After a year of internal restructuring and planning, the Viet Film Fest (VFF) returns to Orange County this weekend. This fest is close to my heart because of its warm and passionate organizers, who dutifully work behind the scenes to bring Vietnamese filmmakers and films to the community, as well as the fact that they’ve brought to the county some of the most intriguing panel discussions and have made me aware of some of the biggest Vietnamese talent in the industry. I’m specifically thinking of the year I saw Tran Anh Hung, director of the Oscar-nominated, Camera d’Or-winning The Scent of Green Papaya, on the same panel as Vietnamese actress Kieu Chinh, who starred in the 1991 film The Joy Luck Club. It remains one of the liveliest panels I’ve seen to date!
Returning in October instead of April this year, VFF fits nicely within the film festival season, but a couple of things set it apart. While it focuses on Viet filmmakers and cinema representing the Vietnamese experience, this festival is one of the most global—many of its 30 features were made in countries such as Malaysia, Germany, the Czech Republic, France, Canada and the United Kingdom. Also, a good 50 percent of the selected films were directed by women or feature strong female leads among its main characters, which is unprecedented, even in Hollywood.
VFF’s collection of international films starts Friday morning with a short-film showcase themed around love, including Spring Leaves and Nguyening: The Lee Nguyen Story. The second short-film block centers on the important theme “Family Dynamics in the Diaspora”; the Czech Republic’s Easter and Like Mother, Like Daughter are among those screened. Both blocks include a Q&A session with cast and crew afterward.
Friday’s opening-night film is a Vietnamese-Japanese feature titled Summer In Closed Eyes. Directed by Cao Thuy Nhi, this romantic love story stars plucky Phuong Anh Do as a young woman named Ha (which translates to Summer), who travels to Japan to find her estranged father. In the process, she meets a young man named Akira (Takafumi Akutsu). The young couple find love despite the language and cultural barrier between them, but Ha’s father’s health complications threaten their newfound happiness.
One of Saturday’s most notable features is Orange County native Minh Duc Nguyen’s second directorial feature, Actress Wanted. Shot in and around OC, this captivating thriller follows a young actress (played by Thien Nguyen) who answers a casting ad for a mysterious project directed by a lonely janitor (Long Nguyen). The project, as it turns out, is to re-create actual memories between the janitor and his dead wife, Hong, and to role-play what would have been their 30th wedding anniversary. Not only do I want to see how this suspense-filled story plays out, but I’m also really stoked to see familiar freeway exits and locations in Little Saigon featured in the film.
Another pair of films featuring strong women leads are The Housemaid and Go Go Sisters, screening Saturday and Sunday, respectively. A remake of the 2011 Korean film Sunny, Go Go Sisters follows two parallel storylines surrounding two different pairs of women—one a group of teenaged girls, the other a group of middle-aged women. With their varying ages and life experiences, the audience finds the commonalities they share.
Not to be confused with the 2010 South Korean feature directed by Im Sang-soo, Derek Nguyen’s The Housemaid is a Gothic romance set during the Indochinese War. A young orphaned woman named Linh (Nhung Kate) is hired as a housemaid for a well-to-do family living in a French plantation. Linh attracts the attention of the landowner, Captain Sebastien Laurent (Jean-Michel Richaud), and the two start a relationship, which kicks off a strange series of events and rouses the ghost of the captain’s dead wife, Camille, who is out for bloody vengeance. Originally released in 2016, The Housemaid was a tremendous hit in Vietnam and abroad, thanks to its excellent atmospheric horror and eroticism.
Among Sunday’s slate of films is a screening of the late Vietnamese-American director Stephane Gauger’s last film, Kiss and Spell. Gauger, who was born in Vietnam and moved to Orange County as a young boy, studied theater and French literature at Cal State Fullerton. In 1994, he moved back to Vietnam, where he worked as a lighting specialist and screenwriter before becoming a director. His sudden death in January at the age of 48 came as a shock to many in the Vietnamese film industry.
Kiss and Spell is a lighthearted comedy about a magician afraid of ghosts who falls in love with his assistant, who is followed by ghosts wherever she goes. To make the relationship work, the young man must suffer through his worst fears until he can rid her of her haunted entourage for good.
Besides its excellent films, other things to look forward to at VFF are the rad industry panels “Vietnamese Women in Film: The Power of Stories” on Saturday and “Migration, Identity and Home” on Sunday afternoon.
Viet Film Fest at AMC Orange 30, 20 City Blvd. W., Orange. For show times and tickets, visit www.vietfilmfest.com.
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers the Orange County DIY music scene, film, arts, Latino culture and currently pens the long-running column Trendzilla. Born, raised, and based in Santa Ana, she loves bad movies, punk shows, raising her plants, eating tacos, Selena, and puns.