diaCRITICS highlights Vietnamese and Southeast Asian artists of the diaspora. In this profile/interview piece, we speak to Quyên Nguyen-Le and Ly Thuy Nguyen, who collaborate as filmmakers. Here, they talk about their cross-diasporic collaboration, being second-generation and queer Vietnamese and Vietnamese American, and the dualities contained within words, water, memory, and image.
See below for upcoming screening dates and visit Quyên Nguyen-Le’s website for more information.
DS: We are talking about two films in this interview, Nước and Hoài, which translate as “Water/Homeland” and “Ongoing, Memory.” I understand, Quyên, that you made Nước before you and Ly met, and then the two of you wrote Hoài together, is that right? And yet the two films feel like they share a similar consciousness, like they are part of the same conversation. Can you tell us how these films came about, and how collaboration between the two of you figures into them?
Ly: I first saw Nước in 2016 at the Queer Viet Film Festival organized by our mutual friend Aiden in Hanoi. That was the first time I’ve heard of Quyên, and yet the film left a heavy impression on me. To me, it speaks more clearly than any other texts I have read, about the heartbreak of refugeehood and intergenerational trauma, in this very provocative, and yet tender and sensual way. And I had this feeling that we speak the same artistic language–or at least, my artistic language wants to look like Quyên’s. In 2017, our decision to make Hoài was prompted by a call for submission with the theme “home.” Quyên was very clear on the main idea, about a queer heartbreak that seeps into the pre-consciousness of refugee memory, as in, the unsettling notion of home that both queer people and displaced people experience. It’s a fast turnaround with fixed deadline, so we had only 2 months to finish. A lot of ideas came and went. At one point (I think) I suggested Quyên to continue Nước‘s theme of duality: I came up with the title Hoài (in Vietnamese meaning both ongoing and memory) to encapsulate the feeling experienced by queer refugee descendant—realities fractured with memories, multiple identifications, and an unsettling home that is rooted in refugee displacement. It was also deliberately more political than Nước, because we want to highlight Asian American leftist activism (and how it clashes with “mainstream” Vietnamese refugee politics), something that’s barely visible in mainstream Asian American cultural production. I worked on multiple roles– from writing the script to creating characters, set design, and so on. It was a lot, but it was fun. We work well together, through our creative differences.
Quyên: Ly said it all, haha! I’ll just add that both films came from an almost otherwise unexplainable feeling. As queer and second generation Vietnamese American, I’ve often felt as if I was simultaneously experiencing multiple realities at once. Like, at any given point in time, my life was a bunch of different movies of various different genres. So I think both films are an attempt to weave together these seemingly disjointed and mismatched experiences into a single story.
Nước was created as a part of Visual Communications’ Armed-with-a-Camera Fellowship, which challenged me to be extremely succinct as we were only given five minutes to tell our stories. It was my first film after college and I wanted to show off my technical skills while also telling a deeply personal story about myself – two things I had never had the chance to do in combination before. The time limit of five minutes gave way to the unconventional structure, which was something we revisited for Hoài.
For Hoài – I had the feeling of heartbreaks in mind, but couldn’t quite piece it together into a story; I got stuck in the feelings for a long time. Ly can deconstruct layers of symbolism, and she thinks really visually. So she was able to take the random pieces of emotions and put it together into a script for Hoài. It was a hard story to tell in non-essay form. When we both got stuck on the structure during editing, our producer Ashley Lin was the one who suggested that we return to something less conventional. And then it became clear that this was a story of intergenerational heartbreak.
DS: Between the two of you, your perspectives are informed by multiple disciplines, both artistic and academic. Could you tell us a little about each of your creative/intellectual paths? How did you get to where you are? And how do your varying disciplines influence the filmmaking or other work you are making together?
