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The Charming 1990s Nostalgia in the Phim Mì Ăn Liền Cinematic Universe

If you lurk around online discussions of Vietnamese cinema, you probably have stumbled upon the term phim mì ăn liền, or “instant noodles films.” This popular Vietnamese expression describes local motion pictures with low-effort production value. But the term is not merely a common moniker. It dates back to the 1990s, when a specific type of commercial flick got audiences flocking to the cinema.

Introduction to phim mì ăn liền

Since initiating economic reforms in 1986, Vietnam experienced major political, societal and cultural changes. This transformation extended to the film industry and Vietnamese cinema. Prior to this era, the state fully subsidized the production and distribution of motion pictures, but state funding for film production declined during the Đổi Mới era, so many film studios struggled to produce feature films with the resources available. More production companies therefore started seeking private investment to stay afloat. This privatization ushered in a new era dominated by commercial films made to generate profits.

In the modern lexicon, “phim mì ăn liền” is often used derogatorily to describe slapdash filmmaking efforts.

Concurrently, technology innovations led to a change in filmmaking methods. After the introduction of VHS tapes, film studios began making shot-on-video films using camcorders, which were cheaper, faster, and easier to produce than traditional film stock recordings.

Đổi Mới also exposed young audience members to foreign pop culture via Hollywood blockbusters, Hong Kong martial arts films and South Korean soap operas. This presented a new challenge for local cinema, as the new generation’s taste in films had changed, and the average watcher's choices were no longer limited to the often war-centric narratives offered during the previous era.

Việt Trinh

Diễm Hương

Lý Hùng

These factors contributed to the emergence of the phim mì ăn liền era of Vietnamese cinema. These 1990s films were made to appeal to the masses, and thus sell more tickets. They were usually made quickly on a small budget and shot on video. The nickname “instant noodles film” was derived from the commonalities between the movies of this era and instant noodles: they were cheap and could be made quickly; they were easy-to-digest and lastly, instant noodles are seen as an affordable meal for when you’re hungry, which parallels how 1990s commercial films came about when audiences were hungry for a newer approach in cinema.  

The stratospheric rise and fall of phim mì ăn liền

Moviegoers responded positively to some of the earliest instant noodles films, and many achieved box-office success. An average of 50 feature films were produced every year by the start of the 1990s, giving rise to Vietnam's first generation of movie stars. Thu Hà, one of the rare names from the northern region to find success in mì ăn liền, discusses the popularity of noodle flicks in an interview with VTV: “This type of film was everywhere in theaters. At that time, everywhere we went, the public always knew about it.”

Many photos taken of these actors were printed on calendars, notebook covers, and postcards. These are old artifacts preserved by collector Nguyễn Văn Đương. Photo via Thương Mái Trường Xưa Facebook page.

But the era was short-lived, and by 1994, the genre began to decline with no definitive causes identified. Some theories suggest it was the rapid, negligent filmmaking methods focused on cash-grabbing and the rise of television series that turned watchers' attention elsewhere. Film critic and researcher Ngô Phương Lan noted that the instant noodles flicks “oversaturated” theaters and the audience eventually lost interest due to “the lack of quality in terms of narrative and artistic values.”

After the heyday of phim mì ăn liền, the genre gave way to arthouse films and the resurgence of state-ordered war movies in the 1990s. In retrospect, this era of Vietnamese cinema evoked both negative and positive perceptions. Even today, every once in a while when there is a streak of low-quality domestic releases, the media would use the reference the term “mì ăn liền” to reiterate how the swift production of 1990s noodle films led to their downfall, as a warning to filmmakers. 

Still, modern audiences cherish these films and are able to look past their production flaws. Perhaps, the nostalgic feeling of revisiting the A-list actors that they once loved and an increased understanding of the industry’s restraints at the time can make the low-budget craftiness of phim mì ăn liền seem charming to today's viewers.

