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:
Good morning, thank you very much for coming to this masterclass. I think we should cut the bullshit right from the start – you know, everything related to me and my life is not interesting. Since I’m here in Asia, for me, I’d like to put emphasis on something very specific – I mean the language of cinema.
The slogan of (this year’s) Festival is “Telling Our Stories”. Yes of course – stories are interesting like all the stories in the world. But 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 that we can see in the world. It’s just illustrations of good stories and a theme. This is not interesting at all so I would like to – you know this is a small country, regarding the film industry, comparing to Hollywood and places like this, in Asia, we are still considered a small country in terms of cinema and filmmaking – I really would like to put the focus on the necessity of bringing something new in terms of language to cinema. Since I think in this room, we have young directors and also film students, I’d like to say something about this, more than you know, this, and this and how it happened, things like that you can read them in my interviews on the internet. Here, I would say something I would not give to a journalist, I would like this to be different.
I would first like to start with a story, very simple, it’s about Pablo Picasso. We know he had different periods in his creativity. So for a new exhibition, he was next to a lady who said to him: “Pablo, come on, this time I really don’t understand what you are doing!” And then he said, “My dear, painting is a language, I have to speak very well this language, and you have to learn how to read this language.”
So I think, it’s related to this idea of expression. Cinema is a language, so we have to learn how to speak this language when we are making movies.
Because, in my country, in Vietnam, you meet people, and they tell amazing stories about their lives, about their families etc, so we have no lack of stories and themes – social, politics, intimacy of a couple. But where we have something that can really touch profoundly the audience is the form of cinema, is what we call style, it’s the language by itself. So it is important for a filmmaker and for the audience to 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.
Because everything can be a movie. Really, everything can be a movie. You shoot and go to the editing room, you make it work and then you screen it – it’s a movie. The worst movie can have 200 or 5 big fans, but it’s just crap. There’s no language, nothing, it’s just stupid – but you can have people that can find it amazing.
Because no one knows the language of cinema, no one learned the language of cinema. We should teach it in schools for little kids, showing something and explaining what it is and why a scene is great because of something. It is possible, it is something that is really clear, when a movie has great language – you can weigh it, it’s like you are walking inside the head of the director. Everything is so clear, everything is so connected. Everything has a very strong link and the structure is there – it is very very important.
Moderator: Maybe we go along with that, let’s say I have a group of students of age 9-10, what do you think will be a good film to teach them about this language of cinema?
There are a lot. For example, each year I have a workshop with young directors of the region in Vietnam. We have a week where we talk about film, raising questions, it is important to have the right questions. You can make big mistakes by asking bad questions. I screened 3 movies at the workshop, so we analyze each second of it.
The first one that i always show is The Dreamers by Bernardo Bertolucci – it’s a very good movie to start talking about movies. The movie is about movies. Young directors they are usually quite depressing, they are talking about heavy stories about sadness and depression. I don’t know why. They are so young, they should be full of life but they carry such big pain with them. I don’t know why. So showing this kind of movie is showing that you can have drama, and the pleasure of filmmaking, of how scenes are done in a certain way that give you the pleasure of movies. And then we can show that in this movie, how a scene is great, and what is not that great, and why. It is very clear, it’s not a perfect movie although It’s a good movie.
Then, I would screen an absolute masterpiece – Eyes Wide Shut by Stanley Kubrick. We can see each scene, how it works and why it is so great, this film. How precise it is, and we went to 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 in a movie, then their next movie could be very bad. So it’s very important and this is something that we have to work with young directors – we have to put the right words on everything. If you feel something that moves you profoundly, give it some time to find the right words to say it. Because it will not exist if it doesn’t come in words.
With Kubrick, he is that kind of man. It is very precise what he wants, and he puts in words everything that he needs for that movie. That’s why his movies are always good.
Some other directors they count on their instincts and what we call inspirations, they have one masterpiece and that’s it. Terence Malick is one such director. After The New World, every next film is very bad. Because he didn’t know what he discovered and what he gave as a gift to the audience. There’s this quality of poetry in The New World, but the next ones were very bad. You have a part of the movie that is good, but the rest of it is bullshit. So it is very important to put the right words on everything you are doing.
