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filmmaker – Dang Nhat Minh

A cinematic life
Director Dang Nhat Minh on the set of his latest film Dung dot, trong do da co lua (Don’t burn it, it’s already on fire)

Now 70, renowned Vietnamese filmmaker Dang Nhat Minh intends to keep using cinema to tell stories about human fate.

No matter how popular an idea, People’s Artist Dang Nhat Minh will turn it down if he doesn’t like it.

This, he feels, has set him apart from his colleagues and has been a factor in his being one of the few Vietnamese directors who have successfully introduced Vietnamese cinema to the outside world.

He doesn’t make many films but his work has won rave reviews from critics and audiences alike.

He is widely hailed for his innovative body of work and skilful depiction of a wide range of subject matter, with war-related suffering and the torment of love in wartime standing out in particular.

“I can make films on any subject that interests me, as long as it depicts human fate,” he said.

“I once considered quitting the industry. But I then thought I could still make films as long as I wrote the scripts and feature subject matters I’m interested in,” Minh said.

In 2000, Minh was invited by Australian Phillip Noyce to join him as a second unit director in the remake of “The Quiet American,” starring Hollywood legend Michael Caine and movie star Brendan Fraser.

The film, which cost more than US$30 million then, was listed in the top 10 best films of 2002 by the American Film Institute and earned Michael Caine Best Actor nominations at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes.

According to Minh, funding is the biggest difference between American cinema and Vietnamese films, which are all state-funded.

Hollywood directors, such as Noyce, are able to get their ideas put into action with independent funding, he said.

“I have to persuade the film crew, especially the film overseer who manages state funds, to help me,” he said. “No member of a state-hired film crew is dismissed for a lack of responsibility.”

Therefore, Minh said he rarely watches his movies. Watching them just makes him see where he and the film crew could have done better.

Minh has written the scripts of eight of his films and adapted a short story into another. He said the scriptwriter’s creativity plays an important part in both kinds of scripting.

“I have no regrets at all about being a film director as it is destiny. But if I could choose again, I would rather be a doctor and follow in my father’s footsteps.”

“A medical career and a filmmaking career, however, have one thing in common: their prime focus is humans.”

He only regrets not being able to make as many films as he wished but he said he will continue to make more films in the future.

The talented director, who received no professional training in filmmaking, learned from famed foreign directors, including influential Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu.

“It makes no difference to me whether a person is professionally trained or not. Whatever the training, it is good if it is effective,” he said.

The film that is most often associated with Minh’s name is Bao gio cho den thang muoi (When the tenth month comes).

The film, which Minh also scripted, depicts the anguish suffered by his own martyred family and many other Vietnamese families whose dearest ones died in the war.

The film is considered by many foreigners to be the country’s iconic post-war work and is a lyrical vision of the endurance of Vietnamese women from one of Vietnam’s most renowned directors.

America’s CNN channel last September honored Bao gio cho den thang muoi as one of the top 18 Asian films of all time.

The 90-minute feature, shot in 1984, winner of the Special Jury Awards at the 1985 Hawaii International Film Festival and the 1989 Asia Pacific Film Festival, depicts a haunting portrait of a young widowed woman’s struggle with loss and personal sacrifice during the war.

In the final days of the war, a beautiful young woman, Duyen, struggles to take care of her young son and ailing father-in-law, all the while hiding the fact that her husband was killed in battle.

Keeping the secret burden to herself, she is befriended by the village schoolmaster, Khang, who agrees to fabricate letters from her dead husband to spare her family from sorrow. Duyen and Khang then find themselves drawing closer together as a result of their shared secret.

The movie’s title refers to the month in which the “Day of Forgiveness” occurs, a time when it is said that departed souls can visit their counterparts on earth.

For the past two years, Minh has been busy making the film Dung dot, trong do da co lua (Don’t burn it, it’s already on fire), based on the war diary of the martyred female medic Dang Thuy Tram, which has been published in 15 different countries and read by millions.

Dang Thuy Tram was a Vietnamese military surgeon who worked for the liberation forces during the Vietnam War and she kept a detailed account of her thoughts during the war.

She was just 27 when killed by US forces after running a mobile hospital for three years.

In the film, Minh juxtaposes the beautiful scenery in Vietnam with the brutal reality of war to condemn the cruelty while praising the humanity and the dream of peace.

Dung dot, trong do da co lua, produced by the Movies Association’s Film Studio, has one of the state’s largest film budgets of $500,000.

MAKING OF AN AUTEUR

Dang Nhat Minh was born into a family of scholars and patriots in the ancient imperial capital of Hue in 1938.

His father, professor and wartime martyr Dang Van Ngu, was a well-known doctor who was honored with the Ho Chi Minh Award for his great medical contributions. Last year, Minh was also bestowed the same award for his contributions to the arts.

Minh translated Russian films before starting as a documentary filmmaker in 1965. He has also worked as a journalist, writer and served as the general secretary of the Vietnamese Cinema Association for 10 years from 1989.

He has won three Gold Lotus and four Silver Lotus awards for his films at the Vietnam Film Festival and many other prizes at other national film festivals.

He was the first Vietnamese director to win the prestigious Nikkei Asia prize for Culture in 1999.

Minh also received the Lifetime Achievement Award for his outstanding contributions to the Asian film industry at the fifth Gwangju International Film Festival in South Korea in 2005.

Reported by Nguyen Le Chi

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This entry was posted on December 27, 2008 by in filmmaker - Dang Nhat Minh.
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