Films Beyond Vietnam
It all started here. The Vietnamese International Film Festival (ViFF) was born out of a need to showcase Vietnamese diasporic filmmakers. Its co-founders, Trâm Lê and Ysa Lê, invited Hương Ninh (a member of the UCLA-based organization Vietnamese Language and Culture, VNLC) to help brainstorm a, “Vietnamese film festival” in Little Saigon, Orange County, Southern California. They intended to bring together Vietnamese filmmakers and their communities to provide an alternative outlet to the mainstream film industry. With an unexpected 70 submissions, ViFF 2003 showcased 48 works: nine features and thirty-nine short films from countries beyond Vietnam. The youngest filmmaker was 17; the oldest was 71.
ViFF 2003 presented the only Lifetime Achievement Award to the incomparable actress and producer, Kiều Chinh. The Spotlight Award was given to director Victor Vũ for his breakthrough film, First Morning. Hàm Trần’s The Anniversary (Ngày Giỗ) tied with Lưu Huỳnh’s Passage of Life (Đường Trần) for the Best Audience Choice Award for best short film.
This first ViFF helped launch the careers of several emerging filmmakers and opened the doors for future ones. More importantly, it ushered in a “new wave” of Vietnamese cinema and created a home for filmmakers and film lovers to connect, dialogue, network, tell stories, and share their love of film.
As a biennial festival, ViFF moved onto its second edition as the volunteers from 2003 came back and were very eager to expand the film festival. ViFF 2005 showcased 37 films: six features and thirty-one shorts from across the world. Participating nations of origin included Australia, Belgium, Cambodia, Canada, France, the U.S., and Vietnam.
Highlights of ViFF 2005 included a tribute to filmmaker/scholar Trịnh T. Minh-hà (Surname Viet, Given Name Nam; A Tale of Love; and Night Passage). Actor Long Nguyễn received the Spotlight Award for his powerful performance in First Morning (directed by Victor Vũ) and Green Dragon (directed by Timothy Linh Bùi). ViFF 2005 ended with a sold out screening of the award-winning Buffalo Boy (Mùa Len Trâu), directed by Nguyễn-Võ Nghiêm-Minh. The Trống Đồng Award for Best Short Film was presented to Kim Spurlock’s Buổi Chiều (Afternoon), while the Audience Choice Award went to Tiger’s Apprentice, directed by M. Trinh Nguyễn.
ViFF 2005 was held at Regal Cinemas Garden Grove 16 for its Opening Night screening. Other screenings took place at UC Irvine, UCLA, and the Người Việt Community Room and Viễn Đông Community Room in Westminster.
ViFF became a cinematic tradition as it moved into its third edition. ViFF 2007 screened 51 films by filmmakers from around the world including Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Poland, Vietnam and the United States. The festival put Vietnamese cinema on the map with remarkable feature films such as Journey from the Fall (Vượt Sóng), Living in Fear (Sống Trong Sợ Hãi), The Rebel (Dòng Máu Anh Hùng), and The White Silk Dress (Áo Lụa Hà Đông). The Spotlight Award went to screenwriter Nguyễn Thị Minh Ngọc for her screenplay Living in Fear.
For the first time, ViFF presented the Trống Đồng Award for Best Feature Film, which went to Journey from the Fall, directed by Hàm Trần. Tze Chun garnered the Trống Đồng Award for Best Short with Windowbreaker, while Hung P. Nguyen’s Going Home tied with Duc Nguyen’s Bolinao 52 for the Audience Choice Awards. The Audience Choice Award for Best Feature went to Charlie Nguyễn The Rebel, which made its world premiere to two packed auditoriums with more than 600 audience members at the Edwards University Town Center 6, near UC Irvine.
The theme “Into View” was fitting for this diverse, global gathering of over 60 short and feature films. They came from emerging and established filmmakers from Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, the United Kingdom, Vietnam, and the United States.
ViFF entered its fourth edition with the first-ever Opening Night featuring a non-American production – Khoa Đỗ’s Footy Legends (Australia), which went on to win the Trống Đồng Award for Best Feature Film. Ela Thier’s A Summer Rain was presented with the Trống Đồng Award for Best Short. The Audience Choice Awards went to Tammy Nguyễn Lee’s Operation Babylift: The Lost Children of Vietnam (feature) and Jane Manning’s Delivery Day (short).
