When it comes to censoring entertainment media content for what it deems the “public good,” Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has typically had no problem with taking credit. When the National Film Inspection Board last year prohibited local distribution of The Hunger Games, officials trumpeted the news with as much back-patting as if they’d thwarted a full-on terrorist attack. The Hunger Games, they said, was “inappropriate” for Vietnamese people because of its violent content (though, curiously, the FIB had no problem with other, far more violent foreign cinematic imports). In the wake of the decision, a more popular explanation among disgruntled fans was that the CPV was less than keen on the film’s portrayal of a totalitarian government that keeps its population ignorant, hungry, and repressed in order to minimize the chances of another popular revolution that would deprive them of their comfy place at the top of the hierarchy.
While the C-word comes loaded with negative connotations for most Western observers, in Vietnam and other cultures rooted in Confucian tradition it’s far less of a bogeyman; indeed, many citizens here not only accept media censorship but condone it in the name of Asian values, under which the government traditionally fulfills a paternalistic role, keeping its wards safe from harm.
Tradition, of course, has taken a beating in Asia’s new media environment — particularly in a nation where 70% of the population is now under the age of 30 and there’s a 34% Internet penetration rate. Last week, therefore, when the Film Inspection Board banned distribution of a locally filmed and produced movie on the same grounds – that it was too violent – Vietnam’s youthful online community exploded in anger and frustration with what they have claimed is an arbitrary process lacking in transparency, driven not by concerns for the public good but by out-of-touch party patriarchs who say they want to see the nation develop but who seem to consistently knock back all attempts to do so.
The film in question, named Bui Doi Cho Lon (‘One Night in Chinatown’) was produced by Galaxy Studios with Vietnamese-American director Charlie Nguyen at the helm. As would be expected of a film about organized crime in a seedy part of a big city – the formula’s pretty well established by now, and if the budding Vietnamese film industry is anything, it’s formulaic – the film features the standard, requisite amounts of violence, foul language, and mayhem.
Galaxy promoted the film heavily in the weeks leading up to its early June release date with posters and trailers on YouTube and elsewhere. Yet just before the release date, the film’s was unexpectedly ixnayed by Ministry officials, who are said to have objected to the film’s bloodshed as well as to its portrayal of the Chinatown (Chợ Lớn) neighborhood of Ho Chi Minh City as a lawless gangland. The film, they said, does not reflect the “social reality” of Vietnam. Censors told Galaxy and Nguyen they’d have to revise entire scenes of the finished film, and even introduce new characters — a prohibitively expensive proposition.
Working quickly and biting their tongues, Galaxy and Nguyen made the required edits to the film. By the beginning of this week, they were ready to release the heavily edited result, hoping to salvage at least some of the time and money they’d invested in the project. But at the last minute, the Film Board changed its mind once again, and on June 16 banned the film’s distribution altogether.
The uproar was immediate and overwhelming. Even local media couldn’t help noticing the blowback. At Báo Mới, several anonymous commentators screamed hypocrisy: “Vietnamese broadcast system just shows all Chinese movies with tons of violent scenes full of blood for the whole population to see and it’s ok. BTW, why not cut all Hollywood action movies shown in the cinema too? A classic example of discouraging the development!” Another wrote:
“The fact is that in Vietnamese society, if there’s some real fighting happening, the police would just hide away and wait to come to solve the problem when everything is already finished. Now [the Film Board] complains that there’s no police or government intervention in the movie? Please look back at what you have done [in reality] before complaining.”
A few stuck up for the ban, claiming that the film’s Vietnamese setting makes it fundamentally different than fantastical foreign action and superhero movies:
“Banning is right,” wrote one. “You say that American action movies should be banned too, but you haven’t really thought of the different influence when Vietnamese see Vietnamese killing and fighting like that.”
The conspiracy-minded even speculated that the film’s banning had little to do with violence but was in fact the work of powerful, well-connected, real-life organized crime lords pulling strings behind the scenes in an attempt to call less attention to their very real influence.
Almost overnight, mocking, ironic parody posters and images sprung up like mushrooms. Many have riffed on the popular opinion that the Film Board is treating Vietnamese audiences like children. Others have suggesting that the conservative Old Guard making such decisions are hopelessly out of touch with the interests and ideals of the country’s youth and young adults.
Many commenters noted that another Vietnamese film, Biết Chết Liền (“I Have No Idea”), released two weeks ago, is a textbook example of the kind of poorly written, inane, insipid, mindless and badly acted film that Vietnamese users have become accustomed to being force-fed by a system that they say prevents any quality content from reaching the market. (A film industry representative who saw the screenplay for Biết Chết Liền told me it was so bad that reading it made her sick to her stomach).
One of last week’s most popular YouTube posts was from a Vietnamese comic named Dua Leo, whose videoblogs have been piling up views recently. In his June 17 post, which has racked up 223,000 views and 965 comments to date, he has a deliriously fun time comparing the two films — one released with the government’s blessing, the other banned. But in amongst the gags and jabs, Due Leo has some salient, serious words for the decision-makers: “Sorry Cultural Committee, but you don’t have the right to choose which movie we can see. We have the right to choose it. Not you. Never you.”
Dua Leo’s rant is not so much against the government’s decision but in support of good Vietnamese films over bad. In fact, he urges his viewers to make their feelings known by boycotting the poorly made movies the Film Board promotes:
In a market where a big box office take for a film equates to 50 billion VND (around a million tickets sold or $2.3 million USD), Dua Leo’s quarter of a million viewers could make a very, very real impact, if they take his plea to heart. (For what it’s worth, Biết Chết Liền opened last weekend to a paltry 2 billion VND ($95,000 USD) nationwide).
Writing in a lengthy Facebook note entitled “Bui Doi Cho Lon, comic books and the tiger at the wet market,” user Tú Trung Hồ uses an old Vietnamese folktale to make the point that when the Ministry of Culture censors media content they fear is bad for people, in his view they’re really preventing Vietnamese society from developing. The eventual result of this coddling, he writes, will be that “the people won’t be able to have their own opinions and protect themselves from the real life.”
Galaxy officials have found themselves in an almost impossible Catch 22. They’re prohibited from releasing the film as it is. But in a country where digital piracy comes as naturally as breathing, the few existing copies of the film are like ticking time bombs. They know that the moment anyone gets their hands on a copy, the very next day pirated DVDs of it will be available at a million street shops and push carts from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh — and that the government will hold them responsible.
“It’s like having a poisonous bottle of wine in the house,” one high-placed Vietnamese film industry worker told me. “You can’t serve it to anyone and you can’t throw it away.”