Tran Anh Hung reached international acclaim with his debut feature, The Scent of Green Papaya, in 1993. The film, which won the Camera d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival, went on to garner an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film that same year, making it the first Vietnamese film ever to be nominated for an Academy Award. Considered to be at the forefront in contemporary Vietnamese cinema, his later works continued to impress critics and festival audiences worldwide. With his abstract storytelling and dreamy visual style, Tran Anh Hung’s diverse filmography continues to evolve, challenging his audiences with its nuanced sensuality in its depictions of human relationships.
Below is the full transcription of the masterclass. We have also summarised the key points in a video:
Since I’m here in Asia, I’d like to emphasise something very specific. The language of cinema. “Telling Our Stories” is the slogan for this festival. Of course stories are interesting all around the world. For me it’s not the most important thing. Since we are making movies, it is important to focus on the language of cinema. This is missing in 90% of movies in the world. It’s just illustrations of good stories and theme. This is not interesting at all.
This is a small country in terms of cinema and filmmaking compared to Hollywood. I would like to put the focus on the necessity on bringing something new in terms of language to cinema. In this room, we have young directors and film students, I’d like to talk about that instead.
But first, a story about Pablo Picasso. He had different periods of creativity. He was next to a lady in an exhibition, and she said, “Pablo, come on this time I really don’t understand what you are doing.” And he said, “My dear, painting is a language. I have to speak this language well, and you have to learn to read this language.”
Everything is related to this idea of expression.
Cinema is a language. We have to learn learn how to speak this language when we are making movies.
In Vietnam, people tell amazing stories in their lives, so we don’t lack stories. Where we can have something that can touch, its the form of cinema, its the language by itself. It is important for a filmmaker and the audience. If you learn how to read this language, the pleasure that you will receive from a movie will be enriched, more intense – if the movie has that language.
Everything can be a movie. You shoot and shoot and the editing room, and you screen it – its a movie. The worst movie can have 205 big fans, but its just crap. There’s no language, nothing. But you can have people that can find it amazing. Because no one learns the language of cinema. We should teach it in schools for little kids, showing something and explaining why it is. It is something that is really clear.
Everything is so clear, everything is so connected. It is very very important.
1. The Dreamers by Bertolucci – the movie is about movie. It shows young directors – usually they are quite depressing, heavy stories about sadness and depression. I don’t know why since they are so young. So showing that movie is showing that you can have drama and the pleasure of filmmaking of how things are done in a certain way that give you the pleasure of movies. We can show that this is great, this is not that great, and why.
2. Eyes Wide Shut by Stanley Kubrick. Each scene how it works and why it is so great, this film. How precise it is, and we broach this idea how some directors they have made very good movies, even masterpieces, then very bad movies. And at the end of their lives, and their career, it is very very bad. And how did Kubrick stay good until he died? Some very good directors have a good instinct, with that instinct they can make very good movies. If they don’t know what they have achieved, then their next movie is very very bad. We need to work with young directors. We need to put the right words on everything. If you see something that moves you profoundly, give it some time to put it into the right words.
With Kubrick, he is that kind of man.
It is very precise what he wants, and he puts in words everything he needs for that movie.
That’s why his movies are always so good. Some other directors they have one masterpiece and that’s it. Terence Malick is one such director. After The New World, every next film. He didn’t know what he gave to the audience. It is very important to put the right words on everything you are doing.
3. The New World by Terence Malick. There is two ways to making film. Its not only style, but another way of making movies – when you wake up in the morning to shoot, you say today, I have Scene 28 and 43 to shoot – you are in the Old World. This is specific to this art. But the New World is that you have vaguely these actors and then you start to do something. You are not dealing with scenes. Its another way of making movies.
From now, after seeing The New World, I have to ask myself is it – the old world or the new world? And the place is where you can explore a lot of things. The language of cinema today is very poor compared to the days of Murnau.
At this point, Tran shows a clip from Norwegian Wood.
I wanted to show you this clip, as it is the idea that you can take a movie and see it anywhere and you can tell it is cinema. The pleasure of seeing things move. The scene at the record shop – comes just after the moment they kiss. In terms of filmmaking and language, you have to decide the end of the preview scene is a steady moment. It is a long moment, it is silent, and we are waiting for something, the answer, and the beauty of the scene is that the truth – one is saying I have someone, and the other says I have someone too, and beauty comes because it is true.
It is a way of structuring things.
Language of cinema is something that happens
when we go from one shot to another.
This is the specific material of this art.
This is what you have to work on. You cannot go from one shot to another only because you have a story to tell, you have to do it brilliantly. If you go from one shot to another not because of storytelling, this is something you can only have in movies. If you can give this feeling, this emotion to the audience, only by the means of cinema – then you are working on the specific material of this art.