This era is often credited with introducing fresh narratives and techniques, marking an important stage in the development of the nation's film industry. The 17th Vietnam Film Festival in 2011 paid tribute to instant noodles cinema in its opening ceremony by including the era’s popular titles in the showcase of Vietnamese Cinema History. 

Older Vietnamese might have vague memories of watching these movies, but it has been more than thirty years since the peak of instant noodles cinema. Luckily, thanks to the advent of YouTube, plenty of these 1990s flicks are available online. Given the sheer variety in both number and quality, I thought it would be helpful to look at a few pioneering works, some popular subgenres, a prominent filmmaker along with some wildcards.

1. The pioneers

The foundations of phim mì ăn liền can be attributed to two films. These two works achieved major box office success, and helped inspire and define the genres, tropes, styles, acting and overall feel of the works that followed. 

Vị Đắng Tình Yêu (The Bitter Taste of Love, 1990)

This was arguably the most popular film of this era, the Mì Hảo Hảo of instant noodles film. Vị Đắng Tình Yêu is a bittersweet love story between Quang, a humble, nerdy medical student, and Phương, a passionate piano artist named. Phương experiences a downward spiral after a doctor finds a bullet fragment stuck in her brain, forcing her to give up her music career, because thinking too deeply about music could be the death of her. 

This was the first instant noodles film that I watched, and I was initially distracted by minor issues. The transitions between scenes feel harsh and disconnected due to the lack of establishing shots. At many pivotal points in the narrative, the film resorts to quick and lazy expositions as opposed to more engaging scenes.

But when I look past these flaws and just accept them as the film’s outdated characteristics, the film turns out to be quite decent. The narrative explores Phương’s need to choose between following her passion or survival. Also, Quang’s gang of six friends has strong chemistry with one another. The actors’ authentic portrayal of energetic schoolboys balances the heavy tones of the film with comedic and wholesome moments. So while there are annoying craft and technical flaws throughout, it’s still worth a watch for its authentic and intriguing humanistic story.

Vinh Quang Cinema (formerly named Casino Cinema) displaying the poster of Vị Đắng Tình Yêu (left), one of the most popular phim mì ăn liền. Photographed by Raymond Depardon in 1992. Photo via Flickr user manhhai.

  • Representative of the genre: An iconic phim mì ăn liền starring the era’s most popular actors, and the abundance of technical flaws was probably the result of the rapid filmmaking methods. [10/10]
  • Overall quality: A decent story that needs to improve its filmic language. [6.5/10]
  • How it holds up today: The narrative and acting performances would still resonate, but the film’s weaknesses would create some irritation. [5/10]

Watch Vị Đắng Tình Yêu here.

Phạm Công - Cúc Hoa (1989)

This is a live-action adaptation of a popular poem by the same name. While not as well-known as Vị Đắng Tình Yêu, Phạm Công - Cúc Hoa was a box office success. It follows the life of Phạm Công, from the day he falls for Cúc Hoa and later marries her, to when they have children. Phạm Công must leave for the capital to serve in the army and encounters many difficulties, while Cúc Hoa struggles to raise their two children on her own.  

While in the capital, Phạm Công is forced into marrying the daughter of authority personnel as his second wife. The film thus explores the themes of fidelity and family values, while critiquing the polygynous practices among the aristocrats of the old society. It’s a well thought-out narrative, but unfortunately, the issues lie in how the story is told. During the 2 hours and 35-minute runtime, it overuses prolonged musical montages with neither interesting visuals nor relevance to the plot.

From a technical standpoint, the film has a large amount of combat scenes that are hard to look past. The actors are very slow in their movements as if they are play-fighting. Overall, this film feels outdated, and would be better if it were shorter and more concise in its storytelling. 

  • Representative of the genre: The only standout characteristic of this film compared to other mì ăn liền flicks is the duration, as most films of the era were usually 90 minutes long. [9/10]
  • Overall quality: A film with a good story, but too slow to get through. [5/10]
  • How it holds up today: It’s an attempt to make a historical epic that fails to either hide or overcome technical limitations. [2/10]

Watch Phạm Công - Cúc Hoa here.

