Vietnamese Come to the Screen

Cathereen Lim | Staff Photographer

Cathereen Lim | Staff Photographer
The Vietnamese International Film Festival seeks to bring artists’ perspectives from overseas to college campuses such as UC Irvine.

On the surface, an amateur rugby player, an aspiring college student and a hitman may not have a lot in common. One could blow a game play, one may blow his chance to get into college and the last might just blow your head off. Yet these different roles represent the diverse spectrum of protagonists whose stories were told at the fourth edition of the Vietnamese International Film Festival (ViFF).

The Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association (VAALA) and Vietnamese Language & Culture organization at UCLA (VNLC) presented ViFF in locations across the UC Irvine and UCLA campuses as well as the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana on Apr. 3-5 and Apr. 9-12. The groups did this to raise awareness and celebrate the work of Vietnamese filmmakers as their efforts were put “Into View,” which was the theme of this year’s festival.

With over 60 projects being showcased, filmmakers touched on a variety of issues, ranging from diaspora to exoticism to language barriers. Perhaps just as far-reaching as the topics covered was the manner in which each film was shot.

Some projects dealt with their subjects in a straightforward manner, such as “Operation Babylift: The Lost Children of Vietnam,” which made its world premiere at the festival. This documentary examined the lives of children orphaned as a result of the Vietnam War through a mixture of visual retelling and present-day interviews.

Another film that made its world premiere at ViFF was “Sad Fish.” Using an improvised script, the film interweaves the stories of four characters living in a Little Saigon community. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that each character faces a separate life changing circumstance, which brings the characters together at the conclusion of the film.

Aside from emphasizing the Vietnamese minority, the festival also worked to draw attention to other population segments that are often marginalized in today’s world. One set of short films, entitled “Female Filmmakers and Questions of Genre and Gender,” explored the work of those behind and in front of the camera. For instance, Australian filmmaker Shalom Almond’s documentary “The Love Market” follows a population of girls living in Sapa, Vietnam, who are ethnically Hmong, a minority in the country. Through their street smarts, the girls are able to live self-sufficiently by selling embroideries, despite the girls only being from 7 to 18 years of age.

While this set of films may have been the most saturated set of female-produced films exhibited during the festival, female filmmakers permeated multiple exhibitions throughout the series. As such, the ability for female filmmakers to cross gender lines was explored in films such as Elodie Ly Tri’s “Vincent.” Telling the story of its title character, the short film uses the reoccurring image of Vincent playing pool as he gives a monologue about his job as a hitman. As the audience is exposed to the inner workings of Vincent’s mind, the film cuts numerous times to Vincent carrying out his gruesome tasks.

During the question and answer session that followed one screening of this repeatedly shown short film, Tri stated that while she was pleased with the finished project, serving as the piece’s director caused more than a few raised eyebrows.

“Being a female filmmaker doing an action movie … it’s kind of weird for everyone,” Tri said.

Although much of the material exhibited at the festival dealt with serious topics, audiences also had the chance to laugh at some showings.

One comedic short film that garnered a response from the audience was “You’ve Got Male,” which told the story of an American who has become sick of online dating. Rather than continuing to play the field, the man instead opts to arrange for a mail-order bride from Vietnam. However, the hopeful husband is left dumbfounded when a Vietnamese man shows up at his door. Much to his surprise, he had actually ordered a male order bride.

Comedic short film “Dragon of Love” revolved around exoticism. As it begins, the film’s Asian protagonist, Joel, is discussing with his bartender how he would like nothing more than to make love to a black woman. Luckily enough for Joel, a black woman immediately approaches him. Unluckily for Joel, the tables are soon turned, as he instead becomes the focus of her fascination with what she perceives as exotic. This is shown through the woman requesting that they role-play, having Joel dress up in outfits such as a Chinese deliveryman, Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu and a samurai.

On April 11, Dustin Nguyen was awarded the festival’s Spotlight Award in celebration of his more than two decade-long acting career. Festival co-directors Ysa D. Le and Quyen Lam presented Nguyen with the award.

“ViFF would like to recognize Dustin for always pushing the envelope of what Hollywood perceives as a Vietnamese actor … Nguyen has always been a symbol of hope for Vietnamese artists everywhere and he continues to look forward to the future with optimism,” Lam said.

Following a showing of “Little Fish,” in which Nguyen acted opposite Cate Blanchett, Nguyen answered audience questions. In response to one audience member’s question about Nguyen’s role in drawing support to the work of Vietnamese filmmakers, Nguyen stated his hopefulness in doing so while acknowledging that the movement is far bigger than just him.

“I would like to see ViFF get bigger and bigger each year, which it is, and whatever I can do to help that, I’m more than happy to … a lot of it is also in the hands of the filmmakers. The Vietnamese-American directors, they got to have a big part in elevating this festival to a so-called world stage,” Nguyen said.

The festival ended with a closing night gala held at the Cross-Cultural Center. Because the festival is held biennially, ViFF will not be held again until 2011. In the interim, the festival’s organizers are projecting an even greater number of submissions to the festival. With roughly 90 projects submitted for ViFF’s consideration this year, the Vietnamese filmmaking community has its work cut out for it.