Earlier this summer, Eric Nong and the curatorial committee for the Viet Film Fest out of Orange County, California were attempting to reimagine what an event might look like after having to cancel in 2020 as a result of COVID-19. Though the introduction of a vaccine meant they could hold out hope for an in-person event, it was likely that they would have to rethink their programming for the online space and rather than lament the impossibility of bringing together the Vietnamese community as they had before, they looked at it as an opportunity to open up the experience on an even larger scale and speak to what was going on in the world at large.
“We were thinking that we’re probably going to be attracting a lot of people from not just Southern California, but beyond, and even internationally who have never heard of us before, have no idea what this is like and who may be more casual filmgoers,” said Viet Film Fest artistic director Eric Nong. “We also were considering that a lot of these films had to do with a personal loss, whether it was of a loved one or a way of life. And obviously you can’t headline a festival saying, ‘The theme of our festival is about loss,’ but it is an undercurrent that runs beneath a lot of these sets.”
More than anything else, this year’s edition of the Viet Film Festival is bound to be an energizing event, not only showing resilience in the face of trying times, but forging a sense of connection between Vietnamese communities that have spread out around the globe. Having just gotten underway as both a physical and virtual event, able to be enjoyed anywhere in the U.S. and most films available anywhere in world through October 24th, the event follows up a successful test run in June that grouped together a quartet of films built around the theme of family “Under the Same Roof,” and laid the groundwork for a program that will make audiences feel at home, whether they watch online where films — all launching at a set time, followed by a seven-day window to view — will be accompanied by the traditional film fest experience with introductions, filmmaker Q & As and other special accoutrements all bearing the personal touch or make the trek out of the house to one of the in-person events such as a screening of the international hit “Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry)” at the Frida Cinema in Santa Ana (October 16th at 6 pm) and a drive-in screening “Raya and the Last Dragon” at the Westminster Mall (Oct. 30th at 7 pm).
There is indeed, an entire shorts program devoted to losing loved ones called “Saying Goodbye,” featuring among others Julian Doan’s bittersweet comedy “Raspberry” — as Nong put it beautifully, “When you suffer a personal loss, you experience something closer to the fullness of your humanity and you can empathize better with others when they go through their own loss — but the Viet Film Fest is built around being a celebration of life, kicking off its festivities with an afternoon screening on October 16th of Le Minh Hoang’s “Sài Gòn Trong Cơn Mưa (Saigon in the Rain)” (at the Frida Cinema in Santa Ana, screening simultaneously online at 3 pm PST), a romance set in the heart of Vietnam that reminded the fest’s artistic director of the dazzling Vicente Minnelli musicals of the 1950s. It isn’t the only film in the lineup where music can be seen as a lifeline, as Tina Huynh and James Rael’s “Songs of Little Saigon” (Oct. 18 online at 11 am PST) tells of refugees who restarted their lives in Southern California after being forced to flee during the Vietnam War and found solace in carrying their music with them.
With a gap year, there was also greater pressure on the Viet Film Fest selection committee to cull the gems from two years’ worth of submissions rather than one, on one hand allowing for the fest to recognize the past 18 months which has been a watershed moment for filmmakers from the Vietnamese diaspora, with “Be Water,” Bao Nguyen’s biography of Bruce Lee (Oct. 17th online, accompanied by a panel at 11 am PST), and “No Crying at the Dinner Table,” Carol Nguyen’s SXSW-award-winning shot doc (Oct. 17th online at 11 am PST), both part of the lineup while making for some tough choices in terms of the discoveries the festival prides itself on. If Nong needed proof how important that balance is in the selection, he only needed to think about what it meant when the festival booked Tran’s “The Paper Tigers” to take center stage on October 23rd.
“That will be the director’s first entry to Viet Film Fest since 2009,” said Nong. “And one of Bao’s earliest films was the very first Viet Film Fest in 2003, as well and I’ve had the privilege to see some of that evolution from his early, rough around the edges short films to ‘The Paper Tigers,’ where martial arts is in there, but it takes dimensions that you don’t see in his earlier work and you can see that growth there over time. We definitely have more than a handful of filmmakers who are returning to Viet Film Fest after a bit of time, and [with] ‘Paper Tigers’ he’s not the only one who that can be tracked for.”
“It’s a very emotional ride,” Nong said. “And I think there’s a lot that film has to say, among other things, [about] the Vietnamese American refugee experience and some of the internalized racism and the beauty standards that a lot of Asian Americans feel they have to uphold, seeing what’s out there.”
Undoubtedly, it’ll provoke conversation, which is true of any film in the lineup, and while that’s always an exchange that Viet Film Fest has always facilitated, it truly is going where it hasn’t gone before in this unprecedented edition.