Quyên: I was very much inspired by the way my high school film teacher exposed me to filmmaking as a tool for social justice. But as I began exploring pathways to become a filmmaker, I realized it was a reaction: I was indignant about not seeing people like me, nor those in my communities, represented on the big screen. Being angry fueled me for a long time and I spent years with the singular goal of breaking into Hollywood: I got into a prestigious film school, worked at our student TV station during the school year and at Focus Features during the summers. All that work seemingly paid off when I got the opportunity to direct a film for the school’s first collaboration with actor James Franco. At 21, it was an incredible opportunity for me to level-up and direct a big production (we set a real car on fire!). Being there so young gave me clarity early on that film school wasn’t leading me toward the stories I really wanted to tell, so I opted to study Comparative Literature instead. Changing my major so late put me off-track for graduation, but studying literature opened up my mind to construct stories differently. It ultimately enabled me to make my first documentary and sent me on a journey to a university in Chile to finish my undergraduate studies, where I came to contextualize my parents’ migration from Vietnam in a global struggle.
I’m perpetually trying to figure out what kind of artist I want to be, and how to sustainably achieve that. I wouldn’t idealize being a struggling artist, but this spiraling path of life has given me opportunities to gain perspective by doing odd jobs to survive: I’ve read scripts, edited makeup tutorials, shot instagram ads, wrote online listicles, was a boba barista, baked pastries, wrote reports for a state senator, staffed film festivals, taught and managed art classes, and more recently coordinated legal education programs for artists. It’s really easy to become super angry and bitter in this racist, cis-sexist, hetero-centric film industry… and while being angry is completely valid and necessary, it is exhausting for me, so I try to focus my energy on cultivating sincerity and tenderness. I try to waste less time on proving to people why I should exist, and instead use my energy to nurture spaces where I can develop my skills and hone in on stories that are special to me. At the same time that I want to be included and have access to resources and institutional support, I always have one foot outside of filmmaking.
Ly: I am some sorts of a “lost” artist who is finding her way back into art, if you will. Meeting and working with Quyên has been generous in that way. Growing up in Vietnam, I have always been a child of literature, poetry, and drawing. I had a drawing group and we published little comics that we drew on monthly publications and everything. It was fun. But at one point of my life, I just sort of let these artistic dreams drift away. Both my parents were technical engineers and they are very creative people who are open toward my artistic ventures; however, their vision of reality kind of settles on the “conventional” equation of higher education = good jobs. Currently, I’m finishing my doctorate at UC San Diego, in the Ethnic Studies department. I found that being an academic is kind of a neat mixture of both worlds–where my creative skills can inform and supplement the research that I do. My academic training exposes me to the various cultural politics-aesthetics practices from marginalized authors and artists, and I think these works produce very poignant critiques of the society we live in. I’m especially conscious of the “lens”: In academic research, the lens through which you study a topic or a subject determines how you frame certain things, or contextualize it in a way that allow you to push forward an argument, or a curated observation. In filmmaking, the lens is the framing, the composition, the conscious decision to focus on, center on something and render other things as blurry backdrop. You create sequences by juxtaposing frame by frame, communicating an idea to audiences, constructing a particular narrative. Film is a powerful medium. As Vietnamese/Americans/ women, who have had so much films–narrative fiction and documentaries alike–made about us, featuring us and yet not of us, I’m very careful of how the promise of representation works in its limited way. And yet, as postwar queer (re)generation, we have a lot more to explore beyond the residuals of war. I can definitely say that my intellectual pathways allow me to be conscious of the imageries I want to craft and what they speak for or against and how messy these visualizations actually are.
DS: These films touch on social and political themes that are definitely salient, and yet there are also moments of sheer heart and poetry. I was so moved by the kitchen table scenes in Nước, between the main character and their mother. There are also endearing intergenerational interactions in Hoài, around living room karaoke. But some of my favorite moments are the sort-of dream sequences, that go as far as recreating iconic imagery (famous Vietnam war era photographs) and placing the main character and their partner into those dichotomies. The grounded boat on the desert is very evocative. Can you talk about these juxtapositions, and your use of imagery? Are there considerations or intentions you are crafting, to engage both the political mind and the heart, together?
