10/30/2018 – Vietnam: The Housemaid (2016)
Directed by Derek Nguyen
Our final country and fifty-fifth overall is Vietnam, a country that for most Americans continues to be defined by the Vietnam War. The country itself has long been dominated by censorship which has gone after political, superstitious, sexual, violent, and bloody elements. Besides feeling directly targeted at this feature, it’s been quite the limiting factor on much of their cinema history to this day both in terms of local films and in the importation of foreign films.
The Huong Ky Film Company was founded in 1920 and produced a series of documentaries before 1924’s Một đồng kẽm tậu được ngựa (A Penny for a Horse) would become the country’s first narrative film. While a couple Vietnamese sound films were made in Hong Kong, the first to be made in country were The Song of Triumph and Toet’s Scared of Ghosts. Beginning in 1946, the country, which had been under French (and during WWII Japanese) control, would be engulfed in the First Indochina War as it fought for its independence. In 1954, the country was split in two which of course led to the Second Indochina War (The Vietnam War) the following year.
Despite this, Chung một dòng sông (Together on the Same River) would become the first film produced in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) by director Nguyen Hong Nghi in 1959 and the animated Đáng đời Thằng Cáo (A Just Punishment for the Fox) was made in 1960. The documentaries Nước về Bắc Hưng Hải (Water Returns to Bắc Hưng Hải) from 1959 and Chị Tư Hậu (Sister Tư Hậu) from 1963 would achieve recognition abroad. The South Vietnamese were most known for their comedy films such as Triệu Phú Bất Đắc Dĩ (The Reluctant Millionaire).
When the Tenth Man Comes would become the first Vietnamese film to be shown at a US film festival in 1984 while Van Thuy Tran’ The Story of Kindness or How to Behave from 1987 gained recognition as a controversial war documentary. Tran Anh Hung remains one of the most well-regarded directors in the country’s history with his 1993 film The Scent of Green Papaya remaining their only Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film (first submission), his 1995 film Cyclo winning the Gold Lion, and the 2000 film Vertical Ray of the Sun, closing out the unofficial trilogy with a similar acclaim.
Three Seasons Tony Bui, an American born in Vietnam would become the first American film to be made in the country in 1999 after Bill Clinton lifted an embargo on doing such. That same year, The Sound of the Violin in My Lai became another well received documentary short from Van Thuy Tran. With the turn of the century, there would be more well received movies though none that would break out internationally. These films include Viet Linh’s The Glorious Time In Me Thao from 2002, 2005’s The Buffalo Boy, 2006’s The Story of Pao, 2007’s The White Silk Dress which remains the most expensive film in their history, 2010’s The Floating Lives, and 2015’s Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass from Vietnamese-American Victor Vu who had before been dogged by plagiarism accusations in the past. Bar Girls would become one of the first significantly financially successful films in the country with others such as Sweet 20 (from 2015) and Jailbait (from 2017 and the current highest grossing film) raising the bar in that regard.
The first Vietnamese horror film would by Con ma nhà họ Hứa (The Ghost of Hui Family) and it would be followed up by Giỡn mặt tử thần (Flirting with the Grim Reaper) which had the misfortune to be completed in 1975, right before South Vietnam was defeated by the North. As a result, it was never show in theaters, though you can watch it now if you so desire. The next made wouldn’t be until 1999’s Chung Cu, a female directed one at that by Viet Linh. It would then be followed by Victor Vu’s 2004 film Spirits – Oan Hon. 2007’s Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait is the horror title most often credited as the first, but it was directed by a Korean directed, co-produced by Korean producers, and partly in Korean. It was the first Vietnamese film to face an under-16 ban. From that same year there is also Night in Abandoned House and since then there has been Bóng ma học đường 3D (Ghost School) in 2011, House in the Alley in 2012, and Hollow, Victor Vu’s Vengeful Heart, and Chung Cu Ma in 2014.
Sorry for the last minute switch (not that anyone was likely to notice or care), but it was probably for the best. While Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait was selected for its (undeserved) reputation as the first Vietnamese horror film of the modern era, I can’t say I paid too close attention to the fact that it was largely a Korean production when I selected it. Thankfully (if not for my money), Muoi got removed from the Prime affiliate I planned to get it from on trial sometime in the past month (I could have sworn it was on there the day before), and so I had to go with a backup option which is probably a more prominent film regardless.
In 1953 Vietnam at the tail end of the French reign in Vietnam, Linh, the housemaid at the rubber plantation finds the murdered body of the Captain Sebastien Laurent. The rest of the film is told in flashback as she tells her story to the police. She’s a country girl who worked on her parent’s farm until they were all killed in an air raid and their farm was destroyed. Desperate for a job and a place to live, she takes a job at the Sa-Cat estate. The place has a history as hundreds of people have died on the plantation, the French having abused the workers and buried them in the fields. Now spirits are said to haunt the place and few people are willing to work there. In addition, the captain had a wife and child, but while he was away at war, she went mad and drowned the baby and after it had rotted and decayed, drowned herself.
The Captain gets shot and after he gets a bad infection and fever, one of the staff who does not trust Western medicine, covertly performs some Eastern medicine which involves giving him a concoction of some sort and then chanting something wild over him which brings his wife back in her creepy mourning clothes and in state a of decay. The wife starts haunting the place and those who still live in it. Considering how much shit flies at the screen, I’d assume this was meant to be 3D and yet there’s no evidence online that points to that. It’s also when the film undercuts itself doing plenty with the horror otherwise with its inherently haunted setting (visually and in concept). Even if the wife isn’t all that original in look it’s still an effective design, it just didn’t need all the teleporting and throwing bats or an axe at the camera or the jumping out at it to try (and fail) to get cheap jump.
