During the latest Film Fest Gent in Ghent, Flanders, Vietnamese-born, former Venice Golden Lion winner and filmmaker Tran Anh Hung (b. 1962) was one of the Festival’s most prominent jury members. While his latest film, “Eternity,” starring Audrey Tautou (“Amelia,” 2001; “The Da Vinci Code,” 2006), Bérénice Bejo (“The Artist,” 2011) and Mélanie Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds,” 2009) was still showing in theaters, we met with him between screenings in the hotel he was staying to talk about his films, the reason why he was in Ghent, and what and who had inspired him to become a filmmaker.
Is it a difficult job, being a jury member?
It depends on the jury, you know. Sometimes it’s difficult, but normally it’s quite enjoyable. I’m only here to watch movies, and three a day is not that much. It’s not too difficult to remember everything, because I also take notes. So I enjoy it a lot.
From which point of view do you judge the films you get to see at the Festival? As a director, or a screenwriter?
I have some knowledge about filmmaking, but here and now, it’s just me watching the movie, and not the director or the screenwriter in me. I watch the movies like any audience would.
Are there in the movies any particular do’s and don’ts that you pay closely attention to?
Yes, of course. I have my own idea about filmmaking, so when I’m watching a movie, what I’m looking for is something new, something that is refined in terms of the language of cinema, or maybe the form. If I could find something like that, that’s an absolute priority. Even if it’s not as moving as any other movie that could make me cry, or if the subject is less important than another movie dealing with death, or politics, for example. It can be very interesting to see something quite intimate, simple, or moving, brought in a language that is new and brings me to another state of mind or gives me a feeling of something sacred – that’s another level. Then you get much more than an exciting movie which is well-done with a nice and good subject. It’s more about how the language of cinema can touch you deeply and bring you to another level of feelings and knowledge, about yourself, what is really deep and hidden. That’s what I hope to find when they ask me to judge a movie.
Last week I watched your first movie “The Scent of Green Papaya”  again, it’s amazing to see that it was entirely shot on a soundstage.
Yes, the whole thing.
Do you think that you have progressed as a filmmaker? I mean, if you were to make that film again, now in 2016, would you do it exactly the same?
That’s a very difficult question. I think you can never really know that kind of thing. It’s like asking how I would behave if I were a woman. So hypothetically, that’s not possible. At that time, I had the feeling to make the movie as it was and it belonged to 1993. But, of course, if I would do it again today, it would be different, although I have no idea how different it would be.
But if you compare “The Scent of Green Papaya” to your latest film “Eternity,” both films have the same visual poetry. You can see they have been made by the same filmmaker.
Yes, I think that this particular style belongs to me. You can only do what you do, what’s inside of you. I make the kind of movies that I can make, I wouldn’t be able to do a spectacular action-hero film. It has to do with my culture, with who I am. And even then, “Eternity” was something entirely different from what I did before, because the movie didn’t have any scenes, only short situations. From that point of view, it was a challenge for me to see if it could work.
Is there anyone in particular who influenced you as far as your style is concerned?
It’s difficult to say who influenced me – to me, it’s more like who inspired me. When I see a good movie that gives me a lot of pleasure, joy and a lot of energy, it gives me the courage to make movies. Some of my heroes are Yasujirō Ozu, Stanley Kubrick and Kenji Mizoguchi, and they really don’t have much in common. But they fed me with their movies and their enthusiasm. I also like Robert Bresson, Terrence Malick, and quite a number of people who are or have been working in American cinema as well. John Huston, Fritz Lang – I like his American period – or F.W. Murnau when he was working in America and made “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”  for example. Great movies. And all those people didn’t have anything in common as well, but they all formed my sensibility and thanks to them, I have been making movies for the past few decades.
Suppose an American producer would call you and ask if you would be interested to do an American remake of one of your films. Let’s say a remake of “Eternity” and you could have Jennifer Lawrence and Nicole Kidman in your cast. What would you say?
I’d say that I would love to make a movie in America, but not “Eternity,” because I have done it already. I would prefer a film based on another story, and yet, you could make an entirely different film with basically the same language of cinema as in “Eternity.”
When a movie of yours is released, do you read the reviews in the trade papers, and do you keep an eye on the box-office?
Yes, I am interested, but not fanatically. I only take a look to see which critic likes it or not, but I don’t read everything or the entire reviews. Friends of mine often say to me, ‘You should read this or that review.’
Which one of your films was the most complicated to make?
“Eternity,” because of its language. Really difficult, but the actual filming turned out to be very easy. Each day when we started shooting in the morning, I didn’t know if it would work or not, or if it would become a movie because, as I said earlier, we didn’t have any real scenes in it. How could you put all those things together and turn them into a movie? But since it worked in my fantasy and in my imagination, that kept me working enthusiastically every day. Only in the very end, after the editing and the whole post-production, you can finally see that you have achieved a new form and that it does work. I am very proud of “Eternity”: it is really good and it is something new.
Aren’t you scared of a challenge like that? It is frightening, isn’t it?
