As the Hollywood studios descend on Vietnam to film their latest blockbusters, the independent moviemakers are also on site. R. Gabriel Villalobos talks to Jay Rao, the man behind a new Vietnamese short, Unforgettable
For people who watch their share of foreign films Asia has always had so much to offer. Director Zhang Yimou (China) is an international favourite but Vietnamese film, among foreign audiences, has belonged to Tran Anh Hung, a Vietnamese-born French director. He’s famous for what has come to be known as his Vietnamese Trilogy. Three films in the 1990s that are not part of the same narrative, but all feature Vietnam and its culture as a central element.
Film lovers who move to Vietnam might feel a bit deflated by what is found playing in theatres. Most local movies that get released seem to be romantic comedies or ghost stories. Until 2010 that is, when a movie called Floating Lives hit the screens. Based on a novel called The Eternal Rice Field, the story is of a poor, broken family that finds itself living on a boat to raise ducks on the Mekong River. The movie was an unexpected plunge into drama, nuance and tragedy. For many, it represented the exciting arrival of naturalism to Vietnamese cinema that they had been hoping for. It was full of the texture and sadness of life among the less fortunate. This film was 100 percent a product of Vietnam. It seemed like filmmakers here were finally rising to the challenge of naturalistic storytelling. Sadly, very little has been done to follow up on that promise.
Enter Jay Rao
Four years ago Toronto-based director, Jay Rao, moved to Vietnam. One thing led to another and he ended up shooting a film here. Rao agreed to meet to talk about his new Vietnamese short titled Unforgettable. The story is of a man who has an accident and wakes up with no memory of who he is or what his life is all about. Rao is not a tall man but he’s very fit, and well groomed. He looks like the kind of guy who would challenge you to a game of racquetball just to show you how easily he can whip your ass.
Once you get him talking it’s easy to tell he is Canadian, he’s just that nice. After sitting down, he began with a bit of Star Wars small talk — he confessed that he’s eager to see the new film. He continued by talking about the process he’s going through with his music composer to finish his piece that is now in post-production. He describes the difficulty he’s experiencing in communicating his needs to the guy who is writing all the music for his film.
With visible tension, Rao admits: “I don’t speak the language of a musician.”
It’s tough for him to know how a mood should translate into music and sound. It’s tougher still to convey it in e-mails or over the phone. Still, he expects everything to be finished and ready for viewing this month, and plans to have the first screening party shortly thereafter.
The World is Ready…
The teaser trailer on his YouTube channel is conspicuously lacking Foley (normal background) sound, yet it still manages to be compelling. The sound design is one of the final details being polished up in post-production. This is his eighth short film but his first time working in Vietnam. Rao believes that the world is ready to see films from Vietnam, but that international audiences aren’t really interested in the slapstick or ghost stories that dominate the local box offices.
He doesn’t see his audience as limited to the foreign market either. “I think people’s tastes are changing here,” he tells me. “It’s happening in India too.”
Rao’s parents are originally from India but moved to Canada in the 1960s. India is known for its Bollywood musicals that were the only things getting made for a long time. Today there is a blossoming interest in films that tell more realistic, gritty stories of day-to-day life and the extraordinary things that can happen in that context.
The movie Slumdog Millionaire was an ambitious crossover that told an Indian story for international audiences and ended up winning the Academy Awards for best cinematography and best picture. That was a film that wasn’t supported by any major American film studio. While he is clearly not implying that he expects his work to grab an Oscar, he still sees every reason to be optimistic that the film will be good and audiences here and abroad will like it.
He goes on to say how excited he was to work with relatively unknown actors here. He found them to be competent professionals who gave him everything the story needed.
When asked about his concerns, he says: “I’m a natural-born worrier. One thing I don’t want is for Vietnamese people to see the film and feel like it’s unnatural.”
He wants his hand as a foreign director to be more or less undetectable. He doesn’t want people here to watch and think “Vietnamese people don’t say things like that,” or “I would never do this”.
His project has already caught the eye of foreign investors who are excited by the prospect of making a full-length feature film in Vietnam. They want to make something fresh and original that will stand as a memorable piece of art and at the same time be successful in reaching foreign audiences at festivals and by selling rights to various countries. With King Kong set to film in Vietnam early this year, Rao is showing us that the sandbox is not exclusive to big-budget studio pictures. There is every chance for small projects to come here and tell stories, including Vietnamese ones.
To see the trailer, click on YouTube and search for Unforgettable Film Trailer 3