Literature cannot give you this. Theatre, opera – no. Only cinema. We really have to work on this as a filmmaker. We make a lot of mistakes, going off a story – you will never touch profoundly the audience.
Because what comes to the audience needs to be not said. Needs to be hidden by the structure.
Or needs to be revealed by the structure.
Then you are working on the specific material of this art.
When you go from this moment to kissing to when you’re with someone, we jump to this scene, we see that everything is there. We see the pleasure of being in love, without people knowing it. You need to be very clear with yourself when you are shooting this scene. Making it this way, making it very enjoyable to watch.
It’s a matter of setting of the scene. All this is enjoyable, is musical. The shooting of the scene is musical. In the festivals of the world, what is the trademark of Asian arthouse movie? It is steady frame. Stay there and watch it. It gives a feeling. Because everything can be a movie. But if all the movies are like this, then it’s all the same feeling. Nothing is treated specifically for the scene, close to the psychology of the character. We need to be with them. When you make something enjoyable, you need to be very sophisticated.
Sensuality is missing from Watanabe and Naoko. All this you need to go there, and give the physical feeling of this sexual tension between them. When the scene ends, he looks, and he wonders if he is dreaming. You give another quality to the scene. An extra quality to the scene, a dreaming scene. Is it real or not? But you need to give it to the audience to figure out.
For me, the language is everything. You have to really see what is specific to this art.
When he receives the letter, I have to give the feeling of vertigo for him. The camera spins around the stairwell, and the trip to the place, and how the camera moves with him to the house – it’s not storytelling. I want to show it that way because you can feel the emotions with him through the shots.
Question: You mentioned if we can do the best, in today’s technology you have 3D and VR360, would it be detriment to telling a story through cinema, or would it enhance the way to tell cinema?
Tran: I never try, because I don’t touch the new technologies. What I like about it, what belongs to the specificity of this art is that we have the frame. We have something out of the frame as well, and you need to manage it. So this is important, to have a frame. To have a screen where you would see everything, nothing off the frame – then you need to find another way to tell story and how to convey emotions and meaning. The beauty in cinema, is only beautiful when it is right. It’s right only because it is right with the story, the theme, the characters. If everything is right, then you have the beauty. If everything is right, then everything is poetry.
In my opinion, never try to work on poetry.
You have to work normally, if you are doing well,
if you are precise, then poetry will come.
What happened to Terence Malick in Tree of Life? You have this stupidity where you see a room underwater, and they try to get out of the room by swimming. He is trying too hard to be poetic. Or you have a door with curtains, and you are someone else. It’s so stupid, so childish in terms of thinking, what is poetry. Never try to make poetry, you can only get it as a cherry on the cake when you get it right.
Because you can make a lot of beautiful images, music videos and so on, but nothing is right there. You need to be right because of the story, because of the theme, what the meaning behind all this. You can work on it, and when you shoot and then ideas will be more precise, and you fix it, and you have to have a very good quality – the quality of being able to appreciate in front of you in realtime. If something goes wrong, you need to see quickly.
In terms of money, the moment when we start to shoot, we are set, there is no more problems with the money. You deal with it before the shooting. For my latest film Eternity, I wanted 20 million dollars and 14 weeks of shooting, a lot of people and characters. Quite complex, but we didn’t have two million, I only had eight and a half weeks. We negotiate, before the shooting. When we are on the set, I know I have everything to shoot on the movie.
Question: What are the metaphorical imageries of animals in your films?
Tran: It is very complex, and related to language. Sometimes a young director or even old directors, they make the big mistake of using symbols. To have meaning long before you have the film. It is a very lazy state of mind.
You are not working on the specific language of the art when you use symbols that have existed outside of the movie. It has to exist only within the movie.
In Cyclo, it’s all about image. If you try to think about image in the most sacred way, you come to religious icons. Then if you have this ambition, you would tell yourself what I am making as image, is not only as image to go from one to another to tell a story. I want icons in a movie. In this movie, I need three icons. The Cyclo has a journey, this innocent kid, and he will be touched by the evil, and he enjoys it because he feels power and you have also his face as a demon. Then you have three icons in the movie. When it comes time to shoot it, then it will be very very important. In front of the lady boss, you feel that he will play a very important role in the movie. He has this innocence, the beauty of innocence, and when you start to oblige when you has to do some crimes, when he is covered in mud and insects and worms on his face, it is another icon. It is the icon of evil coming inside of him. Later you have another icon, you take the tail of the lizard, it becomes like the tongue. It is clearly we chose to do it that way. The more you discover, the more you feel the pleasure.
