In our new “On The Seas” series, we catch up with Overseas Vietnamese, or Việt Kiều, whose roots are connected to their current country of residence and whose identities and perspectives were shaped by the country they came from.
To kick off, Vietcetera sat down for a chat with Jenni Trang Le, a Vietnamese-American living in Vietnam for the past 11 years. Jenni grew up in the suburbs of Houston, Texas in a predominantly white neighborhood. It wasn’t until she moved to California in her high school years that her cousin introduced her to Vietnamese culture.
From there, Jenni got involved with various Vietnamese communities which eventually led her to the film industry in Vietnam working on such films as Lôi Báo (2017) and Bụi Đời Chợ Lớn (2013), as well as co-producing Ròm, which won the top award at the 2019 Busan International Film Festival. Just recently, Jenni started in her new role as the Head of Production with POPS Worldwide, a media platform.
How did you get into Vietnam’s film industry? What was your career path like?
I wanted to become a spoken word poet but kind of fell into film instead. In 1999, I joined a Vietnamese-American theatre troupe called Club O’ Noodles, made up of 1.5 and second generation Vietnamese Americans. I met Ham Tran there who started me as a production assistant for films. Then in 2015, when working with Charlie Nguyen at Vanson Entertainment, he asked me to go to Vietnam to be his first Assistant Director for The Rebel (Dòng máu anh hùng).
Being bilingual and having worked both in the US and Vietnam, I started getting a lot of gigs and would go back and forth between LA and Vietnam once or twice a year. When Jimmy Nghiem Pham, head of Chanh Phuong Films, asked me to go to Vietnam and be an in-house producer for him for a year, I thought why not! Obama was just elected President and I felt like America was in good hands.
One year turned into 11.5 years as I quickly realized how much opportunity there was in Vietnam. There is something very satisfying about working in your native tongue with your people. I’m not saying all my films are Oscar winning, but they all have a message that I can stand behind.
Growing up in a white neighborhood in Texas and reconnecting with your Vietnamese roots relatively late in life, how has that shaped your identity as a Viet Kieu?
First off, the term “Viet Kieu” refers to the Vietnamese returning; as in having grown up in Vietnam, leaving and then coming back. I’m more of a “Mỹ gốc Việt” – an American with deep Vietnamese roots.
Coming here made me understand my parents better. Growing up, I was super close to my ông bà ngoại (grandparents) but I didn’t know anything about my heritage. The Vietnamese diaspora can be very divided: for the older generation you’re either Communist or Anti-Communist. I think a lot of the younger generation get frustrated when trying to “bridge” the gap.
I believe there are two types of immigrant families: you are either taught about the REAL Vietnamese flag or that the war is over and you should study hard and be successful, no dwelling on the past. The latter was my family.
I moved to California when I was 14 to live with my father’s side of the family where I got “Vietnamized”: tossed into an áo dài, did my first fan dance… and this Vietnamification continued when I went to UCLA and started taking Asian American classes.
Then, just as I was starting to get a handle on my identity of a minority fighting for rights and a voice in the larger American whiteness, I moved to Vietnam where now I was… American. But that’s the beauty of it. It gives me great fodder for poetry and stories and I’m a more well rounded person for it.
I got a tattoo of an origami elephant on April 30th, 2015 to commemorate the 40th year anniversary of “the fall of Saigon” (aka the “Day of Liberation”) as a reminder of this new path I have chosen and that will continue to twist and turn. Since elephants never forget.
What does it mean to be a working woman in the film industry as well as a Viet Kieu? What impact does your identity make in terms of representation or career advancement?
When I first came here I got bonus points for being from America, but I quickly made it clear that I’m here to learn and grow together. As a Viet Kieu, the obvious weakness is certain “taste” in humor, in dialogue. I’m always trying to better myself but I’ll always have my accent and my sensibilities.
In Vietnam, because the country started off as a matriarchal society before it became a “man’s world”, there’s a lot of respect for women in the film industry. In fact, most of the big film companies here are run by women.
Before 1975 the Vietnamese film industry was very strong. We were the “pearl of Indochine”. But after the war it needed to be rebuilt. In 2009, when I first came here, there were very few feature films produced a year – under 10. Now there are over 60.
Before films were only released during Tet, now it’s every month. So I feel like it was definitely timing and destiny that brought me to Saigon and because I grew alongside the community, I was able to advance rather quickly.
To date, I’ve produced 14 feature films in addition to music videos, documentaries, and commercials, which is kind of crazy in an 11.5 year span. It’s beautiful to see the young generation come up, so eager, spirited, creative, unique, and talented. I feel like an elder!
Your company co-produced Ròm, a controversial film and the first Vietnamese movie to win the top award at the 2019 Busan International Film Festival. What does this win mean for the nation?
One of the missions of EAST Films is to help cultivate the next generation of filmmakers in Vietnam. The success of Ròm is an inspiration to everyone. It took 8 years to shoot, with Tran Thanh Huy, the director, pausing when he would run out of funds to shoot some commercials, make some money and come back to shooting. HK Films, a leading production house, gave Huy the most support, with EAST Films, particularly Bao Nguyen, coming in with the final touches.
Ròm’s domestic success is already a surprising win (since there were no “stars” tied to it and the film being a truly indie project), but it was the win in Busan that really helped push it into the limelight.
To the larger international audience Vietnam is still rice paddies and war or super sleek and new. The subject matter in Ròm is a fresh and gritty look at the urban streets and apartment buildings that are slowly being bought up by big developers. Ròm shows the world that there are many stories in Vietnam waiting to be told.
Do you have any advice for aspiring young people who want to enter the film industry or switch careers?
I would say, try all kinds of projects as production assistants, interns, runners to get a feel for the film set. See what department tickles your fancy. Whether you’re more into development (writers) or post-production (editing, vfx, sound engineer) and marketing, it’s important to get some on-set experience.
Vietnamese filmmaking industry has a wonderful spirit of camaraderie. We all call each other and help each other. And we’re always looking for new talent. You just need to reach out. Be persistent. Work for free. Learn for free. See where you fit in and eventually you will find the right place for you.