ViFF also presented the Spotlight Award to actor Dustin Nguyễn to celebrate the great achievements that mark his prolific acting career. Kiều Chinh presented to Dustin Nguyễn the award.
For the first time, ViFF partnered with the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California. Bowers hosted two special days, open-to-all but admission-free for high school students and senior citizens.
Vietnamese cinema continued its momentum as ViFF received a record number of 100 film submissions. Over 65 films were shown in this edition, and the number of features climbed up to fourteen. The opening night feature, Stephane Gauger’s Saigon Electric, kicked off ViFF 2011 with a bang. The Spotlight Night honored Vietnamese Australian filmmaker, Khoa Đỗ for his film, Mother Fish.
The sold-out sneak preview of Touch, directed by Minh Duc Nguyen, was an audience-favorite, and the Closing Day capped off the stellar film festival with two powerful and moving films – Floating Lives, directed by Nguyen Phan Quang Binh, and Bi, Don’t Be Afraid!, directed by Phan Dang Di. Bi, Don’t Be Afraid went on to garner the Grand-Jury Trống Đồng Award for Best Feature Film.
Ta Nguyen Hiep’s Behind Death was presented with the Trống Đồng Award for Best Short Film. Thien Do’s Fading Light and Viet Nguyen’s Things You Don’t Joke About received the Audience Choice Award for Best Short Film. For the first time, ViFF presented Best Actor and Best Actress Awards, which went to Dustin Nguyen and Do Thi Hai Yen, respectively. Both played the leads in Floating Lives – the next sweep of the acting awards would not happen again for another eleven years.
Flashback || Flashforward
An unprecedented 107 films were submitted, beating the record from the last festival (and a record that would stand for another eight years). ViFF 2013 started out with a star-studded launch party at VAALA Cultural Center where a line-up of 69 films, including eighteen features, was announced. Vietnamese diasporic film icon Tran Anh Hung flew in from Paris to present his newest work, Norwegian Wood, and to accept ViFF’s first Inspiration Award for his contributions to Vietnamese and world cinema.
The Spotlight Awards went to two documentaries: Duc Nguyen’s Stateless and Daniela Agostini’s A Tree Worker’s Case. Best Vietnamese Actor and Best Vietnamese Actress Awards were presented to Thai Hoa for In the Name of Love and Ngo Thanh Van for House in the Alley, respectively. Winston Titus Tao’s Picture. Perfect received the Trống Đồng Award for Best Short Film. For the first time, ViFF awarded “Best Cinematography,” which went to Nguyen K’Linh for Blood Letter.
The Closing Night events featured a special presentation of the 2013 Oscar-nominated film War Witch, directed by Kim Nguyen. The 350-seat theater at UC Irvine was packed with a cheering crowd to welcome back the Vietnamese Canadian filmmaker, whose first feature The Marsh (Le Marais) was screened at the closing night of ViFF 2003.
Viet Film Fest 2014
An Annual Film Festival and New Branding
In 2014, Viet Film Fest witnessed significant developments and exciting initiatives. The film festival became annual and changed its name to Viet Film Fest. Wells Fargo, a dedicated sponsor since 2005, elevated its support by becoming the Title Sponsor of the festival, resulting in the special designation of “Wells Fargo’s Viet Film Fest 2014.” One of the noteworthy highlights was the establishment of “Youth in Motion: A Workshop for Emerging Filmmakers,” a dynamic endeavor led by Thuan Nguyen. This workshop served as a platform for budding filmmakers to hone their skills and creativity, ultimately producing a captivating collection of short films. These remarkable creations were proudly showcased during Viet Film Fest, adding a fresh dimension to the event’s offerings.
Furthermore, Viet Film Fest made strategic moves in terms of its location, bringing the festival closer to the heart of Little Saigon. The festival’s venues expanded to include the UltraLuxe Theaters in Anaheim and the prestigious Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. These new settings not only enriched the festival experience for attendees but also provided a fitting backdrop for celebrating Vietnamese cinema and culture.
