A Dustin Nguyen interview: Transforming Vietnamese film


In a mockumentary capturing the Bruce Lee post-death frenzy of cashing in on the suddenly popular martial arts genre – the 2007 Justin Lin film “Finishing the Game” – the actor Dustin Nguyen plays the actor Troy Poon, who just wants a role that requires more work than pointing a gun or a single line such as, “That will be $14.39.”

While Troy may have floundered in his quest, in real life Nguyen did find the type of role that first put him on the map – his turn alongside Johnny Depp in the original 21 Jump Street television series – and much more.  An opportunity to act in his first Vietnamese film, “The Rebel” co-starring Johnny Tri Nguyen and Veronica Ngo, eventually opened the door to Best Actor awards (including the Vietnamese Golden Lotus Award, the country’s equivalent of the Oscars) and newfound roots in his birthplace of Ho Chi Minh City.  Nguyen’s directorial debut, “Once Upon a Time in Vietnam,” also checked off many domestic milestones, becoming the first fantasy genre film ever made in the country, the first with substantial use of special effects and its seven-digit budget resulting in the most expensive film produced in Vietnamese history.  In addition, Nguyen stars as Dao, a caped warrior monk anti-hero, armed and staggering into a small town where he finds refuge in the home of a humble baker (played by Thái Hòa), his mysterious wife Anh (Ngo) and their troubled young son.  Soon, Dao’s link to the family is revealed, along with the real reason that he has searched for Anh in particular.

Meniscus Magazine talked to Nguyen at the 2013 Busan International Film Festival, where “Once Upon a Time in Vietnam” made its international premiere.  He talked about what it was like to direct and act at the same time, the reality of filming in Vietnam versus Hollywood, and how he convinced his parents to become involved in his career.

Yuan-Kwan Chan: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me.

Dustin Nguyen: Thank you for giving me the time.

So, I watched the film yesterday.  Very entertaining.

Oh, you did?  You were at the screening?

Well, I couldn’t see it at the screening.  I had to watch it on a choppy computer on a video.

Aw, I wish you could see it on the big screen, you know.

Yes, I don’t think I got the full visual, so I’ll have to see if I can catch it again.  I wanted to ask: I’m sure the decision to direct your first feature-length film, particularly in Vietnam, must have required a lot of thought, a lot of time.  Why did you choose Vietnam for your debut?

Well, it took about four years, almost five, since I wrote the screenplay and just sort of nursed it along, trying to find a home to make it, and trying to find someone who would actually give you your first shot at directing a film – especially a film of this scope.

I started going back to Vietnam about five years ago.  Sort of fate, really.  I never thought I’d be in Vietnam.  I started to go there to make movies.  The first one was called “The Rebel,” it was quite a nice film.  But I didn’t think…you know, you would make a movie and you would go home.  [Then] every year I would go back to make another Vietnamese-language film.  I just really enjoyed it because they were roles with great depth and roles that you wouldn’t see in Hollywood for Asian Americans.

So I started meeting people there in the industry, which is very small, and started a production company there around two years ago.  This project, of course, went through a couple potential [companies] in L.A.  FOX International, at one point, was very interested in it.  But I realized that in order to find someone that can trust me, or give me a shot anyway, and I can still have creative control – I have to make it for the least amount of money.  Having produced a couple of films in Vietnam, it was very obvious to me that economically, that was the place that I would attempt this.  And the budget on it for Vietnam, it’s on the high side.  This is the first fantasy genre [film] for Vietnam.  It’s nothing new for international cinema.  It is just a pathetically small budget compared to, let’s say, a Korean film.  It’s still very, very small.

But I made a decision because I wanted it to have a Vietnamese soul, even though I wanted it to not be a Vietnamese film that people are used to expect to come out of Vietnam.   At the same time, I wanted the characters to speak Vietnamese, and I wanted it to be made by Vietnamese.  And that’s sort of the genesis of it.  As you can tell, I have a great adoration for Sergio Leone, so I thought this is how I would do it.

