Cinema Little Saigon: A Retrospective

In 2015, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, I curated a retrospective of films directed by Vietnamese Americans. The hope was to steer commemorations away from narratives of American military heroism and toward the experiences of those who experienced, critiqued, and remembered the event and its after-effects as refugees in the United States. The package, entitled Cinema Little Saigon, included feature films, experimental work, documentaries, and short films. After premiering at the SDAFF Spring Showcase in April 2015, the retrospective traveled to the Houston APA Film Festival (June 2015) and the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival (Nov. 2015). To supplement and enhance the Cinema Little Saigon film series, I also compiled a list of feature films directed by Vietnamese Americans, as well as a bibliography of suggested readings about Vietnamese American cinema.

The following is the introductory essay for the series.

For the refugee, anniversaries are just numbers.

For governments – whether of the southern Republic of Vietnam which lost, the northern Socialist Republic of Vietnam which took control, or the United States which retreated – the Fall of Saigon was a pivotal day and this year’s 40th anniversary a moment of reflection, celebration, or commemoration. There will be tributes to heroes, living and fallen, and flashbacks to the critical events of April 30, 1975.

But the refugee knows that there were pivotal moments that preceded that day, and the refugee knows that turmoil did not end with the capture of Saigon. Wars within families continued to rage even when the bombing ended – some in prison camps, some on U.S. military bases, some in the Little Saigons all over the world. For the refugee, 40 years is not as significant as time measured in months held in detention centers, weeks stranded on boats, hours spent in English classes, or those critical seconds that replay over and over in the mind – seconds that made the difference of family unity or survival itself. For the refugee, the 40th anniversary is but one of many anniversaries that dot a life thrust onto multiple continents: birthdays that mark endurance, graduations that certify achievement, and moments of silence that bear witness to the private grief of the living.

This year, flags will be hoisted as they have been on every anniversary. The victors will celebrate, the anti-communists will mourn, and the U.S. will continue to remember their humanitarian efforts in “saving” refugees. But these events must also remind us of the narratives that go silent, namely those of refugees who are now Vietnamese Americans, participants in civic culture and neighbors in areas like San Diego’s City Heights. Their narratives draw attention to the lived and ongoing experience of displacement, narratives that represent Vietnamese Americans as lively, desiring, and imaginative, and not simply as collateral damage or as confirmations of the American dream.

As is expected whenever trauma is so near, much of this silence has been self-imposed. Refugees often want to move on and not dwell on a tortured past. So it has been the 1.5 and 2nd generation Vietnamese Americans who have started interrogating family silence or America’s version of events. This generation includes documentarians like Doan Hoang, who turned her camera on her parents, asking questions about unspoken extended family. Her resulting documentary OH, SAIGON is a powerful first-person account of her U.S. family and its relationship to home.

This generation also includes director Ham Tran, who, after completing a number of acclaimed short films at UCLA, brought together Vietnamese American artists, financiers, and community members who wanted their story finally told on screen. The resulting feature JOURNEY FROM THE FALL is an epic patched together from dozens of family stories – the sort of stories usually only half-told and half-remembered, now made permanent on celluloid for the entire community.

That imperative to tell one’s story, to gain command of film style, and to produce films that bring people together has made Vietnamese filmmakers some of the most visible and accomplished of all Asian American storytellers. Their films have played around the world, collecting film festival prizes and impressing audiences from Sundance to Berlin. Many of these filmmakers, especially those hailing from Orange County, have banded together as regular collaborators. They work on each other’s films, they help get the word out, and through the support of estimable organizations like the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association (VAALA), they have created a network to nurture new voices and further conversations about film and community.

So this year, Pacific Arts Movement highlights the so-called “Viet Wave” with “Cinema Little Saigon,” a film retrospective that celebrates the cinematic achievements of Vietnamese American filmmakers, in particular those whose films complicate the usual narrative of refugee rescue and the great success of a model minority. In film after film, history refuses to close its doors. In CATFISH AND BLACK BEAN SAUCE, JOURNEY FROM THE FALL, and OH, SAIGON, reunion only unearths ripples in ingrained notions of family and home. The U.S. is not represented as merely a refuge, but also a space of further obstacles, rejection, and alienation. Culture in the diasporic sense is revealed in all of its mythic strangeness, as in Nguyen Tan Hoang’s COVER GIRL. Nearly all of the films consider the Vietnamese American experience cross-racially; for instance, Adele Pham’s #NAILEDIT explores the phenomenon of Vietnamese nail salons as they exploded with the help of African American partners and clientele.

Despite these common thematic threads, what makes the Vietnamese American film scene such a dynamic one is how diverse and adaptable its voices are. These films refract memory and experience through a number of creative modes and genres: cross-cultural comedy, historical epic, intimate drama, first-person documentary, experimental video. Spatially, they follow footsteps unencumbered by circumstance – across continents, from private into public spheres, from ethnic enclaves into the mainstream and back again. This is well-exemplified thematically in many of the independent films, but also on an industrial level with “Viet Kieu films,” productions helmed by Vietnamese Americans but produced in and for Vietnam. The Viet Kieu films represent a new cosmopolitanism enabled by the normalization of US-Vietnamese relations in the 1990s and the coming-of-age of a generation once-removed from the thorny politics of war. Films like the Dostoevsky adaptation GENTLE, directed by Le-Van Kiet and starring Dustin Nguyen, boldly imagine haunting, death, and memory in Vietnam through a diasporic lens and via a parable of world literature.

