Leaving their homeland for the West, Vietnamese immigrants share their ambitions with most other Asian immigrant communities: the desire for a peaceful life, guaranteed social security, and an open future. However, when making art, people of Vietnamese origin with a past of many losses and changes often come back with questions about identity.
The following five short films are five perspectives revolving around the life of Vietnamese people in the West. Most of them stem from the self-reflection and self-healing of the filmmakers themselves. But at the root, they raise very Vietnamese concerns that most of us can sympathize with.
1. First Generation (2017) — Jeannie Nguyen
As the debut short film by young filmmakers Jeannie Nguyen and Andrew Yuyi Truong, First Generation explores the story of My-Linh, a girl who is torn between the two cultures she belongs to at the same time. The issue of identity crisis not only existed in the ‘90s where the story took place, but also has been a frequent topic of discussion in the community of people who were born and raised as first-generation immigrants.
Without a specific plot, First Generation takes shape through slices of life and the minutiae like changing contact lenses, dyeing hair, or school lunches. My-Linh’s very Vietnamese home is besieged by American pop culture, same as the relentless battle in the main character’s head over her identity.
Along with many other American immigrants, My-Linh is faced with two choices: Change her hair and eye color to make it unnoticed, or stay true to her identity and accept being different.
After First Generation, Jeannie Nguyen and Andrew Yuyi Truong did not stop but continued to delve into other aspects of the same topic. Subsequent films like Sigh Gone, First Generation (2020) are the maturation of both in terms of artistic style, filmmaking techniques, and especially the way of contemplating the young Vietnamese generation in the contemporary social and cultural context.
2. Nước (Water/Homeland) (2016) - Quyen Nguyen-Le
As fluid and multifaceted as the title itself, Nước (Water/Homeland) is a portrait of people who possess multiple identities at the same time. As an experimental film, the work uses the interweaving of present and past, of reality and fantasy, to depict the multidimensional relationship between a Vietnamese-American gay teenager and his roots.
In the film, the issue of gender does not seem to be present, instead it is an exploration of family history through photos and conversations at the dinner table. That is also how director Quyen Nguyen-Le appreciates the Vietnamese culture of love through acts of service. We cook, worry, sympathize instead of saying we love each other. Especially when there is a language gap between family members.
To filmmaker Quyen Nguyen-Le, Nước (Water/Homeland) is the start of a series of her short films such as Queer Vietnameseness, Hoài (Ongoing, Memory). With bold psychological colors and direct reference to social inadequacies, the works of the pioneer Quyen Nguyen-Le depict the difficult but little-known life of many Asians in the LGBT+ community.
3. Where Are You Really From? (2019) — Bao Nguyen
Bao Nguyen is one of the Vietnamese-American filmmakers who have returned to work and made active contributions to Vietnamese cinema in recent years, participated as a producer of Rom (directed by Tran Thanh Huy), and Nuoc 2030 (directed by Minh Nguyen-Vo). Bao Nguyen’s self-directed film Be Water (2020) was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2020 and ESPN television, further confirming his name in the international film market.
However, with Where Are You Really From?, Bao does not tell anyone’s story but his own, a child born in America by Vietnamese boat people. The short documentary is told through the autobiography of him and his parents, which is a combination of many queries about the origin and hometown of all three. He returned to Vietnam not only to find the place where his parents were born, but also to find himself.
The DNA testing scene at the beginning of the film speaks of a common expression of many Asian Americans like Bao, with extreme curiosity about identity. The filmmaker confided in his film: “In America, I felt Vietnamese. But everywhere else in the world, I feel very much American.”
At the end, the results show that he was 100% American, and 100% Vietnamese. Is this somehow confirmed that in people like Bao, the hyphen in an identifier (like Vietnamese-American) should actually be a plus sign?
4. Zoe and Hanh (2020) - Kim Tran
Talking about sex is not easy for Vietnamese people, even on screen. But with Zoe and Hanh, the discussion about this ‘sensitive topic’ between mother and daughter is the main context of the film.
Psychological connection between generations, privacy, and sex education are some of the issues raised through Zoe and Hanh. The film doesn’t have beautiful angles that make us exclaim in awe, but most of it is full of purposeful shots. Perhaps, a little openness is essential before you enter the world of this movie.
Kim Tran not only is the director and screenwriter of this film, but also takes on the main role. Kim’s commitment and courage to the film has contributed to bringing Zoe and Hanh to international short film festivals such as SXSW Film Festival 2020, Palm Springs International ShortFest 2020, Vimeo Staff Pick 2020, and more.
5. No Crying at the Dinner Table (2019) - Carol Nguyen
Not gender or sex, but pain is the most taboo thing to talk about at the dinner table. Traditionally, Vietnamese or most Asian people are often taught about suppressing emotions from a young age. Therefore, the “experiment” that Carol Nguyen created with No Crying at the Dinner Table in her own family was an audio-visual experience that was not only groundbreaking, but also empathetic.
“Intergenerational Trauma” is what one curator used to describe this work. For the film, Carol simply thought about a documentary film, documenting how her parents and sister — who are Vietnamese Canadians — deal with their most secret emotions. The female director interviewed each member, then gathered everyone at the dining table and in turn let them listen to the sharing.
Just like that, the dinner table becomes the place where every nook and cranny of the soul is revealed. And the audience has the opportunity to see their own image through the “healing” process on the screen.
Private, but anyone can empathize, is what makes No Crying at the Dinner Table special. Premiering at Toronto Film Festival 2019 and winning Short Documentary Jury Award at SXSW Film Festival 2020, the film became Carol’s most successful work to date.
Before No Crying at the Dinner Table, Carol’s family also appeared in many other short films directed by the young filmmaker, such as Tundra (2018), Every Grain of Rice (2017), and more. As can be seen, among many topics about immigrants, family and generation are the core concerns of this 1998-born filmmaker.
Adapted by Thao Van