At last! The San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival on April 23rd is the first ever Bay Area film festival exclusively featuring Vietnamese filmmakers and performers. Festival director and diaCRITICS managing editor Julie Thi Underhill introduces the festival’s line-up of narrative, experimental, and documentary films—handpicking a few lovely images and featured trailers as a teaser to an amazing selection of back-to-back films. This festival is the latest commitment of the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network, the arts organization that hosts diaCRITICS.
For those who’ve never been blessed by the VIFF in Southern California, or any other Viet-centered film extravaganza, a festival focusing exclusively on the experience of the Vietnamese is beyond exciting. Usually I must search a film festival’s program cover-to-cover before I’m able to find something that even remotely relates to the Vietnamese experience, and even then, that doesn’t guarantee compelling work. So it’s been my long-awaited filmmaker-and-cinephile dream to see diasporic Vietnamese films carefully curated for the big screen here in Northern California. It’s actually a primary motivation for directing the first-ever Bay Area festival centering the works of Vietnamese filmmakers, when the position was offered to me. Foremost I wanted to have the chance to breathe in these filmmakers as inspiration. Inspiration literally means to breathe in. And I’m not the only one anticipating the opportunity to see these works writ large on the screen. As the date grows closer, I’ve even heard that some audience members are flying in from the East Coast just to attend the festival. So it’s not just the local folks desiring to see for themselves how these transnational Vietnamese filmmakers are shaping, in compelling ways, our perceptions of ourselves and each other.
Since 1975, as a result of the upheavals of conflict, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese have emigrated from their homelands to other countries, creating a diaspora of Vietnamese people around the globe. This diaspora’s cultural productions are richly articulated and nuanced—and film is no exception. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, talented filmmakers have emerged to tell complicated and distinct stories. So as the director of the first-ever San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival, I’ve worked hard to help bring a stunning global line-up of films to the Coppola Theater at SFSU on April 23, with the hope of creating a deeper awareness and respect for Vietnamese communities worldwide. The all-day festival features thirteen films from nine diverse directors in the U.S., Australia, Germany, England, and Vietnam. Through narrative, documentary, and experimental genres, the San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival will center the filmed histories, communities, identities, and imaginaries of those in Vietnam and in the diaspora—a transnational vision reflecting a transnational reality.
Our program below offers in-depth synopses alongside trailers and film stills, so that you can truly preview these nine directors’ visions. Because you must try to see how they see, in order to get a sense of how their films nuance our conceptions of Vietnamese history and identity, in Vietnam and in the diaspora. Even if you can’t make it to the festival, please take a moment to admire how these filmmakers articulate themselves. Indeed, the beautiful tensions of their own communities are made symbolic through the struggles and realizations of their characters, as art imitates life.
Fading Light (Theo Hướng Đèn Mà Đi)
Thien Do, director | US, Vietnam | 2008 | 23 minutes | narrative short | not rated | 10:30-10:55a
As two young brothers attempt to recover a lost toy from a crack in the worn floor of an attic, their mother called them down. “We’ll get it later,” they said, not knowing it would be a long time before they’d return. Many years pass before a young Vietnamese American man, Nam, revisits this childhood home for the first time since he left by boat. He’d lived much of his life in America, and in returning to Vietnam, he is jarred by feelings of displacement and by memories he’d almost forgotten. Stranded between the strangeness of a new city and the familiarity of his birthplace, Nam falls into a restless sleep during which the past and the present collide in a feverish dream. As he relives his tragic voyage, he is confronted by haunting childhood memories. Concurrent nonlinear images and intersecting flashes of light demonstrate the profound love between siblings and a resulting devastating emptiness. This debut short film by Thien Do portrays a man struggling to make sense of his own personal history, set within the larger plight of the Vietnamese boat people. Shot in present-day Vietnam—with an all Vietnamese cast and an international crew—Fading Light is the ‘film school’ in which the director claims to have learned his strengths and weaknesses, not only as a filmmaker but also as a man coming to terms with his departed homeland.