Then, the third movie is The New World. For me, as a filmmaker today, I would say that there are two ways to making movies. It’s not only style – when you see The New World, it’s not just Terence Malick’s style, but it’s another way of making movies. Meaning that 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”. Meaning you have scenes and you have to cut it into shots and this is in the “Old World”. But the “New World” is that you wake up in the morning, you know vaguely that you have these actors, the set, the location and then you start to do something. You are not dealing with scenes, it’s another way of making movies.
After watching The New World, I know that when I have a subject, something that i want to make into a movie, I have to ask myself – is it the “Old World” or the “New World”? And the “Old World” is still a place is where you can explore a lot of things. Because the language of cinema today is very poor compared to the days of Murnau in the 20s. It was much more sophisticated in terms of language.
I would like to play a clip from Norwegian Wood. This is after a scene where Watanabe meets with Midori, and they kiss. Just after that, she confesses that she is with someone, and she asks him if he’s in love too. And we wait for his answer and he says yes, and that he’s with someone. Just after this scene, we have the scene of the record shop. Let’s talk a little bit about this after watching the clip.
A clip from Norwegian Wood was played.
I wanted to show you this clip, as it is the idea that you can take a movie and see it anywhere and it creates the feeling of cinema – the pleasure of seeing things move. The scene at the record shop – for instance – comes just after the moment they kiss. In terms of filmmaking and language, you have to decide the end of the previous 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 they said the truth, each one of them – one is saying I have someone, and the other says me too, I am in love with someone else. And the beauty comes from the fact that it’s true.
Later on in the movie, the moment where Midori gets upset, because Watanabe gave an answer she didn’t want to hear, and he said it, and she gets upset and they split. And just after this moment, we have a flashback – we see Watanabe and Naoko and they are sitting, on the rocks of a river, and she was asking him “Are you with someone in Tokyo?” And he lies. And the beauty of the scene comes from the fact that he lied this time. Because everything is connected, how we know things before, what we show before. This scene is not only that he lies to Naoko, but it also has a meaning. He thinks that Naoko needs him to be only with her, that’s why he needs to lie. And because we are showing this scene there, it means that now he is really in love with Midori. This was not said before, and nothing was said. So the structure gives you the meaning for everything. The fact that we went from the moment where Midori left the place to the moment on the river with Naoko, it is suprising, and hence enjoyable for the audience to be surprised by something they didn’t expect.
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 only because of storytelling, then this would be something you can only have in movies. If you can give this feeling, this meaning, 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, neither can theatre or opera. Only cinema. We really have to work on this, and focus on this as a filmmaker. By just illustrating a story, even with great skill, you will never touch the audience profoundly. Because what comes to the audience needs to be unsaid, it 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 when they are kissing to when she said she’s with someone, and “me too, I’m in love with someone else”, and then we jump to this scene in the record shop. We see the pleasure of being in love, without people knowing it, even in the crowd and it is so precious. You need to be very clear with yourself when you are shooting this scene. Making it this way, making every moment very enjoyable to watch.
It’s a matter of the setting of the scene – he’s there, and she’s there, we are showing him, he looks up and we turn to her, the way she moves is very interesting – she goes far away from the camera then very close to the camera. For this same frame, we feel physically the pleasure of being in love. Then, in the next scene we cut the music. Because it is about the other girl, it’s about Naoko. He receives a letter from Naoko.
In this scene we see him walking, and then he stopped. That movement is important, there is something in the letter that stopped him there. It’s a pause before we hear the voice of Naoko. All these are enjoyable because it is musical. The shooting of the scene is musical.
In the films 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, it gives you an experience. But if all the movies are like this, then you have all the same feeling no matter what the story is about. 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, to give something that tastes good, it’s physical.
In the next scene, he goes to this long trip – he falls asleep and when he wakes up we see Naoko for the first time after she left. It’s the first time we discover her, we are very close to Watanabe’s face and she’s very close to him, the physical feeling of everything – her lips, it’s so precise that you would like to bite it. The way her eyelashes move, it has a presence of an animal, full of psychology – the beauty of it. At that moment, the actors are more beautiful than ever, but it’s not because of the light, but because everything was right for this scene and we are completely involved in what’s happening in their minds. This expectation that he has, this tension. Because they are so close, we don’t need them to talk loudly, so they speak with a low voice and we hear everything – the saliva, the noise of the mouth and everything – it’s very sensual. What is unbearable for Watanabe and for her is being physically separated. All these, you need to put it in words, to know you need to go there, and give the physical feeling of this sexual tension between them. When the scene ends, he looked, and he wonders if he is dreaming. You give another quality to the scene. An extra quality to the scene, a dreaming state scene. Is it real or not? Of course it is, but you need to give it to the audience to figure out.
