Spooky tales from Ho Chi Minh City
China Daily

Vietnamese Horror Story, written and directed by Tran Huu Tan. Starring Kha Nhu and Van Trang. Vietnam, 108 minutes, IIB. Opened on Thursday. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Hopping Hong Kong vampires, South Korean and Japanese ghosts, and Thai ghouls are well represented in the movies. Or rather, those locations have long traditions of horror filmmaking that have generated modest cult followings around the world.

Add to that the horror anthology: a well-established format going back to the first series of the American TV show The Twilight Zone (1959-64), if you want to split hairs. As demonstrated most recently by Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) and The 100 Candles Game (2020), such tales run hot and cold. Anthologies are uneven by definition, and a strong entry to open or close can make viewers forget something truly weak wedged in the middle.

This is precisely what happened with the Southeast Asian juggernaut Vietnamese Horror Story. Vietnam is an emerging Asian horror player, with filmmakers working around fussy censors to create a burgeoning genre industry that's gaining a bit of attention, both at home and abroad. Following a release delay caused by (what else?) the pandemic, Vietnamese Horror Story was released at home in February - it should have been the previous Halloween - to a robust 53 billion dong ($2.27 million) over its four-day opening weekend, making it a runaway blockbuster. That was followed by a release in Taiwan and Singapore, and now here in Hong Kong.

Vietnamese Horror Story, written and directed by Tran Huu Tan. Starring Kha Nhu and Van Trang. Vietnam, 108 minutes, IIB. Opened on Thursday. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Whether or not the film is terrifying or well-made is irrelevant. Horror buffs curious about the traditions and cultures that give rise to spooky tales will want to check this out, as writer and director Tran Huu Tan based the segments on Vietnamese urban legends.

It's a dark and stormy night when four friends get together to hang out, the fifth in the gang, Truong (Tran Phong), arriving late. With the power out, they decide to tell each other ghost stories. So far, so conventional. The first is about a beautiful, legendary actress who vanished after a mysterious accident. A current star, Ai Nhu (Kha Nhu), lives in her old house, and also trains budding starlets for a future in the movies. Her latest protge is Ngoc Minh (Huynh Nhu Dan), who moves into the house and soon finds out that Ai is harboring a secret. In Part Two, a magician, Dinh Phi (Huynh Thanh Truc), living with his father (Mac Can), finds himself surrounded by the dead, in part due to the old man's strange worship habits. Rounding out the trilogy, a middle-aged woman (Nguyen Ngoc Hiep) seeks the help of a psychic, Bich (Van Trang), in finding the body of her presumed-dead sister Ut, who went missing years before.

Needless to say, the more you know about Vietnam, the better you speak the language or the more familiar you are with the country's folklore, the more you'll get from Vietnamese Horror Story. That could be said for any localized horror tradition, but unlike with comedy, which is notorious for translating poorly, if you get creeped out by dark corners or jump scares, any horror will work. Knowledge of lore just adds to the experience, so the film passes or fails on its own terms. Part One mines the tactile colors, shadows and density of Ho Chi Minh City to give the story about youth and beauty at all costs a languid, creeping visual tone that sneaks up, even if seasoned horror buffs will see where it's going. Ditto for Part Three which also trades on a strong central performance by Van playing a psychic overwhelmed by past trauma. Tran's middle entry is the weakest despite having a gloriously atmospheric apartment block to work with. If the legend is about making an unholy deal with a dark force, it's lost amid jagged editing and muddled storytelling.

But there's more at play here. Though Vietnamese Horror Story obviously had a minuscule budget, it possesses something more crucial to old genres: a fresh perspective.