Thuy Linh: Making Peace with the Censors

Thuy Linh shares with us a look into how filmmaker, Charlie Nguyen, makes peace with the censors by toning down the violence in order to create a more realistic portrayal of gangster violence in his latest action film, Bui doi Cho Lon.

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A scene from Charlie Nguyen’s action movie Bui doi Cho Lon, which was scheduled to premiere April 19, 2013. The censors have said the film needs to tone down its violence and be more realistic in its portrayal of Saigon gangsters before it can be released. Photo courtesy of Bui doi Cho Lon Facebook page

A scene from Charlie Nguyen’s action movie Bui doi Cho Lon, which was scheduled to premiere April 19, 2013. The censors have said the film needs to tone down its violence and be more realistic in its portrayal of Saigon gangsters before it can be released. Photo courtesy of Bui doi Cho Lon Facebook page

In my previous review titled “If you like action, fight the good fight,” I had suggested that local filmmakers should focus more on the action genre since action scripts don’t have to be too complex and many filmmakers personally like it.

Then I went on to say that in future action films, local filmmakers shouldn’t apologize for the action/violence in their films too much and end up making films like Luu Huynh’s supposedly martial arts action flick Huyen thoai bat tu (The Legend is Alive), which has too little action and is thus boring. The hero’s mother’s admonition that he should only use violence as a last resort is interpreted too literally.

In short, I argued that if local filmmakers really believe in the need for action, they should go ahead and make “robust” action movies that don’t have to resort to romance or sex to make them more interesting.

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I haven’t watched Charlie Nguyen’s latest action movie, Bui doi Cho Lon, yet – which was scheduled to premiere April 19, 2013 – because the censors have said it has to tone down its violence and be more realistic in its portrayal of gangsters’ lawlessness before it can be released.

Judging from the censors’ decision, Charlie Nguyen was probably trying to do what I suggested: infuse an action film with some real action.

While I do hope that filmmakers everywhere some day have as much freedom as they want to create good works, I don’t agree with the criticism of the censors. Charlie Nguyen recently told Ngan Vi of Thanh Nien that the film’s biggest fault in the censors’ eyes is that it isn’t realistic. For instance, there is a scene in which hundreds of gangsters fight in the street without any passers-by or the police.

Charlie Nguyen’s argument is that his movie is fictional, so it doesn’t have to be realistic. “American cinema tells stories about the kidnapping of the president… But does anybody find fault with that? Does anybody decry them for not being realistic? To do so means being political. Filmmakers like us only try to be creative. If all movies are like reality, won’t they all be documentaries?”

While many may find this argument convincing, I’d put the burden on Charlie Nguyen and artists in general (I take all filmmakers, commercial or otherwise, seriously and consider their creative attempts potentially works of art) to take a moment to ponder whether being creative and being realistic are mutually exclusive.

Fiction and reality are simply two sides of the same coin; however creative we think we are, we can’t escape from reality, and however realistic we think we are, there will be someone who says we aren’t.

In the same interview, Charlie Nguyen said he really hoped that the censors saw the gangsters’ yearning to do good, to give up their former life of sins. “The film has to show audiences that every wrong has a price. If it is too gentle, it will no longer be a warning.”

If Charlie Nguyen was simply being “creative,” making a “fictional” movie that doesn’t, and doesn’t have to, have anything to do with reality, then what about the gangsters’ “yearning” to do good? What is his – and what does he believe is the audiences’ – definition of sin and right or wrong? Aren’t they connected with reality then?

Filmmakers should stop taking refuge in being “creative” and criticizing censors for insisting on realism.

The best response to the censors’ question about why there is no police officer in the street fighting scene would then be: “You’re right, so let me figure out how I can balance your reality and my own.”

In the interview, Charlie Nguyen said, perhaps half in jest, that he suddenly thought about a way to oblige the censors: A child asks his grandfather to tell him a gangster story. The grandfather immediately tells him the story of Bui doi Cho Lon.

“Grandpa, why isn’t your story verisimilar?” the child asks.

“Because it’s fiction, dear.”

“Why isn’t there any policeman when the gangsters fight?”

