* From the print edition of Việt Tide (bilingual weekly magazine). Đọc bài tiếng Việt.

I came to the Vietnamese International Film Festival (ViFF) with no expectations. I saw. I was conquered. Not only was I impressed by all the efforts of the organizers and volunteers put together to host such an incredible two-week festival but I also had a great time watching the films.

Part of the ViFF team - Photo from ViFF website.
Part of the ViFF team – Photo from ViFF website.

A Little on Long

On the local newspapers, television and radio news and interviews around Orange County leading up to the festival, it seemed that some feature films were mentioned all the time, one for the opening night and others for the closing. I might as well spend a few words on them.

One element of consistency in these films screened during the first week of the festival (April 4-7, 2013) might, or might not, come out as a surprise to the audience. They are all directed by overseas Vietnamese. And except for Beyond the Mat by Van Phạm and Here… or There? (Đó… Hay Đây?) by Síu Phạm, the rest of them – Blood Letter (Thiên Mệnh Anh Hùng) by Victor Vũ, Love Puzzle (Cưới Ngay Kẻo Lỡ ) by Charlie Nguyễn, In the Name of Love (Lấy Chồng Người Ta) by Lưu Huỳnh, and Instant Noodle (Vũ Điệu Đường Cong) by Khoa Trọng Nguyễn – have mostly Vietnamese casts. The degree of Vietnamese-ness in the characters’  dressing, speaking, behaving, thinking and moving around carrying out their daily lives vary from one film to the next. This speaks volumes for what each director perceives as ‘authentic Vietnamese.’ It really made me very curious about the movies’ box-office and media reception in Việt Nam.

Q&A with director Khoa Trọng Nguyễn (center) on Instant Noodle (Vũ Điệu Đường Cong).
Q&A with director Khoa Trọng Nguyễn (center) on Instant Noodle (Vũ Điệu Đường Cong).

What really left a strong and lasting impression on me, however, was the two sets of short films that I watched the first week of the festival. It is here that cinema lovers have their thirst quenched.

All about Short

Ranging from eight minutes to twenty-two minutes, the short films are embedded with carefully calculated details that deliver their highly symbolic cultural and social messages. Different shades of poverty were portrayed. One focuses on addiction as in Living Together (Chung Sống) by Đặng Đức Lộc, another on helplessness as in Mother’s Milk (Sữa Mẹ) by Andy Dejohn. 16:30 by Trần Dũng Thanh Huy then appears fresh and poignant as it brought the audience to a lesser known world of homeless kids who make a living selling result tickets. Raw as a documentary, 16:30 was as deeply disturbing as it was movingly beautiful.

A scene from the film 16:30 - Photo from ViFF website.
A scene from the film 16:30 – Photo from ViFF website.

Shades of emotions were another targets of the short films. As the simple shot of one or two pairs of shoes was repeated, the audience gradually entered the relationship between a father – balloons vendor, and a daughter – red shoes wearer, in The Other Winters (Những Mùa Đông Khác) by Lê Hà Nguyên as they struggle to make their relation fit in with the lifestyle they carry and the generation they belong to. Following the same line of thought, director Dương Minh Lộc gave a mother-and-son relationship an animated twist in Five Punishments (Năm Điều Phạt) when he arranged to have the son come to new terms with himself at the discovery of the 50-year old note about daily chores his mother left him when he was a little boy.

A scene from the film The Other Winters - Photo from ViFF website.
A scene from the film The Other Winters – Photo from ViFF website.
A scene from the film One Day - Photo from ViFF website.
A scene from the film One Day – Photo from ViFF website.

The pensive mood didn’t last long as the audience were jolted back to reality with One Day (Một Ngày) by Nguyễn Vũ Minh Đức. It starts with a guy dragging his shovel from one place to another. Is he a serial killer? That would be too easy a prediction that makes the film a very boring one. As the story progresses, it turns out that he uses the shovel to dig a grave from where his bride is from. A zombie love story, indeed. Who could have guessed! To keep the suspension and the audience’s attention for twenty minutes with very limited vocalization, that is good.

Still another side of everyday human relation is what happened between a bookseller and a shoe seller, in Bookseller and Shoe Seller (Bán Sách Và Bán Giày) by Nguyễn Trí Viễn. What do these sellers have in common? Street vendors on the same section of the pavement as they are, the bookseller and the shoe seller patched their differences to face the gangsters and had a hell of a time. I left the theater feeling enlightened with one brilliant detail from the film: the shoe seller eventually is the one who teaches the bookseller about something he learns from the books! Life could be full of ironies like this sometimes.

A scene from the film Bookseller and Shoe Seller - Photo from ViFF website.
A scene from the film Bookseller and Shoe Seller – Photo from ViFF website.

Hot pots of the day

Now that I have a chance to think twice about the sets of short films I watched, I came to realize that most of the male characters in them are constructive images of Vietnamese men who are trying to make the best out of life. As daydreaming and carefree as he is, the ice seller in Go Playing with Ice (Chở Đá Đi Chơi) by Trần Ngọc Sáng has to finally get his act together and turn a new page. Gentle and helpful, these men are building new relations with their wives, kids, and society in a context of undergoing changes in Việt Nam as it fidgets its position in the 21st-century theater.

A scene from the film Go Playing With Ice – Photo from ViFF website.

Still on the same line of pulling issues onto the surface, Đỗ Quốc Trung’s short film, On Duty with Shu Qi (Trực Nhật Với Thư Kỳ), is as updated and trendy as it could be featuring a high-school outcast on high heels. His message against bullying at school, both physically and mentally to someone considered different, is loud and clear.

A scene from the film On Duty With Shu Qi – Photo from ViFF website.

And now to the hottest topic of all: Việt Nam recently passed the law to recognize same sex marriage, which makes life easier for them all. Is it really? Dawn by Leon Lê and Uncle and Nephew (Hai Chú Cháu) by Nguyễn Đình Anh create a very good pair for contemplation as far as reception of homosexuality is concerned. Lê sweeps the audience off their feet to the noisy moving subway train in New York, and Nguyễn paddles them over the melodic river to the idyllic countryside of the Mekong Delta. And while the mop outside the station in New York ends unexpectedly with a realization of a homosexual relationship between an Asian American and an African American, the seemingly peaceful lives of Hùng and his nephew around the rice fields in Việt Nam is disrupted brokenheartedly when the latter could not bear the neighbors’ abusive jokes aimed at his uncle anymore. They both end up disappearing somewhere into the rumored violence-reeked Sài Gòn.

A scene from the film Uncle And Nephew – Photo from ViFF website.
A scene from the film Dawn – Photo from ViFF website.







After the first week of the festival, I found the features ‘interesting,’ and the short films refreshing. I wish I had been able to attend the second week.

ViFF poster at Bowers Museum, Santa Ana.

Đọc bài tiếng Việt.