by Tom Nguyen
Viet Film Fest (VFF) returns April 14-17 at a new larger venue AMC 30 Orange this year. The annual festival spotlighting films of Vietnamese national and global diasporic filmmakers is organized by Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association (VAALA) and this year features an eclectic collection of 25 films (12 features and 13 shorts) from countries such as Vietnam, Australia, Canada, France, Norway, and the United States.
The festival will spotlight 2 important issues in the Vietnamese community: attitudes towards LGBTQ and the health and safety of nail salon workers. Also, Youth-In-Motion, VAALA’s film workshop that inspires youth to find their voices through filmmaking, will debut their films that focus on social justice issues in the community.
The festival opens Thursday, April 14 with “Bitcoin Heist” (Siêu Trộm), a heist-action film from Ham Tran — think of the film as Vietnam’s answer to Ocean’s Eleven. The film features Vietnam’s Queen of Hip Hop, Suboi, in her first leading role. I featured Suboi in a past lineup of aspiring female MCs from around the world and I look forward to catching her in attendance for a Q&A after the film.
Closing night on Sunday, April 17 will feature an absolutely delightful comedy “Sweet Twenty” (Em Là Bà Nội Của Anh). The directorial feature debut from Phan Gia Nhat Linh is a charming remake of a South Korean romantic comedy and recently became Vietnam’s highest-grossing film. The director and breakthrough actress, Miu Le, will be in attendance.
Along with these two blockbusters are my top picks for the festival (in order of appearance at the festival):
Honoring Life: The Work Of Trinh Mai – When going to film festivals, don’t neglect short films! I’ve had the privilege of knowing artist Trinh Mai both through her deeply compelling work channeling the Vietnamese immigrant experience through her art work, and as artist in residence at Vietnamese American Oral History Project (VAOHP) at UC Irvine. Get to know this fascinating artist in David Fokos’ short documentary.
Crush The Skull – I remember watching Chris Dinh and Viet Nguyen’s two short horror films on YouTube, and thinking, good for them! Despite a lack of diversity and opportunities for minorities in Hollywood, here were two Asian American filmmakers taking a clever, comedic twist on the horror genre, making it their own and starring in them. The films went viral and fans fueled their successful kickstarter to have this full-length film made. We’ll see if the same magic translates well in a longer film.
Thao’s Library – As a way of coping with her sister’s death, filmmaker Elizabeth Van Meter travels to Vietnam to befriend Thao, one of many Vietnamese children who were born with deformities due to the toxic defoliant and herbicide known as Agent Orange used by the US military during the war.
“Yellow Flowers On The Green Grass” (Toi Thay Hoa Vang Tren Co Xanh) – A coming of age tale about two brothers in 1989 Vietnam with all the ingredients of childhood innocence, love, jealousy and betrayal, and gorgeous cinematography.
“Finding Phong” – In a country still rigidly conservative where being LGBTQ is not openly acceptable, this film follows Phong, a Vietnamese transgender woman, for more than a year as she prepares to undergo gender confirmation surgery. The film is so powerful, after being screened for Vietnam’s National Assembly, in November 2015, its members voted to change the country’s Civil Codes to recognize the rights of transgender people, to take effect in 2017.
Painted Nails – This one hits close to home for me because my mom was a manicurist for many years, as are many Vietnamese immigrants, who make up 80% of California’s nail salon industry. Actress Tippi Hedren trained refugee women to get a foothold in a new land by learning a vocation that requires little English. On the flip side, it’s an unregulated industry that has allowed dangerous toxic chemicals into nail products. The film Painted Nails Movie follows one manicurist, Van Nguyen, who suffers from life threatening ailments from constant exposure to these chemicals and becomes an activist in the fight to regulate the industry for the safety of workers like her and their clientele.