By: Kenneth Flores
Photo Courtesy of: Viet Film Fest
Film festivals have been useful in getting new and underrepresented voices to reach a wider audience. The Viet Film Festival, which ran from Oct. 11, 2019 to Oct. 13, 2019 in Orange, California, is one of many film festivals that serve the purpose of showcasing the efforts of a minority group. This year’s festival lineup had plenty of modern films and shorts with prevalent themes of family bonding and the experience of American culture through a Vietnamese lens.
The Viet Film Festival was created in 2003 by the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association (VAALA) with the intention of giving Vietnamese filmmakers a chance to showcase their work. Since its inception, the festival has managed to attract films from a variety of countries as they allow audiences to experience Vietnamese culture. The festival’s most notable community outreach effort is their offer of free admission for high school students and senior citizens.
Out of all the films screened this year, two of the most notable entries were “Like an Old House” (Original title: “Có Căn Nhà Nằm Nghe Nắng Mưa”) and “Heaven & Earth.” Attached to the screening of “Like an Old House” was a short called “American Girl.”
“American Girl” is about a young girl who goes through the impending doom of growing up, despite the reluctance to accept her fate. This short has an ominous aura and striking symbolism. The young girl (and her childhood) is represented as a doll when the adult version of the girl returns to her room. She leaves her childhood behind when she stores the doll in a toy box. She also receives messages through ripped-up pieces of a drawing from her childhood, which warn her about her fate. A couple of creative choices include the young girl using a pair of scissors as a defense weapon and fending off against her toy panda when it comes to life and attacks her. While it may be difficult to interpret and comes across as more weird than charming, the short is creative, as viewers will ponder the inevitable dilemma of growing up.
“Like an Old House” centers on a successful businessman named Son as he recalls his past after meeting with his mother for a business assignment. The film is a mystery that unravels as Son (whose real name is Nam) begins to recall certain parts of his life during adolescence that led to him forgetting his mother and past life up until his present. Taking a page from “Hamlet,” Son must confront his past of being accused for a murder he didn’t commit. He deals with this as his mother is approaching death. The emotional moments are executed well thanks to the characters and their interactions with each other.
Aesthetically, “Like an Old House” feels on-par with other indie films with high production value and amazing effects. Despite the film being in Vietnamese, the subtitles do a good job at highlighting some of the one-liners that provide brief moments of humor. One flaw in the film is the rushed resolution. Son reunites with his mother before her death but doesn’t seem all that convinced she is related to him. Fortunately, the symbolism of Son’s birthmark and the knowledge given to the audience makes the conclusion still feel satisfying. The overall experience is an entertaining and compelling story that has emotional relatability to anyone regardless of background.
“Heaven & Earth” depicts the life of Le Ly Hayslip, as she navigates Vietnam and eventually the United States, during the Vietnam War. Based on Ly’s two books that focus on her experiences at the time, the film showcases all of the horror that she experienced and how she managed to overcome that pain. During her time in Vietnam, Le is a passive character, as she goes through life being pushed around by others. When she arrives in the U.S., she gradually stands up for herself and becomes an independent woman who learns about balancing her American and Vietnamese identities.
One interesting element in the film is the depiction of the Viet Cong and U.S. forces. Both sides are seen as mostly evil and ruthless. The structure of the film follows the usual biographical experience as it depicts various points of interest instead of a linear narrative. However, it does drag the film at certain points, particularly towards the end when Le is resolving the conflict between her and Steve Butler, her husband in the American military. For a film produced in the U.S., the minority representation is somewhat progressive.
Despite being a smaller film festival focused on a specific minority group, events like the Viet Film Fest help highlight the importance of representation and diversity of voices in filmmaking. The wide selection of films creates awareness of Vietnamese culture and highlights their complexity and history.