The Trống Đồng Award for Best Feature Film was given to Tiền Chùa (FunnyMoney), directed by Thien Do. Andinh Ha won the Trống Đồng Award for Best Short Film for Đốt Về Trời (Burn to Send), directed by Andinh Ha. Ninh Duong Lan Ngoc received the Best Actress Award for her performance in Thuy and Khuong Ngoc received the Best Actor Award for his role in Funny Money, The Spotlight Award was presented to the classic film made just before the Vietnam War ended: Number 10 Blue / Goodbye Saigon, directed by Norio Osada, starring Thanh Lan and Yusuke Kawazu. Producer/actor Kenji Isomura, along with Thanh Lan, attended the Q&A session and accepted the award. After the festival ended, per popular demand, a couple of screenings of Funny Money and Little Tèo were added.
Viet Film Fest 2015
A Medley of Genres
Viet Film Fest 2015’s lineup stood out for its genre diversity. The festival kicked off with the futuristic film 2030 (Nước), directed by Minh Nguyen-Vo. Late night screenings featured two horror films: Chung Cư Ma (Hush), directed by Van M. Pham, and Đoạt Hồn (Hollow), directed by Ham Tran. For those who wished to avoid nightmares, attendees had several alternative options, including the action-packed gangster film Hương Ga (Rise), directed by Cuong Ngo, which was a favorite among audiences in Vietnam and is known for its attractive cast. Audiences who preferred comedy can watch Để Mai Tính 2 (Let Hoi Decide) directed by Charlie Nguyen, which shattered box office records in Vietnam.
As 2015 marked the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, Viet Film Fest screened Land of Sorrow (Đất Khổ), directed by Hà Thúc Cần. Filmed in 1973, the movie starred the renowned Vietnamese singer-songwriter Trịnh Công Sơn, making his only on-screen debut. This anti-war film was based on the memoir Giải Khăn Sô Cho Huế (Mourning Headband for Hue) and offered a rare glimpse into the effects of the Vietnam War on Hue, a central region in Vietnam. A book signing and Q&A session with the author of the memoir, Nhã Ca, immediately followed the screening.
The Trống Đồng Award for Best Short Film went to Talking to My Mother, directed by Leon Le. Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere (Đập Cánh Giữa Không Trung), directed by Nguyễn Hoàng Điệp garnered the the Trống Đồng Award for Best Feature Film. Best Actress and Best Actor Awards went to Nguyen Thanh Tu for her role in Dịu Dàng (Gentle) Thanh Duy for his performance in Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere, respectively.
Viet Film Fest 2016
New Home: AMC Orange 30
Viet Film Fest moved to a larger and more central location, yet remained close to Little Saigon, while continuing to celebrate Vietnamese voices in cinema. The 2016 lineup showcased many “firsts” in Vietnamese cinema. The festival opened with Siêu Trộm (Bitcoin Heist), a technologically groundbreaking heist-action film by Hàm Trần. This film marked the first leading role for Suboi, Vietnam’s “Queen of Hip Hop,” who was in attendance for the Q&A session.
Documentary screenings, followed by Q&A sessions with filmmakers and expert panelists, highlighted important social issues within the Vietnamese community. Painted Nails, directed by Dianne Griffin and Erica Jordan, followed the story of a Vietnamese nail salon worker’s fight against health-threatening chemicals in nail products. Meanwhile, Finding Phong provided the audience with a profound glimpse into the physical and psychological journey of a transgender woman as she prepared to undergo gender confirmation surgery. Finding Phong later received the Spotlight Award at Viet Film Fest 2016.
Victor Vu received the Trống Đồng Award for Best Feature Film for Tôi Thấy Hoa Vàng Trên Cỏ Xanh (Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass), while Mai Phuong Nguyen won the Trống Đồng Award for Best Short Film with Chez Moi (My Home). The Best Actor Award went to Tam Dinh for his role in Never Forget and Miu Le won the Best Actress Award for her leading role in the blockbuster Em Là Bà Nội Của Anh (Sweet 16).
Viet Film Fest 2018
Women Lead the Way
In the fifteenth anniversary edition of Viet Film Fest (and the first after a hiatus in 2017 for the purposes of restructuring), more than half of all the screened films were either directed and/or produced by a woman. This happy coincidence – at a time when the American film industry began to seriously consider conversations of on- and off-screen diversity – was by no means planned. But it was demonstrative of VFF’s aims to provide artists who rarely find a platform in mainstream filmmaking a space to showcase their work.