Inspired by the pioneering new scholarship of Yen Le Espiritu and the continued cultural work of VAALA, this retrospective draws attention not only to the classics of Vietnamese American cinema, but to the cities and neighborhoods that have inspired these works, places like City Heights in San Diego, where Vietnamese Americans now share spaces with newer refugees from Africa to the Middle East. Hence “Cinema Little Saigon”: like “Chinatown” as much a frame of mind as it is a geographic designation, as much a well of cinematic creativity and aspiration as it is a megaplex or community theater. Whatever the anniversary, this cinema measures its vitality through the communities it’s bridged, the audiences it’s awakened, and the artists it continues to inspire.

Watching Golden Slumbers at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival

This was a blog post I did for the SDAFF website in 2012, but it disappeared during one of our many website migrations.

Long Beach’s Art Theatre is 12 miles from my childhood home in Cerritos, California. That makes the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival’s three days of screenings there my closest film festival outings from where I grew up.

Earlier this year, I saw Davy Chou’s excellent new documentary GOLDEN SLUMBERS at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, about as distant from Cerritos as is geographically possible. Seeing it yesterday in Long Beach, I was reminded of why film, which takes us around the world through images and stories, is nevertheless a powerful prism for thinking about home.

Director Davy Chou is a young Parisian of Cambodian ancestry. He’d always heard that he had a grandfather in the old Cambodian film industry, but only recently probed deeper, learning from his aunt that his grandfather was hitmaker Van Chann, who produced films in Cambodia during the 1960s and 70s. This led Chou to Cambodia, where he confronted the ghosts of the “Golden Age” of filmmaking, when 400 films were made in 15 years, but only a few of which have survived the devastating Khmer Rouge era.

Chou’s documentary revisits those years, lingering on images of old spaces (theaters-emptied-out, movie palaces-turned-karaoke bars) and sounds of an era (radio transmissions of film trailers, pop songs engraved on vinyl and digitized for YouTube). The era is evoked through memories of those who made the films, those who idolized the stars, and those who remembered fleeing war through cinema. It’s a film that is, by design, in need of “filling in.” In the absence of footage from the films of the period, Chou stages shadows of the Golden Age: film narratives are recalled through the fog of memory, special effects are evoked obliquely and jokingly, movie faces are remembered through newsprint and fading posters. Collectively, they form a fuzzy picture that we as 21st century filmgoers can fill in so that the Cambodian Golden Age can be resurrected and survive.

Everyone pictures those missing films differently. But I’m sure the images conjured by audience-goers in the Art Theatre auditorium not far away from the stretch of Long Beach called “Little Cambodia” were unlike most imagined by audiences in cities like Berlin, Sydney, or Santa Barbara, where the film had previously played. During the Khmer Rouge period of 1975-79, Long Beach became one of the world’s biggest destinations for Cambodian refugees. These were populations who brought Cambodian culture to the United States not through their possessions but through memories of everyday life, including of cinema.

The Q&A after the Long Beach screening of GOLDEN SLUMBERS was more than a filmmaker meet-and-greet, it was a conjuring of ghosts. Multiple audience members recalled seeing no-longer-extant films like The Snake King’s Wife. Some were in their teens or younger in the 1960s and 70s and had hazy memories of the period. But some had strong ties. One was, like Chou, a descendant of a Golden Age filmmaker featured in the film. In the most powerful moment of the discussion, one man walked down the long Art Theatre aisle to talk, in quivers as if he’d been waiting years to do so, about his friendship with Sun Bun Ly, one of the pioneers of Cambodian cinema.

But this was not simply a group recollection of the “homeland.” The Q&A was not only a séance for the glorious past, discoursing with figures who predated war and migration. It was about Long Beach itself. Some audience members remembered seeing some of the surviving films on VHS, pointing to Mary’s Video on Little Cambodia’s Anaheim Street. The younger generation of Cambodian Americans talked about the classics as integral parts of their upbringing as Americans in an immigrant society. And the man who made the trek down the aisle talked about Sun Bun Ly’s later life in the United States, where he had filmmaking plans that stretched beyond the Khmer Rouge and into the streets of Los Angeles County. Director Davy Chou’s role was less as a filmmaker being questioned and more a fellow young person possessing cultural memories that have traversed generations and continents. His film is also about Paris, and the story of a filmmaker who tried unsuccessfully to bring seven prints there in the 1970s, or the story of a Golden Age director whose sadness about the period is shaped by his sense of loss while living in Paris, where he later became a taxi driver.

And the period survives in Little Cambodia and its circles. During the post-screening discussion, Chou talked about a rare Golden Age print found in nearby Norwalk, just a stone’s throw away from my old house in Cerritos. During the screening and after, GOLDEN SLUMBERS awakened the past, but also the present in all of its cultural layers, thickened by stasis, confluence, and imagination. The film came alive for me in ways that it couldn’t when I saw it at a mall megaplex in Hong Kong. Seeing it in Long Beach made me rethink my own neighborhood, its own contours and its own specters. That we had all arrived there, across eight thousand miles during the most oppressive regimes of the 20th century, or over the 5000 miles to get to Long Beach from Paris, or even just the 12 I took to drive over from my parent’s house, and that we all came to see the digital beam deliver flickers of half-summoned stories is a testament to the will to remember and the majesty of the film experience.