Note: The second round of the Vietnamese International Film Festival kicked off yesterday, and the final curtains drop on Sunday, April 17.  The third ViFF event won’t take place till 2013, so be sure to check out the site and make a note of which films you can attend before it comes to an end.  Here are some musings on the Vietnamese cinema to keep you in a pensive movie-going mode in the mean time.

Asian Americans have it hard in Hollywood. I’ve tackled this issue more than enough times.

But why is it that there are so many great Vietnamese movies like Clash and Saigon Electric (pictured below), but they’re not being distributed in theaters around the country and getting the recognition other dance and action movies (whether good or bad) often do?  Sure, there’s always been a dearth of foreign films in mainstream American theaters, but why do Vietnamese films hardly get a glance?

The first reason is easy. Western media does a horrible job at displaying “Eastern media.”  Whether it’s the general opinion of Americans or a blinded viewpoint of Hollywood, Western media doesn’t see a market for Eastern faces. You rarely see Asian Americans starring in films or casted at extras. It’s even rarer to see an all-Asian cast speaking a language other than English making the Hollywood rounds. The rare case was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon really getting wide public notice, but have we seen any other Asian film generate as much buzz since then? Nope.

In the past, instead of embracing Asian American stars, a lack of attention from Hollywood has sent even the most marketable Asian faces back to Asia to pursue modeling and acting despite an American upbringing. Take Maggie Q, Daniel Henney, and even Bruce Lee for instance. They were born in America and had an American experience at some point in their lives. But to make it big in media, they had to climb their ways to the top in Asia first.

After their rise to fame in Asian, Hollywood takes these actors back (Maggie Q, for instance) and gives them an opportunity at Western fame (check her out on Nikita). What’s with this odd cycle of sending actors off to Asian and taking them back to America once they’ve made it big in Asia? Western and Eastern media have a weird relationship, definitely feeding off each other. For instance, Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa was influenced by classic Westerns, and the Westerners remade Seven Samurai into The Magnificent Seven. Why couldn’t Seven Samurai with subtitles be released instead?

There’s also the issue of race-bending, like with the Last Airbender, where Asian characters go to white actors. The anime live action adaptation of the anime AKIRA is experiencing the same type of casting: White actors are being considered as leads instead of an Asian actor. Now at least, we see a concerted effort of  Asian Americans from different organizations coming together to voice their opinion about the situation.

The second reason why you don’t see Vietnamese movies out there is because of the lack of distribution. Do producers of Asian films try to get their movies released here? I’m positive that they’ve tried. But do they stand a chance against Western movies? Distributors sure don’t think so. With the notion that Asian movies can’t make big money, no one is willing to take the chance to show these amazing films.

But it’s 2011. You know what’s different about distribution now versus ten years ago? We have something powerful called the internet (and yes, the internet existed then but hear me out). Today, you can check out movies, clips, interviews, and other videos via Youtube, Vimeo, Hulu, Netflix, and other sites that distribute legal media (let’s not delve into torrenting and online hosting of movies, but that’s also an avenue on distribution). The ability to access films and the ability to go viral make distribution and showcasing Asian American work more feasible. We can be empowered by creating our own platforms to showcase our awesomeness.

And also, being in the land of opportunities, we have the ability to attain resources and create products like never before. Take the Vietnamese International Film Festival (VIFF).

A biannual festival, VIFF was started in 2003 by two nonprofits called Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association (VAALA) and Vietnamese Language & Culture (VNLC), showcasing Vietnamese movies from around the world in Orange County and Los Angeles in California. This year, they’ll be in Irvine (Edwards University 6 Theaters, Steelhead Brewing Co, UCI) and Los Angeles (UCLA, Bowers Museum) to showcase works from around the world. Previously they’ve had films from (but not limited to) Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Poland, United States, and Vietnam. Each edition attracts around 4,000 people from around the world. This avenue brings more visibility to emerging artists and Vietnamese cinema, which is why OneVietnam has teamed up with VIFF for this years festival–we believe in their vision.

Yes, we lack distribution, money, and accurate portrayals in Western media. But we can  give ourselves more exposure through the internet and through film festivals. And you know what? We aren’t limited to just film. We can reveal our talent through television and music as well, again thanks to the internet. Blogs, journals, and news are also more accessible via the internet and even phone applications. We can uncover and bring together the community, for instance through onevietnam.org.

Ultimately, it’s about connecting with others and showing them what we can do by ourselves. Eventually, Hollywood and the West will see what we do and follow our footsteps. I’m optimistic that someday we’ll see a big Asian American lead start off in LA and make it big instead of moving around the world because their nation of birth doesn’t accept the way they look and are.

Join the Conversation

4 Comments

  1. I’ll take a deep breath and say what everyone is thinking about:

    Vietnamese movies aren’t getting enough attention, because, you know, they aren’t very good.

    Vietnamese aren’t in the leads because Asians don’t do well at the box office. Hollywood is a business.  And they want to make money, else people’s heads will roll.

  2. I’ve found it an interesting quandary myself. It all comes down to demographics and returns. Vietnamese are such a small minority in the US that most Vietnamese films would not make a dent on the marketplace. Therefore Hollywood doesn’t listen. 

    And then there is also a very large distinction between what is Western (or American), Asian American, and Vietnamese. Culturally you would think they cross pollinate but they don’t in many instances where opportunities certainly are available. For me, I’ve seen firsthand how the Vietnamese population in America does not go out of the “Little Saigons” to represent their community in the larger American fabric. Not to mention their is much division/disunity inside our own Vietnamese community. There’s a long way to go…Thanks for fighting the good fight, Jennie. Your article rocks.

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