“If there were any policemen, the story would end right away, and I wouldn’t have any story to tell you!”

If I were a censor who doesn’t have a sense of humor, I wouldn’t take this snideness very kindly and our censorship battle would never end.

So again, I’d put the burden on filmmakers because I have great expectations for them, because they should, and probably do want to, have more wisdom about human nature than normal folks. I’d ask filmmakers to try to be modest about their works and appreciate the censors’ point of view.

Then, hopefully, the censors who say they’re trying to encourage local cinema will make things a little easier for filmmakers. Trying to create when you’re hampered from all sides is actually the greatest kind of creativity, and there is perhaps no bigger “fight” than that.

  

Thuy Linh lives and works in Hanoi. She graduated from UMass Boston with a BA in English and has a Certificate in Screenwriting from the Film Studies Program, a 10-month program of the Hanoi University of Social Sciences and Humanities (in partnership with the Ford Foundation).

She is a translator/reporter/editor for various English newspapers in Hanoi and HCMC such as VietNamNet, Saigon Times, Sai Gon Giai Phong, and Tuoi Tre. At present, she works as a translator/editor for the “fiction” section (translates and edits contemporary Vietnamese short stories) and a film critic for Thanh Nien. This article originally appeared in Thanh Nien.

                                                                                                                                                               

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3 Responses to Thuy Linh: Making Peace with the Censors

  1. Dan Duffy says:

    Hi Thuy, thanks for the thoughtful essay.

    I am curious about who the censors of Vietnamese films are now. I am familiar with the practice of book publishers over there in the 1990s.

    At that time each director published at his own risk. It was my impression that the editor-in-chief of each newspaper exercised the same authority and responsibility.

    I found this liberating in contrast to the system in the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries, where there was indeed a central office of censorship. Very often one censor was tasked to one author.

    They would become friends in a way. Authors often joked about the relationship but it always sounded repressive to me, a soft control that really got in people’s heads.

    So I rather liked it when in Ha Noi by contrast an editor would exercise his judgement and simply lose his job, rather than play footsie. The Soviet/Warsaw Pact approach reminded me too much of the system in Hollywood, where an industry-appointed board exercises soft control.

    Something like that was also at work in the large New York publishing houses, usually owned by individuals from old and wealthy families with ties to government, and staffed at many key points by agents or informants to our political police, the FBI, or our international espionage agency, the CIA.

    Many of the authors who most influenced me among the Americans 10 to 20 years older fled all this control by publishing comic books independently or working in low-prestige industries such as science fiction.

    Anyways, this background is all to illustrate where my question is coming from. The circumstances of censorship color its effects.

    So how does it work for Vietnamese-financed films in Viet Nam? The relation with censors you describe sounds very like the old-time Warsaw Pact arrangement, rather than what I saw in print publishing in Ha Noi in the 1990s.

    Who are the censors? Who do they work for?

    Best,

    Dan

    • Thuy Linh says:

      Yes, there is a central censorship board here, called Hội đồng duyệt phim quốc gia (National Film Censorship Board), under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. The Bureau of Cinematography is also under the culture ministry. There’re currently 11 members of the board, headed by veteran director Bùi Đình Hạc, and veteran screenwriter Nguyễn Thị Hồng Ngát -also acting vice chairperson of the Vietnam Cinematography Association. Of the other 9 members, one is film critic Ngô Phương Lan, who presently heads the Bureau of Cinematography. Except for the criteria about cultural security (politics, religions, etc.) which may probably be as clear in cinema as in anything else in Vietnam, this board has pretty broad criteria in which to judge things like sex and violence as commonly seen in commercial cinema. Critics of the board say the members are either too old, or too unknown in the field (except for one or two established ones), or they are simply people of the cinema industry, rather than represent voices from sectors like education, and that there needs to be clearer criteria spelled out in papers to minimize judging based on personal tastes. The bureau will probably develop a more sophisticated rating system. At present, there is only the over 16/under 16 rating.

      • Sunny says:

        Dear all,

        Why do we hide the truth. The censorship is there to support the communist dictatorship – for whatever reason. Just keep it simple.

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