But Bar Girls, produced by Ho Chi Minh City's Liberation Films, is part of a new wave of Vietnamese state-sanctioned cinema that mixes sensational story lines with the Communist Party's campaign against "social evils." Set in the nightclubs and slums of Ho Chi Minh City, the film follows doomed prostitutes Hoa (My Duyen), a heroin-addicted rich girl who works nightclubs for kicks, and Hanh (Minh Thu), a gentle soul who dreams of a better life. Needless to say, neither sees a happy ending.
Though it aims to take an unflinching look at the lives of working girls, Bar Girls also manages more than a few lingering looks up their skirts. Pleased with the antidrug message, censors allowed an unprecedented amount of skin and sin. Sure, there are gritty scenes of vomiting in toilets and a heroin overdose, but there are also two catfights (one in mud), girls in bikinis jumping up and down, and Vietnam's first government-approved topless shot. "It's true I focused on the entertainment value of the film," says director and co-writer Le Hoang. "If your film is not appealing enough, your propaganda efforts will fail."
The government studios are also under increasing competitive pressure to hold onto their audience. A government decree announced in January allows private film studios to form for the first time since 1975, and six companies have already applied for permits. The government will still censor the finished films (it also decides which foreign films are allowed to be screened) but won't require preapproved scripts as it does for state-produced films. Already, some of the country's most respected directors are considering the private sector, including Dang Nhat Minh and Vuong Duc, whose soon-to-be-released Lost Treasure explores what he calls the bankrupting of Vietnamese intellectual life. "Competition will mean better films," says Duc, who sparked controversy last month when he publicly scorned Bar Girls as a pandering piece of trash.
Will communist cinema still dominate once private studios gear up? The government thinks it has the winning formula. Its next big production is Luoi Troi (Heaven's Net), which chronicles the lavish spending of corrupt officials and criminals. Hoang, who as a state employee, makes less than $100 a month, is already thinking like a Hollywood mogulhe's penning a sequel, Bar Girls 2. Speculation about the plot is already rife, since the original's main characters are all either dead or dying of AIDS. "People will just have to buy a ticket and see," he says. No doubt, they'll line up to do so.