2. The popular subgenres

There are two major themes in phim mì ăn liền: adolescent romance and historical drama. The former is the most dominant genre of the era, as these youthful love stories were accessible to young audiences, and filmmaking-wise, their contemporary narratives and settings make them easier to produce. For a closer look of this genre, the 1992 film Vĩnh Biệt Mùa Hè (Farewell, Summer) is my pick of choice, because it was not only a major box office hit, but also commonly regarded as a classic adolescent romance of Vietnamese cinema.

The second theme is historical drama. Prior to this era, the genre faced many ups and downs, but experienced a revival during the phim mì ăn liền period with multiple historical films gaining box office success. The 1991 box office hit Tráng Sĩ Bồ Đề (Bồ Đề, Man of Vigor), is considered one of the most impressive Vietnamese historical films in terms of technical quality.

Vĩnh Biệt Mùa Hè (Farewell, Summer, 1992)

Vĩnh Biệt Mùa Hè focuses on best friends Hằng and Hạ, as they navigate romantic relationships during their last year of high school. Hạ, the wealthier of the pair, falls for a humble guy from an impoverished background. Meanwhile, Hằng pursues a taboo love affair with a lecturer in her school. 

This film is considered a classic for a good reason. It elevates itself above the familiar tropes of the “poor boy with rich girl” relationship and the teacher-student love affair via its storytelling devices. It begins as a conventional tale about young love, but moves beyond will-they-won’t-they tensions to explore the meaning of true happiness. It’s a very relatable coming-of-age story featuring carefully presented and fully fleshed-out characters.

The film also enjoys a unique visual style thanks to the consistent use of close-up shots which give the actors the chance to communicate their characters’ emotions through facial expressions. The actors’ deliveries of their lines, however, is cheesy, and their speaking is monotone. Even so, the narrative is strong enough to outshine these flaws. 

  • Representative of the genre: The film has common traits of phim mì ăn liền in terms of technical quality and genre. The narrative is excellent when compared to its peers. [8/10]
  • Overall quality: An exceptional melancholy tale about adolescent love. [8/10]
  • How it holds up today: Even though the monotone dialogue might be a turn-off to some people, the coming-of-age story is good enough to remind you of your own teenage years. [7/10]

Watch Vĩnh Biệt Mùa Hè here.

Tráng Sĩ Bồ Đề (Bồ Đề, the Man of Vigor, 1991)

In the 10th-century of Vietnam, during the last years of the Đinh Dynasty, the royal family experienced internal disputes. The protagonist, a knight named Bồ Đề, is tasked with taking down a secret group conspiring to overthrow the throne. 

This film showcases how instant noodle films often drew inspiration from wuxia movies. Tráng Sĩ Bồ Đề, like wuxia films, includes fast-paced, choppy sword fights, a skilled martial arts warrior living by specific code, and a story that takes place in the midst of a political conflict. 

One would expect it to be a historical epic with large-scale combat scenes, but the film turned out to be more of a thriller focused on clandestine political activities in gloomy, secretive forests. This atmosphere creates impressive tension and intrigue. Still, the film’s historical setting and dependence on alter egos make the narrative hard to follow.

In terms of the martial arts elements, the choreography is quite well-done with combat mostly happening in the dark, probably to hide technical limitations. The fights thus come across as realistic. Overall, it’s a gripping historical thriller, with entertaining sword-fighting scenes that don’t feel outdated in any way, even though this film was made in 1991. 

  • Representative of the genre: It has tropes of historical dramas of this era, but it’s more competent in hiding the technical limitations. [8/10]
  • Overall quality: A film that keeps you on the edge of your seat from start to end. [7.5/10] 
  • How it holds up today: Excellent choreography that is still fun to watch 32 years later. [8/10]

Watch Tráng Sĩ Bồ Đề here.