Image is such a big part of Vietnamese diasporic history (as in our “identity” having been formed by images often beyond our own control). What are your thoughts on history and image and identity related to our diaspora? What is the power, for you, in (re)imagining some of the historic imagery?
Quyên: With Nước, I wanted to make a comment about point-of-view: that we are watching you watching us. Maybe it’s something similar to W. E. B. Du Bois’ concept of “double consciousness.” As a young filmmaker, I used to think that people who “looked like me” weren’t in Hollywood movies, but we were: the Vietnam War was the most heavily televised war in U.S. history. Nước simply expressed an awareness of being a subject of mass media. In other words, so much of my understanding of what my parents went through was never told to me in detail, and much of it has been constructed by imagery I was exposed to – some of them iconic photographs from newspapers during the Vietnam War era, others from popular Hollywood films. Contested facts, fiction, anecdotes, and imaginations all make up what I think I know about my family’s history. For the scene where there is a boat in the desert, I was visually representing the phrase and feeling of mất nước, which literally means “no water,” but it also means “lost homeland.”
Hoài is more explicitly political, but with a melancholic karaoke soundtrack. With this film, we wanted to comment on what is happening now, with emboldened white supremacy and fervent xenophobic paranoia in the attempt to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. In the film, Hoài sees the same helicopter that dropped bombs on villagers in Vietnam moving across the sky to bring her father to the U.S. side of the border in San Diego. She has a cautious conversation with her father about the idea of homeland and (tries) to talk about settler-colonialism as refugees. Can they ever understand each other? Her father sings a song about a life of loneliness during karaoke, and we can’t help but wonder, is true loneliness when no one quite understands you?
Ly: I agree with you, Dao. Like Quyên said, Nước is so powerful because of its rearticulation of iconic war photographies and war films into a sort of alienable past that can be subverted, disinherited from, transformed by the protagonist.
I think it’s interesting how Quyên and I hold similar viewpoints but also very different impression on what Hoài represents. For me, Hoài continues a very specific sentiment that Quyên briefly evoked in Nước: a refugee-centric critique of how “Vietnam” was imagined by both the American left and right (the left considers Viet Cong as anti-imperialist heroes, and the right considers Southern Vietnamese as freedom-loving people to be saved). This dichotomy erases the multiplicity of Vietnamese political perspectives from its narrative, and as a consequence it doubly marginalizes the Vietnamese Americans second generation who follow queer and/or left-leaning politics (which in many circles, queer and radical leftist politics are mutually co-constituted). I pursue this intersection more particularly in my research, on the layers of precarity in leftist activism concerning Vietnamese diaspora and its dominant culture of anticommunism. The dream sequence in Hoài, for me, was meant to show the unspeakability of such precariousness: when Hoai was accused by her ex-partner to be not “radical enough” because of Hoai’s reluctance around the radical militant Nazi-punching politics type, she fell into a stream of sub-consciousness combined with imagination of the past. The imageries walk us through vignettes of mundane and extraordinary things, from witnessing Hoài’s dad lighting an incense for her mom’s altar, to imagine the moment he starts running away from war, to his refugee passage across ocean and ending up in the “right” side of the border, and her own projection of what it feels like to be displaced from love. How do you explain, in a clear-cut way, to a partner about the kind of war trauma you ended up inheriting despite not being told much about it? It’s just like falling (and failing), always. You can never fight back the things in your dream, and you shouldn’t have to, because they are not real–but they are real in that you felt it anyway, and carry that with you in very visceral way. I imagine un/learning a trauma is like that.
