‘Vengeful Heart’ and the Rise of Vietnamese Horror
December 30th, 2020 | By Nguyen Le
Whenever international horror has a backyard party, Vietnam misses out. There’s no restriction or bad blood. With sparse-to-no official home media release and tough-to-tougher hoops regarding exhibition beyond local borders, measures from my birth country to protect intellectual properties are also a guarantee for genre titles to not discover global mainstream recognition. We make it harder on ourselves.
Such is the case for 2014’s Vengeful Heart (or Quả Tim Máu, lit. “a bloody heart”), directed by Vietnamese-American filmmaker Victor Vũ. Until now, it remains Vietnam’s all-time top grosser (85 billion VND, or today’s $3.67 million) and inaccessible to U.S. viewers – unless, of course, you’re willing to travel to Vietnam during a pandemic and subscribe to the digital satellite service called K+.
One of Vengeful Heart’s main draws should be obvious in the opening minutes. Instead of the “usual suspects” like Saigon or Hạ Long Bay, or a nondescript jungle that will promptly be set ablaze, the setting is modern-day Đà Lạt. This is a mountainous city that seems tailored for ghostly tales, complete with a mélange of abandoned colonial-French villas, tall pines, lakes, breeze and fog. The narrative sees coffee shop owner Linh (Nhã Phương) finding out why, after a heart transplant, she gets tormented by unnatural visions from her donor Phương (Tú Vi). She also finds herself pulled toward said donor’s surviving relations: widower Tâm (Quý Bình), her mother (People’s Artist Kim Xuân) and Montagnard-accented groundskeeper Hù (Thái Hoà).
While it does sound a lot like “Gin gwai (The Eye), but make it thump-thump,” the film is actually an adaptation and expansion of the eponymous 2008 play that Hoà wrote, directed and — during its early runs — starred in as the same character. The play also has a sequel in 2015, made possible because of the original’s spectacular popularity and compact, stage bound nature.
Despite strict and specific requirements ensuring artistic content will always honor truth, goodness and beauty (chân, thiện, mỹ) — meaning paranormal-centric, superstition-encouraging material is a big nope — Vengeful Heart the play and the film still remember to unnerve. Phương is dead, but then her portrait falls off the altar on its own. On nights when Phương’s family asks Linh and her fiancé Sơn (Hoàng Bách) to stay over, the ghost would show up, blood-drenched.
In a memorable sequence, Linh spots a woman in the distance, her long hair blanketing her face, standing still on the lake’s surface. In reference to the nation’s Film Laws, created in 2006 with amendments in 2009 and remain in effect since, the film’s biggest ”infraction” is that its ghost is real enough that without it the story will not work — even if most of its appearances can be explained away as products of rough shut-eyes or imaginative minds. And whether a sighting is afoot, the measured cinematography from Nguyễn K’Linh, longing notes from Christopher Wong and occasionally neat sound design will suggest that something sinister, highly likely from the beyond, permeates Đà Lạt.
But, the cardinal rule of Vietnamese horror remains simple: it can’t be all freaky, all the time. As mentioned, Phương’s photo flies off the altar on its own, but any subsequent confusion and tension are effectively dissipated with Hù’s question: “Is it because the pig we’re offering is too small?” Lightheartedness has long been any local horror filmmaker’s lifeline if they want their work to have the intended horrifying elements and — most importantly — be law-abiding (per the nation’s Film Laws previously referenced).
Do you want to avoid secondary editing or an outright ban from the censors? Be funny. Do you desire that scary set piece to stay intact? Be funny. Or funnier. To become scarier. It’s almost an unspoken, yet generally understood relationship. For Vengeful Heart, Hoà’s character Hù and Hoà himself, a renowned comedian, are the cushion, one padded enough that, from reading local reviews, is the main driver behind the film’s box-office sweep.
So can full-fledged, humor-free Vietnamese horror be a possibility? It’s, again, the question. At a seminar on film laws in October 2019, Vũ himself said that heightened censorship for horror-supernatural films diminishes the will of creators and audiences; fellow Vietnamese-American filmmaker Charlie Nguyễn, meanwhile, observed a lack of tonally serious big-screen titles. The demand for grittier flavors is there; it’s just that the active hurdles make balancing acts a challenge.
New horror releases still tend to be comedic-leaning, but their freak-outs are way freakier. The Vietnamese horror projects that appeal to international creatives leave humor out of the proceedings, such as Trần Hữu Tấn’s Bắc Kim Thang (Home Sweet Home), which world-premiered at the 2019 Busan International Film Festival, or Derek Nguyen’s Cô Hầu Gái (The Housemaid), which is currently being assembled to be remade as Grave Hill written by Geoffrey Fletcher. Oh, had Vengeful Heart been made with freer hands, on top of the already-there maximized mood and awareness of the moving parts. Imagine how (much more) influential to the genre it might have been.
But it seems like good signs are coming. Two 2019 Vietnamese horror films with real ghosts in them, Cha Ma (Ghost Dad) and Lật Mặt 4: Nhà Có Khách (Face Off: The Walking Guests was its title during its limited release in the U.S.) reportedly received no cuts. In January, Hàm Trần’s possession film Đoạt Hồn (Hollow) premiered on Netflix. Although all these announcements came with caveats — Ghost Dad’s haunter is ultimately kind, Face Off has jokes, and Hollow is on Vietnamese Netflix — they suggest a loosening-up at the censorship board. Some willingness to catch up with the times. And that benefits the filmmaker who wants their film to be shown to more eyes, whether in theaters, on streaming services or both.
This is applicable to films of the past, too, like Vengeful Heart. For your introduction to made-in-Vietnam horror, and in some ways contemporary Vietnamese cinema, this is a quality candidate. You must know that we Vietnamese have the means to join any horror party; we just need more support! Especially that from beyond our borders!