I mean, the language is everything. You have to really see what is specific to this art.
To add on, 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 her place – i could have shot him traveling via a bus – in fact we did find a bus but I didn’t shoot it that way because I wanted the feeling of being in his state of mind, and the emotions of the character embodied inside of the frame – this is language, it’s not storytelling, it’s something else – I think that’s the way to go to touch people deeply, in a more profound manner.
At this point, the floor opened for the audience.
Question: You mentioned that to do the best, we have to do something that only cinema can do, and in today’s technology you have 3D and VR360. So in the advance of all these new technology, would it be detriment to the basic tenets of telling a story through cinema, or would it enhance the way to tell cinema? Does it ever help at all?
Tran: I never try, because I don’t touch the new technologies so I don’t know. But of course if i have to do something about it I will have to think about it – what I like in cinema and what belongs to the specificity of this art is that we have the frame. Having a frame means, we also have something out of the frame, and you need to manage it, to deal with it and to make it interesting. 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 meanings.
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, and what goes on in their minds. If everything is right, then you have the beauty. If everything is right, then you have 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 when you open the door, we are in a desert or on a beach. It is so stupid, so childish in terms of thinking what is poetry. Never try to make poetry, you can only get it like a cherry on the cake, when everything is well done and right.
Question: You were just talking about your process of finding the meaning of the image. I was wondering, in the context of real world limitations like budgets and money on your sets, how do you reconcile that with your producers who are probably looking for more efficient way or are you really so precise and efficient on set that there is no such trouble for you?
Tran: I always improvise everything on set, what you’ve seen, I only know when I’m on the set with the actors in their costumes, makeup, everything. I would feel something, and sometimes I don’t have time to put everything in words, and I can only rely on my instincts then. The instinct that I have is something that is built with time. I have to work on it, then I can rely on it. When I do so, while shooting the scenes, my ideas will be more precise. I need to have the quality of being able to appreciate what’s in front of me in real time. If something goes wrong, I need to see quickly – where and why it is wrong then I don’t waste time on repeating takes.
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 instance my latest film Eternity, I wanted twenty million dollars and 14 weeks of shooting, because it is very complex with a lot of people and characters and scenes. But we didn’t have twenty million I only had eight and a half. So I have to cut, we negotiate and make compromises, before the shooting. When we are on the set, I know I have everything I need to shoot the movie.
Question: In The Scent of Green Papaya, there was a scene where the boy melted the candle and spread it on the ants and crushed them, and also in Cyclo there was a scene where the cyclo puts a goldfish in his mouth after spreading himself with paint. What are the meanings to the metaphorical imageries of animals in your films?
Tran: This could be a very long answer because everything is related so you cannot pick just one detail. This is something related to language. Sometimes a young director or even old directors, they make the big mistake of using what we call “symbols”. A symbol is something that has a meaning long before you make the movie, and you use it in your movie. This is a very lazy state of mind, you should never do this because you are not working on the specific language of the art when you use symbols that have existed before of the movie. If you want a symbol then you have to create it for your movie, and it exists only within your movie.
Now the fish in Cyclo, can become a symbol, and has a very precise meaning – which i’m not going to say here because it’s very long. It brings me back to when I was thinking of how to show the son of the ladyboss as a crazy boy – by what means visually can i show it. I had this problem and there were so many ways to do it, none of what i could think about was good. So one day I was on the metro, there was a woman with her daughter, and she was playing with her to keep her quiet. So she asked the little girl, how the various animals speak, and when she came to fish, the daughter did a gesture that inspired me.
At the end of the movie, what will release the cyclo is the ladyboss and it is related to her son who died the day before. I had to make a connection, a very deep and unspoken connection between the cyclo and the son of the boss, through the fish.
