Bao Nguyen: How a Vietnamese-American Director Got Started Making Movies in Vietnam
After playing a hand in documentaries that were featured on media including HBO and the New York Times, and others that won awards at international film festivals, Bao Nguyen decided he had enough experience under his belt for a new challenge in Vietnam.
So he booked his one-way trip to Vietnam in 2011. And he hasn’t looked back since.
Even though he considers Ho Chi Minh City his home base, Bao has commuted back and forth between Vietnam and the United States every month for the last two years for projects. In 2014, he was based in Vietnam working as the producer and cinematographer of the sci-feature Nuoc 2030, which premiered at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival. In 2015, he spent most of his time in New York, directing “Live from New York”, a documentary looking back at 40 years of the American institution, Saturday Night Live. That film was selected as the opening night film of the Tribeca Film Festival. This year, he is back and forth, working on a new documentary about another American icon. Next year, Bao plans to make his feature directorial debut in Vietnam with the Cannes-winning producers of American Honey.
We take the time to sit down with Bao, to learn about where Vietnamese media is headed and how his time in Vietnam has helped define his own artistic identity as a Vietnamese-American.
What led you to Ho Chi Minh City?
I’ve been coming here with my parents since 1992.
The first time I arrived, I have to admit, I was a bit stand-offish. Meeting all your family that you had never met before was weird. It was also my family’s first time coming back after leaving in 1978. There was a strange sense of home.
After that, I came back every two to three years. I experienced Saigon in different ways professionally on every visit. After 2010, I started mapping out a plan to come to Vietnam for work. In 2011, I made the move to live here. It was and is still semi-permanent. I’m always traveling to New York and around Asia for projects.
What were some of your first media projects in Vietnam?
I met my first contact in Vietnam, Stephane Gauger, through Anderson Le, the artistic director at Visual Communications, an organization which helps connect Asian-American storytellers. When I met them, it was a new experience for me. I ended up working on “Saigon Yo!,” which offers a fresh perspective on youth in Saigon.
For me though, finding a Asian-specific community was refreshing. It was new. It helped me find and tell the story of Vietnam that people weren’t seeing.
With my Western upbringing and Vietnamese heritage, it presented an opportunity to work with like-minded people in America. That experience proved to be the catalyst for me to move to Vietnam.
It was here in Vietnam that I met my girlfriend Suboi for the first time. She was about to release her first album and her song was on the soundtrack for “Saigon Yo”. Her team contacted our film crew and alongside my colleagues Elizabeth Ai and Danny Do, we shot her first music video.
While many say work is merit-based in America, in media there are definitely more opportunities afforded to people that are given them. In Vietnam, more opportunity is given to people that are good at their work and passionate about their goals.
Lots of people have this idea of Vietnam of just being war and rice paddies. To see the emerging youth culture is something that is eye opening to many Americans.
What does the media industry look like in Vietnam?
Many people won’t watch or support Vietnamese movies. Why? Because the ones that people will watch are romantic comedies. But those are dry stories. For movie makers in Vietnam, these types of films make a lot of money with a little bit of budget.
Because we live in a YouTube generation, and we’re shown American blockbuster films, the stories coming out of Vietnam media aren’t where they can be.
A lot of young Vietnamese are just looking to direct or become cinematographers. There are few that want to become editors or script writers. It’s changing for sure, but there are points that it has digressed.
We’re starting to see more people tell stories that people wanted to tell. It’s not just about making mainstream commercial films.
But if it’s the only thing being made, it’s digression. In Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, there was a huge popular wave for 80s cinema. It went through waves. Vietnam is the same. Lots of comedies that make money. But the quality is trending down.
Any exciting new projects rolling out soon?
I just finished writing the first draft of a fiction script. Previously I worked on documentary films and directing, now I’m moving into producing fiction films. My recent project was Nuoc 2030, a science fiction romance drama. In the future, I’m looking at directing my own feature fiction films.
I choose my projects so that I’m never rushing to hit deadlines. When I’m given the right opportunities, I’ll be ready to work on them. There’s always a certain window when I’m ready and the project opportunity makes sense.
My advice for first-time project filmmakers is that you have to create something that is representative of yourself as an artist. From there, you can define yourself a bit more.
What were some of your initial struggles in Vietnam and how did you overcome it?
My experience at first was full of typical first world problems.
When I first visited Vietnam at 9 years old, we stayed in a hotel that my uncle had booked us. There were no photos in the booking receipt. It was really ghetto.
When I turned on the shower, millions of ants flowed up the drain. It was my first memory of Vietnam. Everything after that was a piece of cake.
My other first world struggle is finding a good burger. Luckily, I’ve found a good place now. When I first started living in Vietnam, I went to Hard Rock a lot because it was the only place serving a decent burger. The atmosphere sucks, but I stuck with it for a while. Fortunately, there’s been a good burger game recently.
Living in Ho Chi Minh City is very similar to New York City on an energy level. So I haven’t had to adapt too much in that respect.
What restaurants and cafes can someone spot you in Ho Chi Minh City?
Hard Rock? Thankfully not anymore.
L’Usine is another one. When it just opened, I went all the time.
And now? I go to Maison Marou. Get a cold chocolate drink. Pizza 4P’s for lunch or dinner. Other than that, Su and I like to eat street food.
Can you tell us one memorable story growing up in America that you’ll always remember?
For many Americans, and I know other Nguyens can sympathize, my last name is difficult to pronounce. During my first few years of school, I dreaded attendance roll call. The worst.
Luckily I lived in diverse city. That meant there were plenty of other people with complicated names. The student ahead of me was a Liberian immigrant, her name was Edtience Neblett. It was always butchered. Mine was up next, which was also butchered.
The other kids would always laugh.
It sounds funny to say, but I created a bond with the other immigrant students this way. It was much easier to assimilate when others around me were going through simple problems like pronouncing our names. It helped shape my American experience.
Who should I talk to next?
My friend Linh Truong. He helped start Lazada and ZALORA here in Vietnam.
He’s been here for 7 years, originally from New York. He comes from the same New Yorker come Vietnam background. But through a different perspective, as a lawyer. He can talk about creative ideas and put them into context within the legal infrastructure of Vietnam. He’s a bit low key so good luck getting him!