I met Pham Quoc Trung on a muggy summer day in Dong Mo, Son Tay town, on the set of ‘Scent of Burnt Grass’, directed by Huu Muoi and produced by the Vietnam Feature Film Studio. He had chosen this sunburnt area to reproduce the Quang Tri battlefield for the film. The man with a suntanned face wearing sandals covered with red dirt complained that the fierce weather there, with scorching sunny days and stiff winds followed by long stretches of rain, had destroyed his set of the Quang Tri ancient citadel and he had to redo it, which cost a lot extra money from the film’s scanty budget. The rain also made it difficult to transport materials and design the sets on the slippery ground.
“Although my sets may not be completely accurate reproductions of the real Quang Tri citadel, I have tried to revive the spirit of the actual place and time”, he said.
Trung was born in 1958 in Hanoi. His mother, Nguyen Phuong Nghi, was a pianist and his father, film director Pham Ky Nam, was one of the vanguards of Vietnamese revolutionary cinema who established his reputation with classics such as ‘Chung Mot Dong Song’ (Sharing the Same River), ‘Chi Tu Hau’ (Ms Tu Hau), ‘Tien Tuyen Goi’ (The Frontline is Calling) and ‘Chom Va Sa’ (Chom and Sa). Trung studied architecture at university then worked at the Vietnam Feature Film Studio in 1982, later joining a training course for art directors offered by the Cinematographic Department.
The first film he worked on, ‘Bon Tre’ (Children), a children’s film directed by Khanh Du, won a Golden Lotus Award in 1992.
He won subsequent awards for a series of films directed by Dang Nhat Minh including ‘Tro Ve’ (Coming Back) in 1996, ‘Ha Noi Mua Dong Nam 46’ (Hanoi in the Winter of 1946) in 1999, and ‘Dung Dot’ (Don’t Burn) in 2009. He was also honoured with the Meritorious Artist title in 2001.
Trung says that he did not specifically set out to work on war films but he has been very lucky to have achieved success. War is a difficult theme and it is not easy to find the right props, create costumes or build accurate sets to replicate the past.
He said his most memorable film is ‘Hanoi in the Winter of 1946’, for which he spent nearly a year taking field trips, researching at libraries and museums, and talking to experts in order to collect enough references to create the film sets. For one scene of a French operating room, he had to consult with doctors and professors, and to build an accurate cafeteria from that time, he had to seek assistance from veteran artist Hoang Giac and musician Doan Chuan. He particularly remembers that it took him nearly five months to reproduce a tramcar for the film. He was helped by a retired engineer, who co-ordinated with him in creating every part of the two wooden tram carriages, which were 14 metres long and weighed two tonnes.
However, he says that challenges are the driving force of creativity. The art decorator has to grab one typical feature of every film which is special and embrace the film’s spirit and story. Films about the postwar period should reflect the atmosphere of the era, war films should represent of the actions of war, and stories of the countryside should highlight the distinguishing features of the region.
‘Funding is always an obstacle for film crews, especially for films depicting wartime, and a lack of financial support can really affect artistic productions”, Trung said. ‘Hanoi in the Winter of 1946’ and ‘Don’t Burn’ are two films he is especially proud to have worked on.
Pham Quoc Trung is the first name to be mentioned when taking about war films from the Vietnam Feature Film Studio, or in Vietnamese cinema in general. He has devoted his life to his art and producing outstanding films on the theme of war that will be handed down over generations and continue to shine.