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Vietnam's Mark Trân and Lê Van Kiêt

valaa.org
Text by: Thao Nguyen
6 min

The young Vietnamese director Phan Dang Di is competing at Cannes for the Caméra d'or prize in the Critics' Week selection, but there is a fine selection of other young expatriate Vietnamese directors.

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These young, independent directors from the Viet kiêu diaspora in America address the problem of passing on their heritage in the dual culture of the diaspora.

Some are self-taught, others went to America’s best universities. In choosing to go into film, they have all gone against the wishes of their families.

Ask any Vietnamese parent what they hope their child will do, and you will get the same answer in the same order: ideally a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer ... in the worst case scenario, a pharmacist or a computer scientist. 

Young director Mark Trân, 25, learnt this lesson. He started a degree in medicine in St Jose on the advice of his parents, then he changed to computer science before becoming an assistant director.

He loved making films so much that he decided to go behind the camera and make his first film Binary City in 2007. But the film that brought him recognition at Asian film festivals across America was All about Dad.

Trân has imbued his writing with his own experience, selecting the spiciest elements and seasoning them with a hint of fierce humour. All about Dad tells the story of a Vietnamese family living in California. The father, a practising Catholic, bleeds himself dry to ensure success for his children.

The youngest son studies medicine, but secretly dreams of making films. One of the daughters sees herself as a singer in a TV talent contest. Another doesn’t dare to tell her family that she wants to marry a man whose main shortcoming is that he is a devout Buddhist.

Family dinners quickly turn into a battlefield. The parents leave the house in confusion; not only do they have to deal with a rebellion inside, but also they have to cope with their bad-tempered American neighbours. The tidy house and the perfect garden are just a facade for real harmony.

In the new world, the father with his old-fashioned values is quickly left behind; his words seem like no more than evangelical ranting since his children have become converted to the sacred trinity of Facebook, blogging and iPods.

Trân’s film is more than just a family chronicle; its well-paced and masterful narrative speaks to many people.

The communication between the generations is not a problem that’s unique to Asian families; it is the common denominator between many immigrants.

Overturning the traditional family values, Trân goes against the precepts of Confucius. In his view, the individual advances by stepping on the rest of the group. If everyone has to keep his proper place and silently overlook his own aspirations to preserve family harmony, then lies are nothing more than unspoken truths.

In another, but equally poignant, vein, Dust of life by the young director Lê Van Kiêt has prompted heated debate about the diaspora. Lê Van Kiêt left Vietnam when he was very young and grew up in California. He chose to go to film school, in spite of his family’s reservations. He went to UCLA and finished top of his class.

After that he began his first long film. Dust of life, a fictional work filmed like a documentary, is a dense, bleak film tracing the lives of unemployed young Vietnamese in their adoptive country.

The 1990s marked the second wave of Vietnamese immigration to the US. Some are Boat People, others came to join their families or thanks to Humanitarian Organization, a humanitarian charity for war veterans.

Some of these late-comers find it difficult to integrate. The El Dorado they had dreamt of is just an illusion, the success the first immigrants go on about does not exist for them, and finding themselves a place in the sun has become difficult as the space is taken and the competition is tough.

The parents take on several jobs in order to make ends meet and have little time for their families. The children are left to themselves and they sink quickly into delinquency, gangs and crime, especially as they want to make easy money.

Based on a true story, Dust of life says loudly what many have been thinking in silence. The director shines a light on a phenomenon that the Vietnamese community in Orange County might have wished had remained in the shadows.

It’s an uncompromising portrait of disenchanted youth. It is disturbing because it puts paid to a lot of clichés: the Vietnamese are not all hard-working; the black sheep are given a voice.

Dust of life shows an independence and an openness of spirit, defying taboos imposed by a silent majority and trampling on the rules of polite society and political correctness. The success of the Vietnamese in America is not without its dark side.

From Nadine Truong (Shadow man) to Nguyen Minh Duc (Touch), from Victor Vu (The Anniversary) to Dô Khoa (Footy legend), the young talents try to stay true to their original projects.

Unlike their older counterparts, their cinematic vision is based very much in the present, portraying the world they live in. They do not get bogged down in ideologies and they do not necessarily talk of the Vietnam war.

Most of them are part of the one and a half generation, somewhere between their parents, the first generation, and the children of the next generation, who are completely assimilated because they were born in America.

Their double culture can create identity conflicts - an important inspiration for their work. This phenomenon is even more obvious in literature, both novels and short stories.

Following the example of Nam Lê with his collection of stories The Boat, other Vietnamese emigres are casting a wise and liberal eye over the problem of inter-generational communication.


Biography of Mark Trân

  • 1985: Born in the United States.
  • 2004: Abandons medical studies to make films.
  • 2005: Assistant director, editor (Glory Boys Day, Promise Me).
  • 2007: Writes and directs first film, Binary City.
  • 2009: Directs All about Dad.
  • 2010: In pre-production for third film, Saigon CA.

Prizes

  • First prize at the Los Angeles  Asia-Pacific Film Festival.
  • Best young director at the Asian Film Festival in San Diego.
  • Public Prize at the US Cinequest Festival.

 
Biography of Lê Van Kiêt

  • 1978: Born in Vietnam.
  • 1980: Moves to California aged two.
  • 2005: Scholarship at UCLA film and television department.
  • 2007: Best student film in his class with the short film The Silence.
  • 2008: Directs first long film Dust of life.
  • 2010: Just finished second long film Sad Fish.

Prizes

  • First prize for a short film at the Vietnam film festival.
  • Jury prize from the Vietnamese American Film Industry.
  • Nominated for best newcomer at the Austin Film Festival.

 

 

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