The most popularly consumed Vietnamese culture normally takes the form of variety shows or fashion, not music, television or film. I'm not completely sure why, but during the times I visited the country, I watched American movies dubbed in Vietnamese. Even now, my parents watch more Korean dramas with poorly timed Vietnamese voice-overs than Vietnamese films.
So when I sat down to go through the screeners for this year's Viet Film Fest, the eighth such event organized by the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association, I honestly didn't know what to expect.
About eight hours later, all I could say was “Wow.”
That's a long time to watch movies straight, but if you decide to go to the festival, which runs from April 16 to 19 at the Anaheim GardenWalk (and you should), you'll have much more time to digest it all. And you'll need it, as the weekend is bookended by two heavy hitters.
The festival opens on a Thursday night with 2030, directed by Minh Nguyen-Vo. It's a film set in a near future when global warming has melted the world's ice caps and submersed much of South Vietnam. Those who refused to relocate as the tides rose live in slowly disappearing stilt houses or on never-still boats, guarding their ancestral plots of land with strong yet hopeless zeal. Those nouveau boat people whose fires have faltered can sell their submerged land to development companies that are building floating farms on which genetically engineered vegetables thrive in salt water.
While the setting is deeply rooted in many of today's fears, the film thankfully lacks a heavy-handed environmental message. Rather, it centers on two love stories that span decades.
The film is well-acted and directed, but the true standout is the cinematography and set design. The camerawork is purposeful and beautiful, employing the swaying of the ocean, crashing of waves and occasional stillness to great effect. Much of the film was made on boats or on a set floating in the ocean, and the way it was recorded is a technical masterwork. Best yet are the multiple underwater scenes, brief in their appearance but completely mesmerizing.
The festival will close with what may possibly be the best Vietnamese movie made in recent memory. Flapping In the Middle of Nowhere is the directorial debut of Nguyen Hoang Diep and has been making the festival tour, with multiple stops (and awards) in Europe, Asia and the United States. The film follows Huyen (Thuy Anh Nguyen), the newly pregnant half of a poor teenaged couple in Hanoi, as she and her boyfriend scrape together money for an abortion. That journey tears them apart and ages them. The film is very much a coming-of-age story, and it's almost surprising that a movie covering these themes could even be made in Vietnam, but it makes sense when you realize Flapping is predominantly European-funded.
The film is beautifully made, with precise cinematography and camerawork. Of note is the color palette, a blend of dark and cool earthy tones that at first don't really say Vietnam but at the end scream it. Nguyen is amazing in her first film role; her quiet, defiant demeanor and air of lost innocence contributes to her powerful standout performance.
In addition to these two films, this year's festival will showcase 27 others (six features, 21 short films) in genres ranging from martial arts to horror and documentary. The festival's selection cuts a wonderfully inclusive view of Vietnamese cinema, an artform that deserves to be consumed.