have lots of themes and be quite challenging for the audience, do you think it’s important for a film to make the audience think or question society?
For me making a film is making a question, not providing an answer. You have to give the audience an important question and they should answer it. They should find the answer by themselves, not receive it from me. That is why the story never has an answer about any situation or action. Like in Bi, Don’t Be Afraid, I could not say if the husband is good or not, I cannot say who is a good man, who is a bad man, who is the victim and who is the victor. You should find the answer yourself. For me the most important thing is this.
Do you think that is a reason why the Vietnamese audience say they don’t like or don’t understand the film?
Yes, because the people only watch Hollywood films, things that are clear and easily digestible. I think it’s very dangerous because it doesn’t make the people think, it makes them lazy and fat in the mind. Art, literature, everything should make people think and expand their minds. Because they aren’t babies, they are adults and they should answer some questions.
The process for choosing a Vietnamese film to be sent to the Oscars seemed to not be very open and a bit unclear. A lot of critics were surprised that your film wasn’t chosen and wasn’t even on the shortlist to be chosen.
I didn’t care about it a lot because I know that the Oscars have a different taste and I don’t think my films fit it. Even if they chose my film I think that I would have nothing to expect. If you want to make an Oscar film you have to choose a different way, they need a clear story, not the kind of films I make.
What about Thang Long Aspiration, the film that was chosen, finally, to go to the Oscars. Why do you think that film was chosen?
[laughs] it’s safe, it’s a story about 1000 years ago and not recent times. It’s safe because it’s about the past. People in Vietnam are afraid of what is happening now. They are scared of showing reality.
There was recently a big scandal in the Vietnam Cinema Agency, 2 million dollars was stolen by an accountant and recently the chief and the vice-chief of the agency were forced to resign as they hadn’t investigated the situation for 2 years. What effect do you think this might have on the future of Vietnamese cinema?
I think Vietnamese cinema nowadays is very different because we have private film companies and they don’t need money from the government. They make the film themselves and earn the profits. But for state companies it’s a big problem because they have no money to make films and maybe some filmmaker’s won’t have a salary because the money has been lost. It’s a big problem and a sad story. We are independent film makers and we have to look for support and funding from abroad because Vietnam has no support for young film makers. Now we recognise that they had lots of money, but the money is gone.
Do you think it will have a negative effect on young film makers in Vietnam?
Not really because in Vietnam even the young film makers don’t expect support from the government, they have always had to look for support from other sources.
This article first appeared in The Word Ha Noi in 2011