Khoa Nguyen, director | Australia | 2009 | 92 minutes | narrative feature | mature audiences (15 and older, by the Australian rating system) | 11:00a-12:30p
Seamstress Kim goes to work every day in a tiny clothing factory in Australia. One evening, after the other workers have left, she is transported back to the fateful journey she undertook years ago. Within the confines of a quiet workroom, Kim recalls taking to the ocean in a leaky river boat with her sister Hanh and two men. Centering the stories of four Vietnamese refugees fleeing in 1980, this film brought awareness to the identities, origins, and motivations of those who arrived from Vietnam by boat. This film was made as a direct response to the increasing fear and hysteria surrounding Vietnamese refugees in Australia.
Mother Fish is ultimately about maintaining one’s humanity in the face of unimaginable turmoil—even as it portrays how survivor’s guilt creates everlasting wounds. The film’s tagline reads, “Behind every headline, every policy, and every queue … is a human face.” This beautifully crafted and ambitious work has won a number of domestic and international awards for Australian director Khoa Nguyen, for whom this is his second film.
Unidentified Vietnam No. 18
Lana Lin & H. Thao Lam, directors | US | 2007 | 30 minutes | experimental short | not rated | 12:45-1:15p
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the United States Library of Congress acquired a South Vietnamese embassy collection of seventeen films labeled simply “Unidentified Vietnam, # 1-17.” By incorporating propaganda films made between 1950 and the 1970s, Unidentified Vietnam No. 18 interrogates the layered and contested relationships between Vietnam and the United States, between history and propaganda, and between democracy and nation building. Succeeding the propaganda series yet situated in the present, the film centers an exiled South Vietnamese filmmaker, also an archivist and film scholar. This person inhabits the past, re-enacts propagandistic gestures, and looks through dusty film cans, discolored film labels and outdated catalogue lists. As the archive turns into a mausoleum for spectral images of a now nonexistent republic, the viewer is aware of what will forever remain obscure in the process of recovery. Through acts of retrieval and remembrance, this experimental and personal film reflects upon the failure of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. It also considers the dangers of its repetition and questions the policies and politics of nation building.
Hanoi Eclipse: The Music of Dai Lam Linh
Barley Norton, director | England | 2010 | 56 minutes | documentary feature | not rated (adult language) | 1:20-2:15p
This debut documentary by Barley Norton features the controversial band Dai Lam Linh, producers of a unique form of popular music with a global outlook and a Vietnamese aesthetic. Dai Lam Linh consists of composer Ngoc Dai, an ex-soldier from the war, and singers Linh Dung and Thanh Lam, whose voices and energy complement Ngoc Dai’s edgy songs. Using sexually explicit vocabulary, experimental sounds, and unconventional performances, the band was rocked by scandals and censorship throughout the recording of their first album, culminating in its launch concert at the Hanoi Opera House in April 2009.
The documentary depicts their creative, political and financial struggles, captured during four months of filmed interviews and performances. In a broader sense, it reveals the resilience of a whole generation who fought and survived the war, only to continue another fight to live and to express their life’s desires. Onstage and in the studio, Dai Lam Linh pushes the limits of aesthetic sensibility in order to challenge the culture of censorship and conformity that regulates not only the works of artists, but also their everyday life. British director Barley Norton is a senior lecturer in the music department at University of London, and a specialist in Vietnamese music and culture. Nora Taylor also reviewed this film in December here on diaCRITICS.
LATE AFTERNOON | Experimental shorts
The Blindness Series (Kore, Eikleipsis, Epilogue: The Palpable Invisibility of Life)
Tran T. Kim Trang, director | US | 1994, 1998, 2006 | 55 minutes | experimental shorts | not rated | 2:30-3:25p
Tran T. Kim Trang created The Blindness Series as an eight-film consideration of physical blindness and its metaphors. She was broadly motivated by a personal fear of vision loss, by the historical significance of blindness in visual art, and by the linkages between perceptual and conceptual processes. Experimenting with multilayered texts, images and sounds from a variety of sources – journalism, fiction, dreams – each film is stylistically distinct. Together they provide a complex examination of body image, sexuality, surveillance, war trauma, language, race, immigration, and motherhood as viewed through the prisms of sight and sightlessness.
Our chronological selection begins with Kore, which explores the relationship between vision, sexual fear, fantasy, and AIDS. We continue with Eikleipsis, an investigation into the condition of hysterical blindness in Cambodian women refugees. Eikleipsis traces the histories of both hysteria and the war in Cambodia. Our screening concludes with Epilogue: The Palpable Invisibility of Life, the final short film of the Blindness Series. Epilogue was inspired by the Memoirs of the Blind exhibition, curated by Jacques Derrida for the Louvre Museum. Shifting the focus from Derrida’s work to her own mother and son, in Epilogue the filmmaker meditates upon the connection between vision and the cycle of life and death, as well as the technologies of seeing the dead and the not-yet-born.
