While local cinephiles are rightfully counting down the days until the Newport Beach Film Festival kicks off (and don't forget to pick up our cover story on the shindig in two weeks!), another movie series has quietly created its own tradition of excellence. Now in its sixth year, the Vietnamese International Film Festival celebrates Vietnamese and Vietnamese diaspora filmmakers in a two-weekend engagement that showcases 69 films, including 18 features—the most screened at the festival to date. The theme this year is “Flash Back || Flash Forward,” celebrating cinematic achievements of filmmakers from the past to the most recent contributions from Vietnamese filmmakers today. And though space prohibits a full discussion of each entry (maybe we can squeeze in a cover for them next year …), consider the following blurbs a quick intro to a film tradition ready to assert itself among the world's greatest.
One of the most renowned Vietnamese auteurs is Tran Anh Hung, who will receive the 2013 Inspiration Award from the festival. He presents his film Norwegian Wood (2010), followed by a Q&A session. Adapted from the novel by Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood is the story of Toru, a college student who falls for the ex-girlfriend of his deceased friend. Born in Vietnam, Hung moved to France after the fall of Saigon, where he studied at the Louis Lumiere film school. He won the Golden Camera award from Cannes and an Academy award nomination for his 1993 debut feature, The Scent of Green Papaya.
Kim Nguyen's War Witch tells the tale of Komona, a teenager living in sub-Saharan Africa who is abducted from a rebel army and forced to go to war. With help from an older boy named Magician—and the ability to see ghosts who warn her of impending danger—she's able to survive life as a child soldier. Told through Komona's own voice, the film explores her world as she faces war, teen love and pregnancy. War Witch was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2013 Academy Awards.
Duc Nguyen's Stateless documents the lives of Vietnamese refugees as they try to find asylum in the Philippines 16 years after their departure from Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War. Unable to gain legal citizenship in the Philippines, and facing a cruel regime if they return to Vietnam, each refugee has a story of being stranded in between two nations and unwelcome in either one. It isn't until a young lawyer from Australia decides to crusade for their rights that more than a thousand successfully relocate to Europe and the United States (keep your eyes peeled near the end for some exterior shots of the Ronald Reagan federal courthouse in SanTana!).
Orange County-based producer-director team Dan Tran and Le-Van Kiet bring their horror gem The House in the Alley. Following the death of their newborn, a young couple tries to recapture the balance in their lives as they deal with the aftermath. The husband, Thanh, is torn between his familial obligations and his wife Thao's vulnerable mental state. Soon, Thanh starts to notice that something in the house is amiss; a paranormal presence has taken over Thao and (in true paranormal-horror film fashion) must be stopped before it's too late. A box-office success in Vietnam, House was recently picked up for global distribution.
If you're opting for some lighter material, the festival abounds with family-friendly short films, followed by Q&As and panels with the filmmakers for shop talk about the industry and the filmmaking process. Speaking of family, the festival is free to high school students at SanTana's Bowers Museum for High School Day and again to senior citizens at the Bowers for Senior Citizen Day.
The eight-day festival convenes in these locations: UC Irvine, Edwards Cinema at the University Town Center, Bowers Museum and UCLA. Opening night reception after the kickoff film, Beyond the Mat, takes place at the Steelhead Brewing Company at University Town Center (beer and cinema—it's a winning combination!). A celebration of culture as much as it is a celebration of cinema, the Vietnamese International Film Festival shows that while Vietnamese cinema is still underrated on the global market, it's on the rise and poised for international success in the years to come.
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.