When I work with a crew, I give them a lot of freedom. It is the only way to take the best from them. I have one request though, for everyone, “I want the skin”. Because movies is the art of turning your ideas into blood and flesh. So, the skin is the most important thing. I would like it to be physically there on the screen. When you say that, its a lot of things for the DOP and the wardrobe. What texture the hairstyle, what is behind, what is out of focus, what is present. For this scene and another scene, for me as a filmmaker, when I have a scene with the lady there, we have the right distance, the right background, to bring out the physical feeling of skin. Because it is there. You need something like that.
The relationship with Mark Lee Ping Bing as my DP, I’ll illustrate using the example of a famous conductor. His name is Hans Knappertsbusch. He is very renowned. This story was told by the ‘ear’, to make the right balance and the sound. The ear was telling this story. They were having a rehearsal with Hans and the orchestra. Then came lunchtime. But the orchestra is so nervous, because they are working with this man, so they came back earlier before him. And then they start to rehearse. And the ‘ear’ was there. But as soon as Hans walked in, the sound has changed.
And I think that this is something a film director needs to have. His presence gives a frame to the whole crew.
And inside this frame, they are free to create and invent, but only in the parameters of this frame.
So working with everybody is very easy, in this case.
Question: How do you approach screenwriting, how you deal with screenplays and how do you approach foreign culture?
Tran: Culture is something you can learn. I don’t speak Japanese, but when you are making a movie, you are speaking the language of cinema. So if this language is right, then everything is right. The characters have to speak in Japanese and then it becomes Japanese. Japanese is the strangest culture in the world, I feel closer to Bolivians than Japanese. But their culture is so amazing. I don’t know if I see a Japanese woman. I see a Japanese woman in books – it is another reality that I see in a face. I don’t really care about a real Japanese woman, but it’s how I will show a female character that has all these richness that has everything I have read about Japanese woman.
Francois Truffaut once said, “If I have a choice of living a love story or make a movie about the same love story, I’d choose the latter.” Because for us artists, the expression of life is more real than the experience. The experience is nothing, it’s something that will pass. But the expression will stay and we choose to go with expression, making a movie.
I always try different ways of scriptwriting. For instance, I will go into building the whole structure. You have a list of all the scenes then you go from beginning to end. For another movie, I will only write all the dialogue, then I go about erasing it. For yet another project, I will start to write scenes that are really important for the movie, then after that, I will find a way to fill the holes in the script. Each time is different.
For my latest movie, it is very strange. Written on a very narrow column, only 50 pages with no dialogue. Only shot description. But when my producer saw it, he was very moved, and we went to show it to everyone involved in the film. You don’t have to care about it anymore. Then you have to focus on the language of cinema, and then working on it, only on this.
For different forms of art, when it has a story, there is three different levels. On the lowest level, we have the story. Then we have the theme, and it is the frame of the imagination. And then you have the third level, the most important and difficult, it is where you have to work on the specific material of this art.
Question: The script being the blueprint of the story, do you storyboard extensively, or on the set you further improvise? Or when you get to the set you realize certain things can’t be done. Whether your approach is fluid or rigid.
Tran: I improvise everything – it is fluid. I need to feel the size of the room, the actors, and only at that moment, if only for the scene, then I figure it out. I don’t want to have the feeling of exhaustion thinking about it prior.
Question: Who or what are your greatest influences?
Tran: Never do that. It is so difficult to make a movie to make what you want. How can you put something else outside of your movie into your movie. Good movie doesn’t give me any influence, it gives me energy. When I see a good movie, I want to make one, but not to emulate it. You only take a good movie’s energy to fuel your own energy.
Question: What is your approach to working with actors? How do you prepare your actors?
Tran: I work with both amateurs and very skilled actors. It is a lot of pleasure to go this way. For instance, when you work with a non-professional, you have to be very precise on the schedule of the shooting. You have to choose very precisely the first scene you shoot with him. Because he is learning his craft there for the whole movie.
You have to find the right position for the camera to find his fear and at the same time we train him.
For Norwegian Wood, everyone is a professional. For Midori, because its quite complex for her character, I did it in two moments. One is for her to get used to the camera, she knows how to charm and ham it up for the camera.
In acting classes, you have this exercise called walking and talking. It is the first time to see this place, to see the atmosphere. It is not natural, it is something else.
What we are dealing with is not something that is natural or being realistic. Everything is fake. Beyond this fact, is the right expressivity of movie language.
You do what is needed for the frame. A lot of movies I enjoy real situations, working a lot on the focus with the reality and something true coming out of the actor and just recording it. But for me it is poor in terms of filmmaking. It is theatre. Beyond the fake, however, something truthful emerges. Its about expressivity. Kubrick is a master at this.
Tran Anh Hung was awarded the first IWC Filmmaker Award in Southeast Asia by IWC Schaffhausen, Official Festival Time Partner of SGIFF 2016, in celebration of Tran’s outstanding talent and achievements.