Nguyen Tan Hoang’s shorts (PIRATED! Forever Linda! Forever Bottom!)
Nguyen Tan Hoang, director | US | 2000, 1996, 1999 | 27 minutes | experimental shorts | not rated (explicit sexual content and themes) | 3:30-4:00p
Nguyen Tan Hoang explores the intersection of popular culture, sexual representation, and gay Asian American identity in both his cinematic and academic works, as an experimental filmmaker and as a professor of English and Film Studies at Bryn Mawr. Using a bold and unapologetic approach, his short films use collages of popular images and sounds, pornography, and Vietnamese music videos to examine issues pertaining to sexuality, identity, and stereotypes. Our selection includes PIRATED!, which draws on the filmmaker’s own experience during the escape from Vietnam by boat. Reconstructing encounters with Thai pirates and sailors in the form of a refugee boy’s daydreams and sexual fantasies, this short film addresses how trauma, memory, and imagination impact the formation of sexuality.
The second film, Forever Linda!, portrays an Asian American teenager, on the verge of queerdom, obsessed with the figure of supermodel Linda Evangelista. Through a series of daydreams—cued to a soundtrack of French love songs sang by Vietnamese singer Thanh Lan—the film poses questions about queer childhood narratives and cross-gendered and cross-racial identifications.
Lastly, in Forever Bottom!, Nguyen challenges the negative connotation of being the Bottom in Western gay male culture through a pseudo-instructional videotape, in which he shows the pleasures and desires of full and unrepentant Bottomhood.
EVENING | A Sneak Preview and an Actor Q&A
Minh Duc Nguyen, director | US | 2011 | 109 minutes | narrative feature | not rated (nudity and adult language) | 4:15-6:10p
At Rosy Nails, a young Vietnamese woman named Tam cleans, buffs, and paints fingernails for as low as $10, while chatting, joking, and fighting with her fellow nail techs. One day, she meets an unusual customer. A shy American mechanic named Brendan has a problem only Tam can solve. No matter how much he washes his hands after his days at work, he cannot remove the grease that accumulates around his fingertips and under his fingernails. Every night, when he tries to get closer to his distant wife, she rejects him with the same excuse, “Your hands are filthy.” As Tam scrubs Brendan’s hands clean every day, he starts sharing his marital problems. In turn, she offers humorous advice to help him regain his wife’s love and save their marriage. Yet the more Brendan follows Tam’s suggestions, the more he finds himself attracted to Tam. Soon he begins to spend more time outside of the nail salon with her.
A meditation upon the sense of touch and its emotional impact, this sneak preview of the feature debut by director Minh Duc Nguyen emphasizes how touch helps us to discover each other’s deepest longings, to share utmost pleasures, and sometimes even to heal wounds.
Touch Q&A with actor Long Nguyen and actress Bety Le
Moderated by author Andrew Lam (Perfume Dreams, East Eats West), this lively discussion features actor Long Nguyen, who plays the father in Touch, and Bety Le, who plays nail tech Hong.
Nguyen is an accomplished visual artist and Hollywood actor with an impressive filmography, including Journey from the Fall, whereas Le is a younger up-and-coming actress.
Please join us for the opportunity to hear firsthand from Nguyen and Le about storytelling, embodiment, character development, performance, and other aspects of their roles in Touch. The Q&A will be prefaced by a brief cultural performance by SFSU student dancers.
Liesl Nguyen, director | Germany | 2011 | 24 minutes | narrative short | not rated | 7:35-7:55p
On the outskirts of Berlin, a Vietnamese-German girl, Mi, lives with her mother, her bedridden grandmother Ba, and her upbeat cousin Thai. Unlike Thai, who seems to successfully straddle her Vietnamese and German identities, Mi finds herself feeling dislocated: “Everyone has a place in time, like a picture in a frame. Only I don’t know yet where I fit it. I slip carefully into one frame, and then out into the next. But it never feels like I really belong.”