Yes, of course it is. And you’re all on your own, the whole time, because you’re the only one who knows what the movie should look like in the end. But it’s part of the job, it’s that simple. And the more difficult it gets, the more energy it gives me. One of the reasons that I don’t make films all the time, is because I don’t find the right material so easily which really triggers me, or challenges me the way I’d like to. You can always make movies, that’s not a problem, but if you want to do a movie that can be very meaningful to you, that takes time, also to get it financed. That was also the background story of “Eternity,” it was about life, about your life, your children, about being a parent and a child, about melancholy. Maybe it requires a certain age to catch it, a certain sensibility to grab something in the movie. I think “Eternity” is like music: just like you can hear a song several times, you can also see the movie more than once.
Imagine “Eternity” being shown in a huge multiplex of twenty theaters, with a superhero movie shown in the theater right next to yours. That’s a tough competition, isn’t it?
Yes, that’s right [laughs]. That’s the difference between a work of art that touches you deeply, and a movie that is only meant to be entertaining. But don’t get me wrong, I’m absolutely not saying one bad word about entertainment! We need both, and I also like to be entertained, we all love it. But the feeling of cinema between those two genres is totally different.
Do you give lectures to film students?
Yes, every year I go to Vietnam for a workshop with young filmmakers from the region – Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines, Taiwan. They give me five to seven days to talk with them. We see movies and try to analyze the director’s approach, trying to figure out why he did this and that, why it is so good or so amazing. My main goal is to strengthen their enthusiasm and their passion for film. I always ask them things like, ‘What is art for you?’ Or, ‘What is the most important thing you learned today about filmmaking?’ They really have to think about it. The workshop is very vivid and I also learn a lot. I’m not there to say, ‘You have to do this and that.’ Not at all. It’s more important to ask, ‘What do you want to do and why? Let’s all talk about it.’ And it’s not only about the storytelling, because that’s just one layer in the whole process of filmmaking. The story is the first level, that’s the one you begin with. What story are you going to tell, what will happen, and how will you use your imagination and your fantasy to tell it. A meets B and they do this and that – on that level, it’s all about using your imagination. The second level is the theme which is like a frame inside of which you tell the story. That limits your imagination; you cannot go on forever, so your story must have a beginning and an end. This frame controls and masters your imagination to go in a certain direction and be very clear in the way you tell your story. And then you have the third level, which is the most complex of all: the style. How will you bring the story up there on the screen? Because when the story will be told to the audience, they must feel something new and you should touch something new inside of them. That can only be done by the style of the film director. You have a lot of good movies, very well-done, with a perfect script, but often it’s merely an illustration of the script. It may be flawless, but it doesn’t have a style. In that case, you get a good movie, but not a great one. As a filmmaker, the style is something you deal with all your life. Take for example the imaginary bike race of the young Henri and Mathilde in “Eternity”: in those few seconds you can see the innocence of their age and at the same time it’s the moment when we see that they love each other. It only takes a few seconds to see that. It also gives you as a spectator a lot of space to imagine a lot of things about those characters, and maybe also about yourself. It can remind you of something that happened to you in your life. Even though that sequence is very short, it’s very richly detailed. Your style allows you to do that.
Do you also get your actors involved in your style of filmmaking?
No, because they don’t need to know all about that. They read the script, they find something that they really like, they feel they can give you a great performance, and bring new, interesting things to their characters. Audrey Tautou, Bérénice Bejo and Mélanie Laurent for example, they knew my movies, and when I met with them, they said, ‘I want to make this movie [“Eternity”] with you.’ So there was no reason for me to convince them: they joined me because they had read the screenplay, they liked it, and they knew my work. They also had the same humanity as the characters they were playing, which is very important. But things don’t always turn out that way. Actors sometimes turn down a role for various reasons, but – fortunately for me – not necessarily because I wasn’t able to convince them. To give you an example, when I was casting “Norwegian Wood” , I had a very good actress in mind to play the part of Midori [ultimately portrayed by Kiko Mizuhara]. I had asked her three times, and she refused three times. She said, ‘It’s not about you, nor about the script, it’s only about me and the fact that now I cannot deal with that particular role and that particular film in my life.’ That’s it. So many things can determine whether or not someone will work with you, you know. But when I had cast “Eternity,” I told all the actors I did not know how to make this movie, because I hadn’t done that kind of movie before. I told them, ‘What I did before, was completely different, but if you trust me, then let’s try and do this one together.’
Do you prefer to shoot on location or on a soundstage?
I like both. I really enjoy to master and control everything, every tiny detail, when I’m working on a soundstage, where you’re not disturbed by anything. On location, all kinds of things can happen. There’s a plane flying over, or it starts to rain, and you have to stop and wait. But shooting on location can be an advantage too. Suppose it gets very windy – unwritten in the script – but it looks great, it might give a very strong meaning to the feeling or the emotion of a character, so then you go for it immediately. That’s something you don’t get when you’re on a soundstage. So I like both.
At this moment, you’re not working on a new script, there’s no new project that you’re working on. What does a day in your life look like now? Watching a film on television? Working in the garden? Going on a holiday with your family?