Meanwhile, Linh starts to grow closer to the Captain as he starts to treat her as more than just a servant and despite being a Frenchman at the end of the French occupation, appears to have changed into someone who doubts the old ways and now has come to respect the people whose country he’s in. SPOILERS1
The film’s a good looking Gothic romance with Nhung Kate turning in an especially strong performance in the lead. SPOILERS2 It’s tempting to condemn the horror aspects of the film considering the weakest points fall on the CGI and jump scares, but Gothic and atmospheric elements are so deeply tied to horror that I would never want to remove them from the story. I just wish that they hadn’t been so poorly done to detract and distract from what is otherwise a very good movie.
Bonus Episode #44 – A – 1930s: The Dark Eyes of London (1939)
Directed by Walter Summers
Released as The Human Monster in the US, The Dark Eyes of London, was the first British film to receive the rating of “H” for “Horrific” which is objectively the best rating name. Five people have been found drowned and the police have no evidence. Béla Lugosi plays Dr. Orloff, a man who wanted to be a medical doctor but was driven out of the profession and now runs an insurance agency, also supporting a home for the blind. SPOILERS3
Despite being a British production, it is heavily indebted to the Universal productions of the day in feel. It’s hulking, deformed man with messed up teeth who works at the home, the American detective who keeps wanting to beat the evidence out of people, and just the overall look with foggy city streets all fit right in. It was great to see Lugosi in a prominent role (two to be exact) instead of relegated to a minor support as he was so often called upon for. The grainy print is less than ideal and it’s a decent, if not particularly memorable piece of classic age horror.
Bonus Episode #45 – A – 1960s: Son of Godzilla (1967)
Directed by Jun Fukuda
Our third Godzilla film this month after Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster and Godzilla Raids Again, is the eighth film in the series. It is also the second film from in the series from the director of Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, better known here by its US title of Godzilla versus the Sea Monster (the lesser known of the two to be featured on MST3K). Something starts jamming the radio of a plane only for Godzilla to pop out not even a minute into the movie. This film isn’t even going to pretend that it is about the suspense, it knows why you are here (well kind of) and it’s going to flaunt that bad boy. The plane avoids Godzilla and they witness him heading to Sollgel Island where something is calling him to it.
On Sollgel Island, there is a research station that is looking to try to control the weather. A reporter shows up determined to get a story and the island is revealed to be infested with giant praying mantises. After launching a radiation unit meant to help the task, they lose signal and it explodes, causing the island to be engulfed in an epic heatwave followed by downpours. Despite the radiation device exploding overhead, they are out and about walking in the area four days late with little concern for the radiation levels on their bodies. The giant mantises are even bigger now and the mantises smash open an egg exposing a baby Godzilla (Minilla or Minya as he’s known in America).
The interference was the baby Godzilla calling his dad (unlike ‘Zilla where the monster was clearly portrayed as a mother). Godzilla comes in and roasts the mantises picking on its stupid looking kid who inexplicably play with a rock like a soccer ball and kick it at the baby’s head. Even Godzilla accidentally smacks his kid in the head. A Mysterious woman who was seen before the explosion swimming and somehow survived the blast befriends the freak though we do get to watch Godzilla teach his kid. Minilla is pure “comic” relief, but he’s far too pathetic a creature. Remember how Godzilla was an unstoppable force of terror, well Minilla takes every last bit of that out for some lame physical humor accompanied by the grating wacky music the permeates this whole film.
SPOILERS4 There’s plenty to mock between the bonkers plot by the “heroes” to change the weather, Godzilla’s constant disappointment in his son and covering for his failings, and the quite questionable decisions by the characters, but there’s little here for those looking for a good monster movie. The monster fights are lame, the destruction is minimal, the tone is pure bad comedy, and the designs are unoriginal (giant spider and giant mantises) or ugly (Minilla). The King of the Monsters deserved better.
Bonus Episode #46 – A – 1960s: The Frozen Dead (1967)
Directed by Herbert J. Leder
Twenty years after the end of World War II, a Nazi scientist has been working on trying to unfreeze cryogenically frozen Nazi soldiers on the orders of his superiors to little success. One has died and seven are mental cases. Despite that, his assistant has let his superiors know that the method is ready to go, and the Nazis can rise again. 1,500 Nazis have apparently been secretly frozen and… so what? The film never gives any indication that there is any reason for them to succeed this time and 1,500 people is hardly enough to take over very much. They aren’t even trying to make them into super soldiers or infiltrate them into key positions of government, just trying to bring them back exactly how they left them.
Understandably, the doctor seems to be losing faith in the party, but he still proceeds along with his work presumably out of a sense of what better does he have to do with his life any more. The best he can do is reach a specific point of someone’s memory which in the case of his resurrected brother, makes him prone to violence. Which, why did he resurrect his brother as one of the first test subjects? Besides being a dick move, he’s implied to be a skilled doctor and therefore a valuable talent that they lost on an experiment that they could not afford to lose.
SPOILERS5 There’s a silly wall with amputated arms that can be animated on it and the shots of the Nazis in the freezer were amusing, but for the most part it’s a film that never quite captures anything compelling in the ideas of Nazis mad science. It’s all so dry with the daughter’s suspicions of him or any of the continuing twists raising much more than a shrug.
Next up: We have finally reached the end of this month of horror as I treat myself to a film I’ve been wanting to see for a long while, Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses. There will also be plenty of other coverage and wrap up.