VFF 2018 paid tribute to the late director, Stephane Gauger, who passed away from a stroke earlier that year. Gauger, who was born in Vietnam and returned to work in the film industry, had previously contributed both Vietnam Overtures (2008) and Saigon Electric (2011) to VFF – both films received adulation from festival audiences. That touch with audiences remained, as his latest film, Kiss and Spell (Yêu Đi, Đừng Sợ!) garnered Gauger a posthumous Audience Choice Award for Best Feature Film.
The festival also provided a rare screening of 1971’s The Purple Horizon (Chân trời tím), directed by Lê Hoàng Hoa – one of the most expensive films ever made in the South Vietnamese film industry, a rare pre-War movie in color, and one of the few extant films depicting the perspectives of South Vietnamese soldiers and their loved ones.
Technically, the second-ever sweep of the acting awards came in favor of the Little Saigon-set horror film Actress Wanted, with Thien Nguyễn winning Best Actress and Long Nguyễn tying for Best Actor with Phạm Anh Khoa in The Island. Andrew Nguyen’s The Island – a documentary about the Palau Bidong refugee camp in Malaysia – won Best Feature while Duc Ngo Ngoc won Best Short for Apples and Oranges. Cao Thúy Nhi won the Spotlight Award for her assured directorial debut in Summer in Closed Eyes (Nhắm Mắt Thấy Mùa Hè), VFF 2018’s Opening Night feature.
Viet Film Fest 2019
A Festival Matures
In a festival where the headlines were dominated by Vietnamese American directors who departed the United States to make their films in Vietnam (Charlie Nguyễn for My Mr. Wife (Chàng Vợ Của Em), Leon Lê for Song Lang, and Victor Vũ for The Immortal (Người Bất Tử)), VFF 2018 nevertheless provided moments of narrative and aesthetic innovation alike. Huỳnh Đông’s The Happiness of Mother (Hạnh Phúc Của Mẹ) placed an autistic boy as the keystone to its narrative, posing pointed questions over enjoyment and exploitation.
Elsewhere, Laura Nix’s short film Walk Run Cha Cha – featuring Paul and Millie Cao – was a spellbinding short film of two sweethearts, separated by war, who found each other again in Los Angeles. Through ballroom dancing, Paul and Millie renew their love. The film was later nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Film (not the first Oscar-nominated film to appear at VFF, but the first film to receive a nomination after its screening at VFF). And as a tribute to the late actress Hiep Thi Le, VFF organized a retrospective screening in her honor of Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth (1993).
Kim Xuân won Best Actress for her role in the horror film Like An Old House, while Liên Bỉnh Phát won Best Actor for Song Lang. Two films decidedly won the top prizes at VFF, with Walk Run Cha Cha danced away with Best Short Film while Song Lang won Best Feature. Per popular demand, a screening of Song Lang was added after the festival ended.
Viet Film Fest 2021
A Festival Reimagined
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of what would have been VFF 2020, leaving the film festival on hiatus once more. The film festival would be structured in two different aspects: in presentation and in staff. For the latter, an Executive Committee consisting of Ysa Lê, Christine Tran, Artistic Director Eric Nong, Digital Director Tony Nguyễn, and Communications Specialist Kary Tran leant the festival a centralized structure distinct and separate from other VAALA events.
In presentation, VFF 2021 was the first hybrid edition of the festival – offering film screenings virtually and in-person, a longtime VFF goal finally realized. A virtual summer screening series, “Under the Same Roof”, spotlighted several short films from VFF’s past to reintroduce the community to the festival. Due to the one-year delay, a record 106 submissions were received to Viet Film Fest 2021, breaking the record from VFF 2011.
With the pandemic still a widespread problem, in-person screenings were limited to two evenings at the Frida Cinema in Santa Ana and a drive-in screening of Bao Tran’s The Paper Tigers at the Westminster Mall. VFF’s Launch Party, filmmaker networking events, and Awards Ceremony were conducted entirely online.