3. The works of Trần Cảnh Đôn

The director’s chair for instant noodles films was graced by both established filmmakers and new faces. A remarkable personality among them, for me, is Trần Cảnh Đôn, one of the era’s most productive directors, with eight feature films made during the prime of his career from 1990 to 1994. Nearly all of them achieved commercial success, and due to his preference for casting emerging actors, many of his films became the launching pad for some of the decade's biggest names.

Director Trần Cảnh Đôn on set. Photo via Dân Việt.

Two works by Trần Cảnh Đôn are great examples of phim mì ăn liền. First, the 1991 romantic comedy Cô Thủ Môn Tội Nghiệp (The Pitiful Female Goalkeeper), Đôn’s first award-winning film, represents his early success during the instant noodles era. Second, the 1992 film Ngôi Sao Cô Đơn (The Lonely Star) is regarded as one of Đôn’s best works and the film that “sets the standard” for 1990s commercial films.

Cô Thủ Môn Tội Nghiệp (The Pitiful Female Goalkeeper, 1991)

Even today, the subject of women's professional football is rarely explored on film. It was even more niche in 1991 when Trần Cảnh Đôn took on the topic for this film. The story revolves around Thục Hiền, a girl obsessed with football. She has the opportunity to become the goalkeeper for a semi-professional team. Though, it results in a rejection by her would-be fiancé, his parents, and even her own mother. 

The antagonists in this film are well-crafted and multi-faceted. Logical motives were established regarding why these three characters are adamant in their rejection of Hiền, as well as how they slowly evolve and grow. Unfortunately, the movie fails at the midpoint when it adds more characters including the football team’s coach and several of Huyền’s teammates.

From a technical standpoint, there is a glaring issue in the film’s usage of dubbed audio. The actors’ audio is too isolated and does not blend harmoniously with the environmental sounds. Unfortunately, this flaw is present throughout the film, making the watching experience less enjoyable. All in all, compared to other instant noodles films, it shares similarities in terms of technical and storytelling shortcomings, but the progressive narrative focusing on women’s football feels like a breath of fresh air. 

  • Representative of the genre: Aside from the unique, niche topic, this film is your average phim mì ăn liền. [9/10]
  • Overall quality: Too ambitious in its character building, but it examines women in sports in an interesting way. [6.5/10]
  • How it holds up today: The progressive story might be interesting for modern audiences, but the audio issue is nearly impossible to look past. [4/10]

Watch Cô Thủ Môn Tội Nghiệp here.

Ngôi Sao Cô Đơn (The Lonely Star, 1992)

With Ngôi Sao Cô Đơn, once again Trần Cảnh Đôn brought something new to the table: a rare detective plot in the phim mì ăn liền landscape. The film starts with investigator Quốc in his office with some colleagues, admiring a musical performance by a singer named Mỹ Nhung on TV. A phone call drops the breaking news that Mỹ Nhung has been found dead in her own bedroom. Quốc embarks on a quest to solve her murder and soon uncovers the secret life behind the glamorous facade of the famous musician.

Just like the previous entry, Đôn attempts to showcase numerous characters as nuanced and complete individuals, and this time he succeeds. The chronicling of Mỹ Nhung’s life involves exploring more mature themes of women in the patriarchal music industry.

Beyond rich character development, it’s a stylistically strong film too. Suspenseful music, dark settings, a stern investigator who lights smoke at every chance he gets; it calls to mind a classic 1950s Hollywood detective movie. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that this film “set the standard” for 1990s commercial films, as this is my favorite in the list.

  • Representative of the genre: The only similarity this film shared with others is the starring of popular actors in the instant-noodle era. Otherwise, the narrative, genre and overall production value is done too well to group it among its peers. [3/10] 
  • Overall quality: My personal favorite film in this list. [9/10]
  • How it holds up today: It’s prolific in both storytelling and technical quality, it definitely will hold up if released today. [10/10]

Watch Ngôi Sao Cô Đơn here.

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