It was extremely difficult to make because the infrastructure there is not quite set up yet for a film of this scope.  But considering that, I am very proud of a lot of the technical stuff that we pulled off.  I had a terrific costume designer from Los Angeles that I begged to come and work on this for nothing.  My DP was from Thailand and one of my good friends who played the villain, Roger Yuan, I begged him to come over – he had never been to Vietnam.  So I had a lot of great people supporting me because they know that it was a real passion project of mine.

It’s funny, I spoke with a Korean actor [Daniel Henney] last year who said, oh, well, the budgets for all our action films are about US$20 million compared to $200 million in the U.S.

Ha ha ha, is that “all?”

Now you’re saying, compared to Korean films…

This film is less than $3 million.  It’s pathetically small.

One thing that struck me about the script and the cinematography is – you touched upon this – there are several different genres.  It’s hard to kind of classify it.  It’s an action film, it’s a fantasy film, there’s a bit of religion in it, philosophy, a Western.  Why did you decide to mix it all up in this particular script and how did you come up with the idea?

Well, as I mentioned, my strong love for Sergio Leone and particularly “Once Upon a Time in the West” – I adore that movie – and then I had this idea.  I wanted to do a film that explores the role of a man in society.  In other words, what society thinks a man should be and what society thinks a hero should be.  In movies and literature, heroes have a certain look.  He’s gotta be cool, gotta be this, or whatever.  I thought, well, the real heroes sometimes are like the baker in the film.  It’s the ordinary man who gets up every day and takes care of his family, and makes certain sacrifices and loves unconditionally and so on.  Those are the heroes.  Then the ones that we sort of worship and genuflect, they’re kind of messed up.  They’re not perfect, and they don’t want to be perfect.  They yearn for a normal life.

So, okay, maybe I can mix them together because if I just do a drama about this, it’s hard for me to raise money, and maybe only 20 people will come and see it.  But if I set it in this sort of fantastical manga mixture of things that I adored growing up, it will make it a little more interesting to watch.  And then a bit of Buddhism, ideas that I was very influenced by my grandmother and my family when I was growing up: the idea of having to take care of your own inner demons or clean your own house.

So perhaps, you know, [being a] typical first-time director, sometimes you get very ambitious and you throw everything into the pot.  But I certainly didn’t want to do a movie about Buddhism, that’s for sure.  That’s something that I actually had to explain to the Vietnamese press too when the film came out a month ago because the Vietnamese title has very strong Buddhism.

Yes, I was wondering what that meant – it is two words?

Lửa Phật’Lửa is fire and Phật’ is Buddha.  In Vietnamese, it is very poetic, but very strong.  So when the project started to get publicity, and no one has seen a foot of it yet, everyone thought it was going to be a movie about Buddhism.  In essence, it’s not, really.  I don’t have an interest in doing a whole film about Buddhism nor am I qualified to do that.  But I wanted to have this mythology about these monks who are super martial artists and gave up their spiritual practices to go to war.  They are no longer spiritual beings because when you engage in war, a lot of horrible things happen.

Were there any elements of the script that you had to tailor specifically to a Vietnamese audience as opposed to, ‘If I had done this in Hollywood, I would have maybe done the dialogue a little differently, or the scenes differently’?  Since the target audience is Vietnamese, did you find yourself having to switch up things a bit?

Yes, it was a struggle for me because I write, as I always do, in English, and I was weaned in the American three-act structure of storytelling.  Even my sense of humor is very American.  So some of the humor in my original script, I had to scrap and kind of work with the actors to come up with a more organic Vietnamese sense of humor in some of the scenes, especially with the thugs in the village.  The scene in the bakery, some of that was improvised by the actors and I would be like, ‘Okay, I get it – it’s funny when I hear it, but I couldn’t write that.’  The actors helped me a lot with some of the humor.

The rest of the content, I kept it pretty much intact.  I was hoping that when the film was done, it would be a Vietnamese film that Westerners could relate to, not so exotic.  So I kept the story pretty much intact.  But the humor was a struggle.  There was humorous stuff that I actually kept very American and of course, some of the reviews in Vietnam, they said exactly that: ‘It is very obvious that Dustin Nguyen grew up in America.’  [laughs] You can’t please everyone.