In a dismal winter landscape filled with gray high-rise apartments, Mi tries to come to terms with not belonging, while her mother struggles with an unsuccessful restaurant where the food is mediocre, at best. After grandmother Ba expresses disappointment with the food Mi brings back from the restaurant—another symptom of Ba’s homesickness becoming more intense with time—Mi decides to learn to cook Ba’s favorite meal. A simple cooking lesson eventually turns into an inner odyssey whereby Mi must confront how the ritualistic power of food creates generational and cross-cultural conflicts.
Loosely based on a same-titled short story by Pham Thi Hoai, a Vietnamese writer residing in Germany, Liesl Nguyen’s debut is the first in a trilogy of narrative short films about Vietnamese people in Europe. Reinterpreting Pham’s story within a diasporic framework, Sunday Menu poetically explores issues of identity, culture, and belonging—at the intersection of personal histories and urban landscapes— to shed new light on the multiplicities within diasporic Vietnamese cultures.
Don’t Be Afraid, Bi! (Bi, Đừng Sợ!)
Phan Dang Do, director | Viet Nam | 2010 | 90 minutes | narrative feature | not rated (sexual content and themes) | 8:00-9:30p
Bi is a six-year-old boy in Vietnam whose favorite playgrounds are an ice factory and the wild grass near a river. While living in an old house in Hanoi with his parents, his unmarried aunt, and a cook, his long-absent grandfather suddenly reappears, seriously ill. As Bi spends more and more time with the reticent old man, he discovers the secrets and the burdens of desire in the other members of their family.
The father drowns his yearning for his masseuse in a drunken rage every night while the mother turns a blind eye. As a high school teacher who has never touched a man, the aunt must use melting ice cubes to cool her desire for a 16-year-old boy she met on the bus.
In the words of director Phan Dang Di, the movie is an allegory for the three ages of man, where Bi’s restless curiosity and his innocent discoveries contrast sharply with the father’s search for unnamed values and the grandfather’s aimless wanderings. A story about “what’s most ordinary in the life of ordinary people,” through minimal dialogue Don’t Be Afraid, Bi! reveals a world in flux, in which human emotions change from one form to the next, just like the ice cubes which from solid can become liquid, and then disappear into the air.
From the screenwriter of Adrift (2009) comes this feature debut, already a winner of two International Critics Week’s prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. You might also recall Viet Nguyen’s review of the this film from last November.
So that’s the line up for the San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival, which will be held at San Francisco State University’s Coppola Theater (1700 Holloway Ave, SF, CA), just a short MUNI ride away from the Daly City BART station.
Besides the gifted filmmakers, performers, and guest panelists, I’ve got so many generous people to thank for bringing these works to the Bay Area—especially Assistant Director and SFSU film committee chair Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, film curators Lan Duong and Viet Nguyen, and staff Thang Dao. The Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival Committee at SFSU contains Isabelle Pelaud, Jonathan Lee, Valerie Soe, Ben Kobashigawa, Wei Ming Dariotis, Russell Jeung, and Wesley Ueunten. Over fifty SFSU students have donated their time and enthusiasm to the cause. The festival is hosted and sponsored by Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network and the Asian American Studies Department at SFSU, and co-sponsored by the SF Asian American Film Festival (CAAM), Zellerbach Family Foundation, APICC, VASC, and the Vietnamese International Film Festival. Without the help of these individuals and organizations, none of this would be possible.
All we’re missing is you. So please come on April 23, if you can. You may view the complete schedule and program online at DVAN’s website. At the San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival, programming blocks encourage you to attend double features, usually a short film paired with a longer film, with some variation in the schedule. So if you plan to attend one film, please stay for both, to minimize audience disruption, as only a few minutes separate the films in a program block. Tickets for each program are available at the door, for a sliding scale donation ($5-10).
We expect hundreds of attendees throughout the day, but it won’t be a full house without you. And I’m sure there is a potent proverb somewhere, about Vietnamese people and full houses. You know that one already? No, actually, you make a point to never learn proverbs about full houses? Perhaps you can instead suggest one more apropros—something to do with seeing the light as the writing on the wall, something about walls being screens, something about screened memories reflecting ourselves in (re)turn.
Julie Thi Underhill is director of the San Francisco Diasporic Vietnamese Film Festival, managing editor of diaCRITICS, core member of DVAN, doctoral student and ethnic studies instructor at UC Berkeley, artist, filmmaker, photographer, historian, poet, essayist, and alphabetizer of a massive and errant tea collection.
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