Beautiful scenery, technical expertise, a low-cost economy. Jon Aspin attempts to ask why big budget productions are the exception rather than the rule in Vietnam.
There’s no denying that Vietnam looks stunning on film. Any cinematographer or photographer worth their salt loves coming back to this country. Sweeping aerial shots of Halong Bay, drone footage of the Sapa Valley and even time-lapse photography of Saigon’s traffic. These are just a few of the images that immediately come to mind, and that’s without mentioning the people.
When I was lucky enough to be part of a big Australian beer ad that shot last year in Hanoi and Sapa (see ‘I shot a big beer ad’, April 2015), I joined up with a professional crew who’d literally travelled the world in search of the perfect visual landscape for their story.
This had included the snowy hinterlands of central Europe, the deserts of Dubai, the city of Prague and cage diving with Great White sharks in South Africa. Sean Izzard, a twenty-five year veteran and part of the highly respected creative group The Pool Collective in Sydney, was the stills photographer on the 21-day shoot.
“Vietnam was the highlight for me,” he said. “Especially travelling up north into the mountains of Sapa. It was quite amazing.”
“Even in the downtime there were shots to be had. This amazing cloud would just come through the village at night-time, it was so ethereal and surreal, quite spectacular.”
Traditionally though, filming in Vietnam has been difficult. While the country itself has been the subject of many a film, the most famous of them have all been shot elsewhere.
It was ‘too soon’ perhaps for the likes of Apocalypse Now (1979) which was made in the Philippines, Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Platoon (1986); also the Philippines. One notable exception is the Phillip Noyce directed adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American, which most booksellers will have a copy of.
The director himself said this about shooting in Saigon, during a 2011 interview. “We thought there would be big challenges, but they disappeared. The Vietnamese government were very helpful in helping us to find locations, and getting people to co-operate with the production.”
Noyce expressed his surprise in terms of the level of technical expertise available to him, even back then (the film was released in 2002), and heaped praise on his second unit director Dang Nhat Minh especially, crediting him with the look of the climactic scenes of the movie, when the bomb goes off outside the old Continental Hotel.
“We didn’t realize how efficient Vietnamese film-makers were, in every aspect of film making,” he said.
Tick in the Ointment
So, let’s see. Beautiful scenery. Tick. Technical expertise. Tick. A low-cost economy. Hmm, still a tick. Surely Vietnam should be a veritable goldmine for big budget television and film production, with so many elements working in its favour. Right?
Well, apparently not, and it’s the usual suspects who tourist operators have been pointing the finger at, blaming mismanagement and extortionate “licence fees” for missing out on opportunities to advertise Vietnam’s natural beauty to the world.
For every success story, it seems, scratch the surface just a little, and you’ll find crews and directors who have had little choice but to take their productions elsewhere, usually Thailand or Malaysia.
In October, Tuoi Tre (Youth) News ran an article suggesting tourist operators were accusing the Vietnam Cinema Department of failing to exploit the opportunity to market Vietnam because they were unaware the US$150million Warner Brothers animated film Peter Pan, had used scenes from Halong Bay, En Cave and Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex, in its recreation of ‘Neverland’.
In the article, journalists from the paper quoted multiple travel firms as saying they had been asked to assist foreign film crews, but would usually be discouraged by local authorities because of their rigid requirements in granting a film licence.
In her defence, the head of the department, Ngo Phuong Lan said that people cannot be accused of missing and wasting an opportunity if they have no prior knowledge of it. While it’s likely true that she didn’t know about it, it is symptomatic of a wider problem. Basically when you dig a little deeper, it does appear that the process as it stands seems to be somewhat mired in procedures and rules.
Still, good things can happen here and professionals from all over the world can make a living in film and related media here. It’s still an industry that leans heavily on foreign talent in key roles, meaning the world of television production is littered with people like Terry Gordon, who’s been working in production support for foreign commercial crews here since 2009.
Lately he’s just wrapped another series of Luke Nguyen’s cooking show and counts the Discovery Network, the Travel Channel and Nat Geo as regular clients. He echoes the problems above relating specifically to permits, and points out his competitive advantage as a foreigner.
“There is inherently a lack of a sense of urgency from some local companies when replying to overseas productions,” Terry says. “International producers get some comfort from working with an experienced expat who can guide them and their crew through pre-production and then into location shooting.”
He also agrees that in terms of feature films especially, the industry could be doing more, pointing to the potential for rebates, better infrastructure and a better overall environment to allow international productions to operate efficiently. On the whole, he believes there is talent here and that pool can only get bigger.
Speaking of international productions, next month, to make everyone feel better, King Kong 2: Skull Island is at least rumoured to be filming in the world’s largest cave, Son Doong in the central province of Quang Binh. Set global release on Mar. 10, 2017, the movie stars Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson and Brie Larson.It appears to represent the biggest opportunity to promote the country to a global audience for free since the boys from Top Gear went coast-to-coast in tailor-made suits.
Shrouded in secrecy like most of these things, my attempts to probe the production drew a blank, though I’m proud to say that Word will be represented, as our photographer Trung Del will take up a position as assistant property manager during the shoot.