DS: The themes of water and of memory – enduring and complicated currents that they are – are central to your films. It seems to me that water is a quite common theme for Vietnamese in the diaspora. Just recently, I was with a group of Vietnamese women writers and we fell into contemplation of themes of water. We had been hiking amid redwoods, it was raining. Inevitably, our discussion turned to the word “nuoc” and its dual meaning of both water and country, and one of us looked up the root of the association. I won’t go into it here, but in short what we learned is that in Vietnamese the concept of home has ingrained in it both land+water (these being necessary elements needed to make a place into a home), and in the same way that some countries have the word “land” in their names (Netherlands, England, etc), so the word “nuoc” came to denote “home”, etc. Can you talk about how the theme of water resonates for these films? And what about memory, its “ongoing” or “forever”-ness?
Quyên: In Vietnamese, đất nước, which literally means “land water,” means “homeland,” but some people just say nước as shorthand for “homeland.” Hence the title of the film. And I definitely am the not the first Vietnamese artist to notice that “nước” evokes multiple meanings, haha! For many in the diaspora who have had to cross the Pacific Ocean as refugees, the water especially evokes that history. I wanted to explore the double meaning of the word, and specifically situate a queer second generation person within it. I actually came up with the title before I came up with the film – I sort of worked backwards in thinking about the places where water comes up naturally in our everyday lives: the basin of a pedicure, the sink, rain, the chemical developer in the dark room and then thought of how this water can become a current that carries us back into the past.
Ly: Viet artists, in Vietnam and in the diaspora, have explored the notion of water and homeland and yet I’m always deeply touched when I see this poetic rumination. It makes sense that water is so essential to Vietnam, a coastal country with so much viability relying on water: farming, fishing, life in the rainforest. We have rivers running across our country like veins, and not a lot of people know, but the capital’s name Hà Nội also means “within a lake.” Like Quyên said, water holds life and death, literally, for Viet people, especially those who have to go through the refugee passage. But I think I’d also like to read “water” in Nước as regeneration: like the desert scene (symbolizing nation loss) where the mother and child reunited, rain fell on them and they both looked into the sky, to witness another life-form of Nước, differently than what previously imagined and lived. Water/homeland returns in another form, and their loss is not the end.
About hoài/memory/ongoing/forever, I think the beautiful and sometimes painful thing about it is that memory is never only remembering, it is always a proactive process of imagining, filling in the gap, transforming the narrative. That’s what we as human beings do, to sustain our pleasure of a good memory, or to protect ourselves against a traumatic one. That is to say, memory is almost always a story with multiple endings, because it shapes how we understand the past and live the present, re-narrate the past to change our course of future, and so on. For Hoài, like I mentioned above, it’s like the film Inception where one keeps falling in and out of reality and at one point dreams tell you more about your life than what you think you know. The ending of the film kind of probe at that–audiences now have all the context to read the karaoke scene, to experience another dimension of the father’s reality differently than they had previously. At least, that’s what we hope audiences do, haha.
May 15 at 5PM – UC Santa Cruz
May 15 at 5PM – UC Santa Cruz
June 29 at 6PM – Paris, France
Ici Vietnam Festival, Cinéma Le Grand Action
Quyên Nguyen-Le is a queer and gender nonconforming Vietnamese American filmmaker, whose narrative and documentary films have been shown in various film festivals, universities, art galleries, community spaces across the United States, Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, and Vietnam. In the past, Quyên was a recipient of the Emma L. Bowen Foundation’s Fellowship at Focus Features (2011-2013) and Visual Communications’ Armed with a Camera fellowship (2016). Recently, Quyên participated in the National Minority Consortia’s documentary fellowship with the Center for Asian American Media, and is a recipient of CAAM’s inaugural Documentaries for Social Change award. Quyên holds B.A. in Comparative Literature and Philosophy, Politics & Law from the University of Southern California.
Ly Thuy Nguyen is a queer academic, translator, and artist born and raised in Vietnam. She has a MA in Sociology, San Diego State University and currently is a Ph.D Candidate of Ethnic Studies department at the University of California, San Diego. Her work is on the personal and the political of human geographic stories, interAsian connections and global queer futurity. Her creative work ruminates on hybridity, heartbreaks, and the body. Some of her proses and translation have been featured on Asian American Writers’ Workshop and theoffingmag.