What sorts of challenges did you face not only as a director, but starring at the same time?

It was brutal.  At some point, when I was raising the money, I had an actor in mind to play the role, but the investors wouldn’t sign off on him.  They insisted that I had to take one of the lead roles.  So going into it, I was not naïve.  I knew, and I had spoken to someone who I respect a lot who had done this – starred in and directed a pretty big epic film – and he said, ‘Man, you’re gonna die.’  It was nearly that, I’m so exhausted.  Of course, while you are doing it, you’re pumped with adrenaline.  I made sure I had a really good team, as good of a team as I could put together.  The rest, you just take it day by day.  There were days where I just felt like, ‘Aw man, I just need to get through today.’  There’s just so much pressure.  Again, I’m not naïve, but when you’re actually in the trenches, and all these questions are coming at you – because the director has to say yes or no to everything – and then, ‘Oh…now I gotta act!  I forgot, now I gotta act!’  [laughs]  It’s like, oh, God, now I gotta act.  Okay.  Switch the director thing off, turn the acting thing on, and hope for the best.

So you had not intended to take a role at all?  You just planned to focus on directing?

Yeah, yeah.  It became very clear to me that it was hard to cast it in Vietnam.  I wanted to also find actors who would actually do their own fights as well – all the main actors in my movie, including Veronica, the lead.  We doubled her for some scenes when she gets smashed into walls and stuff.

She has a dance background, right?

Yeah, she – I think you agree – she’s wonderful.  She did another movie, “The Rebel,” where I met her.

I didn’t see her in [that film] – I saw her in “The Clash.”

“The Clash,” that’s right.  So she had some training and she worked really hard before this.

The challenge is to find an actor that fits the role and can actually do the action to my satisfaction where I didn’t have to cheat with camera angles with the risk of it coming out wrong.  It always sort of entered back to a few people, and one of them was me.  You get the pressure of the investors going, ‘Well, you need to take one of the leads as well.’  But if I had my druthers, I wouldn’t do it.  I wouldn’t do it.

Can you address some of the visual effects that were used in the film?  I understand that is unchartered territory in Vietnamese cinema.

Yeah, that was scary.  I have to applaud my partner, [the] Kantana [Group] in Thailand, who handled all the post as well as the CG.  On a very limited budget, I demanded so much from them.

I had no illusions.  We’re like this tiny little film and I didn’t want it to be a CG-driven film.  There’s no way we could do it, nor should we do it because we just can’t compete on that level.  You got $40 to $50 million American films and still, they don’t get the CG right.  We’re so used to seeing great CG now.  So I was just hoping, okay, I need CG here for sure because I need to make it fantastical, but at the same time, I don’t want to do it big and I just want it to be acceptable CG where people don’t cringe and go, “Uggggh,” you know?  If I can just get that, I’m happy.  So I didn’t go in with grand ideas with CG.  It was very well planned in pre-production because this is the first time I worked with CG.

So it was really scary because ultimately, you’re not sure what you’re going to get because you don’t know until you go into post.  Then they start showing it to you, the first phase or two, and you’re like, ‘Okay, I kind of see what it looks like, but what is it really going to look like?’  And then when you get it, of course, it’s never perfect, and you’re like, ‘Well, no, can you change this, can you change that?’  I just drove them crazy.  Literally to the last, the 11th hour, we worked on the CG.  But overall, I don’t think it’s cringe-inducing, the CG [laughs].

I’ve seen cringe-inducing.  The movie was great and then they showed the explosion, and I thought, ‘Oh, uh, no.  That’s too bad.’

That was the toughest, the CG.  That was the one [aspect] where they worked on it and worked on it and worked on it.  At some point, you’re just like, ‘Uh, okay,’ you know?  It is what it is.  But I’m not even sure if we had more time and more money, how far it will go unless you start to get up in the $80 to $100 million territory.