The scene he spread blue paint on himself, to shoot himself with a gun – there we play with the mouth of the fish and I intercut with the mouth of the gun, then he shoots himself. Then he puts a fish in his mouth. Here you have something very strange, not normal, but its very rich in terms of meaning. It’s the soul of the crazy boy coming inside of the cyclo and the paint symbolises a rebirth – he will become the substitute son to the ladyboss. It’s very rich – you need give a lot of things in a movie and everything is in there. If you want to know, you need to see and analyze it and you find all the connections. This creates the form. If you can’t seize the whole thing, you can still feel the power of it.
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 that an image is not only an image to go from one to another to tell a story. I want icons in my movie. In this movie, I need three icons. The cyclo has a journey, at first he appears as an innocent kid, and then he will be touched by the evil, and he enjoys it because he feels power and finally you have also his face as a demon. Then you have three icons in the movie. I know this before and I know when it comes to the time to shoot it, then it will be very very important.
Then in the movie you’ll have three icons of his face: One, the first time in front of the lady boss. As a filmmaker you know and feel that his face will play a very important role at the end of the movie. You see his innocence, the beauty of innocence on his face. Later on when he starts to do some crimes, then we have this moment where he has 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, he takes the tail of the lizard, and put in his mouth, it becomes like the tongue of a demon. It is clear because everything is there, and clear that we chose to do it that way. Take your time and you’ll discover everything there. The more you discover, the more you feel the pleasure.
Question: In your movie The Vertical Ray of the Sun, I’ve always felt that summer itself is a character in the movie, because I’ve never seen summer so vividly and gloriously depicted on the screen. Even when I was in air-con cinema, i could feel the heat. Having said that, I understand that this movie was lensed by the renowned Taiwanese cinematographer Lee Ping Bing. Can you tell us how you came about to collaborate with him on this movie and your working relationship with him?
Oh there are so many things I can say about this. We can spend a week together and talk about it and it is so enjoyable. Working with great talents is just amazing.
When I work with a crew, I give them a lot of freedom. Because it is the only way to get the best from them. I only have one request for everyone, “I want the skin.”
Because movies is the art of turning your ideas into blood and flesh, into the bodies of the actors. So the skin is the most important thing. I would like it to be very physically there on the screen. When you say that, it’s a lot of things for the DOP and the wardrobe.
Because to enhance the skin on the face, you would need the right colour, the texture of the fabric, the hairstyle, the background. For me as a filmmaker, when I have a scene with the lady there, I would find the right distance from the wall behind her, the right background, to bring out the physical feeling of the skin. Because it must be there, I would like to bite her lips.
The relationship with Mark Lee Ping Bing as my DP, I’ll illustrate using the example of a famous conductor names Hans Knappertsbusch. This story was told by the ‘ear’, the man behind the sound console, who makes the right balance and the sound. They were having a rehearsal with Hans and the orchestra. Then came lunchtime. But the orchestra was so nervous about working with this man, they came back earlier before him. They started to rehearse before Hans arrived, and the ‘ear’ was there and he noticed as soon as Hans walked in, the sound of the orchestra 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. Then 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. As an Asian, I feel closer to Bolivians than the Japanese. But their culture is so amazing. When I see a Japanese woman, I don’t know if I see a Japanese woman or a Japanese woman in books. It is another reality. In a movie I don’t really care about a real Japanese woman, but I’m eager to show a female character that has all these richness I have read about Japanese women.
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. I have a list of all the scenes then I go from beginning to end. For another movie, I will only write all the dialogue, then I go about erasing it while writing the scenes. 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. The script was written on a very narrow column, only 50 pages with no dialogue. Only short description. But when my producer read it, he was very moved, and we went to show it to everyone involved in the film. Later on, during the shooting, I don’t care about the script anymore. I have to focus on the language of cinema, and work on it, only on this.
For different forms of art, when it has a story, there are three different levels. On the lowest level, we have the story, it’s a matter of imagination. Then on the second level we have the theme, and it works as a frame (a restriction) for 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, I figure it out.
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. A 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.
For Midori in Norweigan Wood, it was her first time acting and her character was quite complex. So I did it in two moments – one is for her to get used to the camera, and two – in acting classes, you have this exercise called walking and talking. The next scene we shot with her was the scene when Watanabe came to her place for lunch, we had this very long moment where she talked about her family. Of course, we can shoot the scene with them seated and talking, but instead, I asked her to walk around the place. So it added to difficulty of the acting. After the shooting of this scene, I knew and she knew that she learned something about acting. And she was prepared for the rest of the movie.
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.