Well, I’m not relaxed, that’s for sure. I’m always very intense, I’m always waiting for the moment when I can grab an idea for a new movie. Something that I’m reading, something that I see, a face – anything. So I’m not relaxed, on the contrary, I’m always very intense. I don’t think that I breathe normally. I breathe like this [breathes very fast, as if he’s out of breath], while I should breathe like most people do [breathes normally]. I do enjoy going on vacation though. Last Summer, my family and I went to Italy for six weeks, visiting churches, cathedrals, museums, things like that. I think it is very important to renew the feeling of art inside of you. And in between movies, I also make ceramics. It’s totally the opposite of making a movie, which you write, shoot and edit, and when it’s finished and it’s released, you don’t really have anything in your hands, nothing that you can touch. If you would like to see it, you have to project it. But when you make a pot or a glass with ceramics, after it is finished it will be an object that you can touch, you can put it on a table, it becomes an object you made yourself that is very enjoyable. For me, it’s an activity or a hobby that prevents me from going crazy [laughs]. That’s my way to relax: you can produce something with your hands. Movies is all about this, you know [points to his head and his heart]. A writer has a book at the end; he can look at it while it’s on the table, he can pick it up, he can even smell it if he wants. A painter has his painting. But with movies, it’s completely different.
In a Film Festival like this, it’s all about awards. You have won several of them in the meantime. How important and how meaningful are they to you?
First of all, you don’t make movies to win awards, but on the other hand, it’s good to win them, especially when you are young. Then you won’t have to worry about it anymore. You can focus on improving your art and always make something better in terms of the language of cinema. Awards then are no longer vital anymore. The awards that I got, made me feel more relaxed at the time. I met several older directors, who had been waiting their whole career to get important awards. That’s very difficult, I think. It is often pretty painful when they don’t get an award after they have been nominated for something. Then I would almost say to them, ‘Oh come on, it’s just an award, what’s more important is your movie!’ So it’s a serious matter, you know. It’s more than just about ego. And there’s also the practical matter: awards open doors and make it easier to make your next movie. You get more and better opportunities, still depending though on the kind of material. If it’s a comedy or something obvious – something fashionable – it will be much easier to get it green lighted. But if it’s something totally different, like “Eternity,” which is not really fashionable, that is something else and then it’s still very difficult to get it financed. No matter what awards you may have won in the past, believe me.
Film Fest Gent, Ghent (Belgium)
October 20, 2016
MÙI DU DU XANH, French title L’ODEUR DE LA PAPAYA VERTE, US title THE SCENT OF THE GREEN PAPAYA (1993) DIR – SCR Tran Anh Hung ASSOC PROD Adeline Lecallier, Alain Rocca, Sylvie Randonneix CAM Benoît Delhomme MUS Tiêt Tôn-Thât ED Jean-Pierre Roques, Nicole Dedieu CAST Tran Nu Yên-Khê, Man San Lu, Thi Loc Truong, Anh Hoa Nguyen, Hoa Hoi Vuong
XÍCH LÔ, a.k.a. CYCLO (1995) DIR – SCR Tran Anh Hung PROD Christopher Rossignon CAM Benoît Delhomme MUS Tiêt Tôn-Thât ED Nicole Dedieu, Claude Ronzeau CAST Le Van Loc, Tran Nu Yên-Khê, Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Nhu Quynh Nguyen, Hoang Phuc Nguyen
MÙA HÈ CHIEU THANG DUNG, French title À LA VERTICALE DE L’ÉTÉ, US title THE VERTICAL RAY OF THE SUN (2000) DIR – SCR Tran Anh Hung PROD Christophe Rossignon CAM Ping Bin Lee MUS Tiêt Tôn-Thât ED Mario Battistel CAST Tran Nu Yên-Khê, Nhu Quynh Nguyen, Le Kahn, Quang Hai Ngo, Chu Hung
I COME WITH THE RAIN (2009, unreleased) DIR Tran Anh Hung PROD Jean Cazes, Fernando Sulichin, Jean-Pierre Marois MUS Gustavo Santaolalla ED Mario Battistel CAST Josh Hartnett, Tran Nu Yên-Khê, Byung-hun Lee, Takuya Kimura, Shawn Yue, Elias Koteas, Eusebio Poncela
NOROWEI NO MORI, French title LA BALLADE DE L’IMPOSSIBLE, US title NORWEGIAN WOOD (2010) DIR Tran Anh Hung PROD Shinji Ogawa SCR Tran Anh Hung (novel by Hariku Murakami) CAM Ping Bin Lee MUS Johnny Greenwood ED Mario Battistel CAST Ken’ichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi, Kiko Mizuhara, Kengo Kôra, Reika Kirishima, Eriko Hatsune
ÉTERNITÉ, US title ETERNITY (2016) DIR Tran Anh Hung PROD Christophe Rossignon, Philip Boëffard, Patrick Quinet SCR Tran Anh Hung (novel ‘L’Élégance des veuves’  by Alice Ferney) CAM Ping Bin Lee ED Mario Battistel CAST Audrey Tautou, Bérénice Bejo, Mélanie Laurent, Jérémie Renier, Pierre Deladonchamps, Irène Jacob, Valérie Stroh, Tran Nu Yên-Khê (The Narrator)