VFF 2021 presented the Inspiration Award to Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars Episodes VIII and IX, Raya and the Last Dragon) for helping to inspire Vietnamese American youths through her perseverance in modern Hollywood. The Spotlight Award went to Lan Nguyễn’s Fighting for Family, a documentary short film that critiqued and showed the emotional and familial impacts of the United States’ policy of deporting Southeast Asian refugees. Comics ruled the acting categories as Best Actor and Best Actress went to Trấn Thành and Paris by Night fixture Hong Dao in Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry) and Thưa Mẹ Con Đi (Goodbye, Mother), respectively. Maximilian Baider-Rosenthal took home Best Short for Malabar while Bao Nguyễn won Best Feature for his Bruce Lee biographical documentary, Be Water.
In this new hybrid format, Viet Film Fest began the first steps of expanding its viewership beyond Southern California – reaching viewers across the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia. The introduction of pre-recorded intros and outros to films and virtual Q&As accompanying almost all of feature films and short film sets provided audiences with greater cinematic and sociocultural context to each film like never before.
Viet Film Fest 2022
A New Normal
With the worst of the pandemic behind the world and one edition of VFF under the new team’s belts, VFF 2022 retained a hybrid format as in-person screenings moved to the Cinemark Century Huntington Beach. Communications Specialist Kary Tran left shortly after VFF 2021 concluded, and Corey Linh came in her place shortly before VFF 2022.
Hàm Trần’s children’s science-fiction film Maika: The Girl from Another Galaxy opened the festival to fully-packed theaters – a sight not seen since before the pandemic. The film also won the Audience Choice Award for Best Feature. Elsewhere, two films examining the human smuggling of modern-day Vietnamese migrants to Europe jointly won the Spotlight Award: Erin Hembrador and Quan Luong’s Container and Âni Võ for Taste of Home (which also won Best Short). The third sweep in the acting categories since their introduction in 2011 came in favor of Blood Moon Party when Thái Hoà won Best Actor and Thu Trang won Best Actress. Hà Lệ Diễm’s documentary about an instance of bride kidnapping in the Hmong community in far northern Vietnam, Children of the Mist, won Best Feature. Children of the Mist went on to be shortlisted for the Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature.
Trịnh T. Minh-hà won the Inspiration Award, presented to her after a special screening of her documentary, What About China?. Like at VFF 2018, VFF 2022 once again saw a majority of all films have either a female director or co-director.
Viet Film Fest 2023
20 Years of Celebrating Viet Cinema!
For the 20th anniversary edition of Viet Film Fest, VFF’s in-person screenings exclusively returned to the Frida Cinema, strengthening a partnership with VAALA that also included Viet Book Fest. This year, Guest Relations and Community Outreach Lead/Co-Event Coordinator Jade Tu and Volunteer Manager/Co-Event Coordinator Alan Trinh were both elevated to VFF’s executive team.
44 short films and 11 features made appearances, in-person and virtually, at VFF. In addition, two nations were represented at VFF for the first time: Malaysia (the short film The Waves Now Calm)and the Republic of Ireland (the short film Good Chips). VFF’s Opening Night feature was the popular The Spectacular Adventure of Little Prodigy (Trạng Tí Phiêu Lưu Ký), which would later win the Audience Choice for Best Feature.Hàng Luong Nguyễn’s Supermarket Affairs won the Audience Choice for Best Short.
Sing J. Lee’s The Accidental Getaway Driver, which was largely made in and around Orange County’s Little Saigon, was the festival’s headliner and Closing Night feature. The film won Best Feature, in addition to a Best Actor nomination for Hiệp Trần Nghĩa (his second, after VFF 2021 short film Malabar).
Lê Công Hoàng won Best Actor for Glorious Ashes (Tro tàn rực rỡ) – also nominated for Best Feature at VFF 2023, and later became Vietnam’s submission for the 96th Academy Awards. VFF 2023’s Best Actress winner was Irish Vietnamese actress Elly Murray in Good Chips. Murray made history in becoming the first child actor to win an acting award at VFF, as well as the first actor from a short film to win an acting award at VFF. Good Chips, vociferously enjoyed by students during VFF’s high school students’ screenings, also won Best Short.
Director and longtime supporter of VFF Quyên Nguyen-Le was honored with the Spotlight Award for their short film, In Living Memory – a meditation on the deeply personal and communal legacy of the closure of the nail salon owned by the filmmaker’s mother.