Viet Film Fest 2018: My Top Picks

by Tom Nguyen

After a hiatus in 2017, Viet Film Festival presented by the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association (VAALA) is back this year! The 10th edition from October 12-14, 2018, at AMC Orange 30, will screen 30 films (13 features and 17 short films) from Vietnam, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, Czech Republic, Germany, and Malaysia. In this era of #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite, the film festival is proud that more than 50% of the films were either directed or produced by women.

The festival opens with Cao Thuy Nhi’s Summer in Closed Eyes (Nhắm Mắt Thấy Mùa Hè), a cross-cultural love story set in Hokkaido, Japan, that faced many challenges while being made, but has gone onto to become a critical and commercial success in Asia. The young Vietnamese and Japanese cast & crew will be in attendance to kick off the festival!

There will be no shortage of romantic comedies that are Vietnam box office hits, like Kiss and Spell (Yêu Đi Đừng Sợ), which will be screened in honor of Vietnamese American director Stephane Gauger (Owls and Sparrows, Saigon Electric), who sadly passed away at the young age of 48, earlier this year, after the film was completed. Gauger was of the same generation of Vietnamese refugees as me, born in the same year, and arriving in the US at the same age of 5. He was both towering in stature and influence in Vietnamese cinema and his impact will be long-felt and missed.

Youth in Motion, the youth filmmaking workshop, nurturing the next generation of storytellers, will have a free screening open to the public, that emphasizes themes of social justice and community. VAALA will continue the tradition of making art accessible by also hosting free screenings for seniors (60+) and students on Friday. Special panels on migration/identity and trailblazing Vietnamese filmmakers are free events to allow for community dialogue.

The festival will also have a rare retrospective screening of The Purple Horizon (Chân Trời Tím), made in 1970s Saigon, during what is considered the Golden Era of Vietnamese cinema, and Kim Vui, the leading actress of her day, will be in attendance.

Being a refugee, I gravitate towards films that speak to the diaspora experience and there are so many great feature length and short films that speak to that perspective, as well as some really riveting cinema that span comedy, to experimental and drama and even film noir! I’m really impressed with this year’s diverse film-making — there really is something here for everyone. Here are my top picks (in order of appearance at the festival):

(Germany | 2017 | 30 min)
Fri Oct 12 at 1:00pm-2:45pm
There are so many great short films about the diaspora experience, cultures colliding and generational challenges! Besides this gem, I recommend Easter (Lễ Phục Sinh) from Czech Republic, Spring Leaves (Feuilles De Printemps) from France, and from the US: Like Mother, Like Daughter, Gaps, and First Generation.

(USA | 2017 | 86 min)
Sat Oct 13 at 1:00pm-3:00pm
Hanh is a twenty-something Philadelphian disappointed in romantic love and her professional life. Weighed down by an unfulfilling job and her past, she has become wary of making mistakes. Directed by Jason Taylor, Hanh, Solo is a romantic comedy that adopts an episodic, week-in-the-life-of structure that begins at the end of that week – where Hanh awakens in a stranger’s house, her clothes strewn across the room, dreading what she cannot remember….Hanh Nguyen (who co-wrote the film with Taylor) plays the eponymous character with delicacy, nuance, and serrated wit. ~ Eric Nong

(Malaysia | 2017 | 42 min)
Sat Oct 13 at 4:00pm-5:40pm
The Island is a film of social importance and artistic innovation. Shot entirely in Pulau Bidong, it features a remote island off the coast of Malaysia that became the largest and longest-running refugee camp after the Vietnam War. Interwoven with real-life footage of survivors from that military conflict is a fictional story that takes place in a dystopian future in which a lone man on the island is struggling to make sense of his existence and that of humanity. ~ Long Bui

Watch trailer on Vimeo.

(Germany | 2017 | 98 min)
Sun Oct 14 at 3:00pm-6:00pm
Farewell Halong is a personal story of one family that speaks to displaced migrants and people everywhere. Nguyen Van Cuong lives with his wife, mother, and son on a water cabin built on Ha Long Bay, the UNESCO World Heritage site found in northern Vietnam. Despite the poverty here, life is simple and there is a spirit of community among those who follow the daily rhythm of the sea….but when the government plans to relocate this “floating village” to protect the bay from pollution and increase tourism, a major dilemma is raised: Does the family take this opportunity (and get a better education for their son) or risk the life they’ve built over many generations? There is little choice as all residents are eventually forced into public housing on land, which begins to create many problems and deteriorate social bonds. Capturing the human dignity found in survival, Farewell Halong reminds us that no matter where we are, the fight for a home is an ongoing struggle. Screening of the film will precede a special panel discussion on “The Journey Home: Vietnamese Immigration + Identity.” ~ Long Bui

Preceding Farewell Halong, is Limbo (Bị Kẹt), a documentary short film about Tung, a man who was brought to the U.S. as a refugee of the Vietnam War, but is now awaiting deportation as a result of the challenges faced by refugees struggling to integrate into American society. His story is unique and heart-wrenching, but also resonates with 13,000 other Southeast Asian Americans who are also at risk of deportation. This film aims to expose how U.S. structures have set Vietnamese Americans on the trajectory of the school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline, while also highlighting community resistance against these unjust systems.

(Vietnam | 2017 | 93 min)
Sun Oct 14 at 3:40pm-5:50pm
Phước (Phạm Hồng Phước) is a young man who finds work at a restaurant specializing in goat meat. The restaurant, with its century-old architecture and ramshackle condition, houses secrets and burning passions behind its walls. The boss (Hoàng Phúc Nguyễn) wields a laconic dominance over his restaurant domain, which also includes his pretend wife Xiếm Hoa (Ngọc Hiệp), daughter Chu (Ngọc Thanh Tâm), and Phước’s co-workers Miên (Nhan Phúc Vinh) and Ahmed (Hoàng Nhân). Phước, during and after work, talks privately with Chu – whose access to others outside her second-story room is strictly controlled by her father. Intensifying the drama is a love triangle between Chu, Phước, and Miên that ruptures the façade of an obeisant workplace that Chu’s father is trying to establish. ~ Eric Nong

(Vietnam | 2017 | 102 min)
Sun Oct 14 at 7:00pm-9:15pm
Murder in the Lens begins with a murder investigation. Inspector K (Hứa Vĩ Văn), the officer in charge who suffers from a severe case of hypersomnia, is forced into retirement because of an earlier mishap that resulted from his medical condition. Convinced that his colleagues have arrested the wrong man, K sets out on his own search. The quest to find the murderer leads him to a bizarre case of missing children, and draws him further into the darkest depth of the human soul. Murder in the Lens is an impressive debut by writer-director Nguyễn Hữu Hoàng. It is a highly stylized crime-thriller in the tradition of film-noir, and at times, reminiscent of David Fincher’s Zodiac and Boon Jong Ho’s Memories of a Murder. Under cinematographer Trang Công Minh’s lens, the Đà Lạt portrayed here is unlike the Đà Lạt seen in any other Vietnamese film…Aside from being a remarkably polished first film, it is also a huge risk for a first-time director venture into such a new territory for Vietnamese cinema. In this case, the risk has paid off. With Murder in the Lens, Nguyễn Hữu Hoàng has proven himself to be a young filmmaker to be reckoned with. ~ Thien Do

When: October 12-14, 2018
Where: AMC 30 Orange
20 City Blvd. West, Suite E Orange, CA 92868
Website: ​

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