The short films on show at the ongoing Yxineff 2011, an online contest for young and independent ethnic Vietnamese filmmakers from all over the world, are surprisingly enjoyable.
Before I watched them, I must confess, I was a bit prejudiced against independent Vietnamese filmmakers whose greatest weakness is their egotism.
Movies such as Phan Dang Di’s feature “Bi, don’t be afraid,” which deals with a sense of being trapped in sexual fantasies, and Nguyen Hoang Diep’s short film “The fifth season,” which deals with a sense of being trapped in mundane urban life, strike me as unrealistic and pretentious. Their characters look like the projection of the moviemakers themselves rather than someone with whom Vietnamese audiences can identify with. In other words, Vietnamese may not empathize with such high-minded ideas that are fashionable on the independent art-house circuit such as sexual fantasies or a feeling of loneliness in a meaningless life. Life in this country is still pretty simple and meaningful with earthy goals such as good health, love, money, and fame.
Because they do not have realistic materials to work with, independent moviemakers also tend to use a lot of symbolism - for instance, Di uses ice in his movie to symbolize both sexual repression and release and Diep uses soap bubbles as a symbol of sensuality and femininity.
However, after I watched the 23 entries competing at this year’s Yxineff as well as the four short films that won the highest prizes last year (Yxineff is only in its second year), I had to modify my opinion about independent Vietnamese moviemakers, some of whom are very young.
Many of the Yxineff films deal with simple and realistic materials and some deal with high-minded concepts with such intelligence and depth that they show that a good movie may or may not be realistic, but it must be based on an understanding of reality as well as an intention to improve it.
Yxineff’s organizers have the same vision and thus chose “love” as the theme of last year’s contest and “belief” this year.
Some of the best entries this year are also symbolic but they explain why the symbols came into being in the first place rather than simply employing them.
A perfect example of employing symbolism that is not too abstract or obscure is “Runaway” by 19-year-old Shyn Oh Bee (Be Nguyen Minh Anh). The movie explains the meaning of the disturbing and well-known symbol, the mask, and offers a simple but clever solution to people who have to wear masks. Fear of being hurt and self-hate cause us to wear masks, it says, but if we want to go on living, there is just no option but to take them off and face our fears.
Like almost all of the other entries “Runaway” does not explore any new ideas or broach the sexual topics that are fashionable, but doubt and fear are omnipresent and so universal that the film strikes a chord.
Another excellent entry that I voted for on the competition’s website (www.yxineff.com), Dzung Pham’s animation, “Freedom – The Perennial Quest of Little O,” also deals with an old concept, freedom, and still manages to make it interesting.
Using 2D graphics (as compared to the fancier 3D), it intelligently explores the meaning of freedom from a lingual angle. The hero, the letter O of the alphabet, is a heavenly body with wings. One rainy day it falls into the word PRISON. After a great struggle it manages to escape, but a remnant of PRISON, the letter I, hangs on to O’s body.
During its journey, it meets a friend, Y. Y rescues O when fiery JEALOUS tries to appropriate and imprison O. O believes Y is its love only to discover later that Y simply tries to appropriate O to make MONEY.
In its struggle to escape from MONEY, O gets rid of the letter I but ends up falling off a cliff. I won’t reveal the ending though, like all good endings, it is as surprising as inevitable.
This film is such a smart spin on the biblical Fall of Man as well as our daily struggle to break free from negative thoughts, values, and illusions about love (for instance, O does not realize that there is no Y in LOVE) that it suggests Vietnamese animation is headed in the right direction.
Of the 23 entries, five are animated films, a good sign since Vietnamese cinema is particularly weak in animation. Of course, their graphics are still way behind the likes of Disney products, but the stories are lighter, more humorous, and definitely more entertaining than the stuffy moralistic stories of old Vietnamese cartoons.
Yet another great entry is a movie that explores the admittedly exasperatingly overused theme of sex, but so deeply that it leads to the artistically ambitious zone of incest. Do Quoc Trung’s “Mother never cries” is about a mother trying to find a bride for her intellectually challenged son. When the son first meets the girl, he treats her nicely, which makes the mother hope that he will be able to sleep with her. So she locks them in his room and waits anxiously. Moments later she hears the girl screaming and the boy laughing. Unable to bear to think what may be happening, she opens the door. The girl runs out holding her bleeding chest. The boy has stabbed her to get back his beloved mother’s precious marriage bracelet - he does not know his mother gave it to the girl as a marriage gift.
I think there is only one logical solution to the mother’s problem: her son can never understand sex if his mother who teaches him everything does not teach him how to do it herself. However, the film, which ends with the mother’s tragic failure, does not necessarily have to be sad.
If Trung takes his logic further, he may let his mother character realize that she never could or should drag her son down from his height of perfect innocence and bliss because it would mean violence, either to a girl as has already happened, or to her or her son’s soul. With this realization, she could get reconciled to the fact that her son cannot get married.