x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Going to the movies with a new attitude

Just think how much more enjoyable the simplest movie could be if viewers arrived at the cinema with a sense of guileless wonder instead of high-level critique.

Several years ago, I found myself living briefly in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. It was a blissful existence - eating Bánh mì trang (omelette baguette) every morning, cycling like a madman on a rubbish bike (with basket) to work, singing in dingy karaoke bars until 6am and having to wake up the owners so we could leave, becoming such a regular face in one of the only clubs (rather inappropriately called "Apocalypse Now") that I only had to enter and the DJ (playing in an old US helicopter, naturally) would put on Daft Punk for me.

My seven months in the city produced an entire catalogue of "amusing stories", but one of my favourites is the time a few of us went to the local cinema. I say cinema, but rather than a multi-screened CineSuperDupaPlex, it was more like a room with a projector screen and a load of foldy chairs. Times may have changed now, but back then, Vietnam hadn't really opened the floodgates to western culture (one of its many charms) and Hollywood films, if they were shown at all, arrived long after the rest of the world had already forgotten about them. This particular evening, they were showing Mannequin, the 1987 romcom. It was 2003.

Now, if you've seen Mannequin (and it's not something I advise), you'll understand that it is isn't really among cinema's finer moments, telling the story of a somewhat bizarre love affair between a shop dummy who comes to life and a window dresser. The "com" of the romcom arrives entirely at the film's expense.

However, try telling that to the Vietnamese audience in attendance that night. While we sarcastic expats sneered from our plastic chairs at its rubbishness, the rest of the hundred or so in the room were lapping it up. They whooped with joy at the love scenes, laughed heartily at the cheesy slapstick humour and gasped when it looked like the mannequin might be killed in a trash incinerator. Adding an unusual twist, the film had been dubbed into Vietnamese by just one man, irrespective of whether it was a woman talking, and using the same monotone voice throughout. Finally, as the credits rolled, the crowd gave the film a standing ovation. Not wanting to feel left out, we felt compelled to join in.

I've been telling this story for years, generally to highlight the rather innocent nature of much of Vietnamese society compared with the West. But recently, I've begun thinking how refreshing it must be to approach every film in this appreciative manner. Just think, if we went into every cinema in the same way the Vietnamese audience that night did for Mannequin, we'd be able to sit through every Jennifer Aniston romcom, every high school singalong and maybe even Larry Crowne without wanting to scratch our eyes out. You know, we might even be able to watch something by Guy Ritchie without grimacing. Can you even imagine it?