That was the scary part.  I have to say, of all the elements in the film, I was worried about a lot of things, but that was the one element that I worried the most because it’s out of your hands.  Action – I never worry about action.  Not to sound arrogant, but I knew exactly what kind of action I wanted, and I know I had great actors who are great martial artists.  We had three months of prep, staging the fights and video previews of it.  So I wasn’t scared of that, I wasn’t scared of the costumes.  A lot of the stuff, I could control.  But the CG stuff, you’re kind of like, okay [crosses arms].  You’re kind of helpless.

Yeah, the director can only do so much.  If future Vietnam films were to use CGI, would they have to have to continue to rely on foreign talent to do so?  Or are there some local companies?

In all fairness, I think there are one or two local [ones] but they’re not at that level yet.  One of these companies, I believe, gets outsourced from Hollywood films.  They’re very basic.  There are many different layers in CG work.  Usually they – they meaning the Hollywood films…it is not uncommon to outsource the preliminary CG stuff like building the models and things like that.  But the really detailed CGs are still done by the big guys, the layering and the composition, which is really where it is.

I read in a past interview around the time when you were filming, I think right after, “The Rebel,” that you found the acting talent in Vietnam to be promising but a little bit raw – [such as] actresses who are very exaggerated. 


Now that you’ve been in the industry there for several years, have you seen any changes in terms of the formal training that is available or schooling?

Well, in all fairness, there has definitely been an improvement because more films are being made every year.  So because of that, the actors get a chance to work more.  They also work on TV series and things like that.  They have a chance to work on their craft, if you will.  It’s getting better, but there are no formal training…that really hasn’t improved that much because Vietnamese cinema is still relatively small and there is not a lot of priorities being given to it yet.  Unlike Korean cinema, for example – you can tell that Korean cinema went through a major change, and this major change was calculated and executed with a plan.  We don’t have that yet because I think the industry is so small.  It’s like a double-edged sword: ‘Oh, it’s just a small industry, let’s not devote a lot of funds to it,’ or ‘Let’s not have some contemporary formal training for the actors.’  A lot of them just learn by doing and unfortunately, sometimes you learn bad habits as actors.  Like I said, a lot of the younger actors now, they watch American films and they are starting to understand the sort of the naturalistic style of acting.  Learning to execute that is still a struggle.

I understand that your parents were in the entertainment industry before your family left Vietnam.  They had a reaction when you decided to go into the industry back in the States.  Now that you’ve decided to start your production company in Vietnam, what is the reaction to that?

They’re…they’re over it [laughs].

Are they interested at all in being immersed in the creative process that you are taking in Vietnam?

Actually, I think my proudest moment in “Once Upon a Time in Vietnam” is that both my mom and dad are in the film.  My father played the bar owner, the one that’s trying to buy up the bakery.  My mom, I begged her to do a little cameo as the schoolteacher who called the parents in, saying, ‘Your kid beat up other kids.’

My parents, quite a while ago, they realized that this is my path and this is my passion.  They don’t hit me with, ‘When are you going to get a real job?’  I used to get that about once a month.  Now, every couple of years, my mom might say it.  Typical Asian parents.  No, they are actually very pleased.  They never expected that I would go to Vietnam and make films there.  They’re actually pleased.  They know I’m happy there creatively and they like the films that I make.  I think that’s important that they feel [that way].  They know they can’t convince me otherwise but after all these years, I’m still doing it and I think they accept it.

It’s great that they were both in the film.  What was it like directing them?

It was fun!  It was fun.  My father, I convinced him for like a year.  He didn’t want to do it.  He used to be a well-known actor in Vietnam, but he gave it up years ago.  I just said to him, ‘Dad, I don’t know if I’m going to ever direct another movie, and frankly, you’re not getting any younger.  I would love for us to have some memories together, and show to my kids and your grandkids.’  I think that was the one that did it for him.  He said, ‘Okay.  Okay, I’ll do it.’

This is a reversal of the [guilt] role.  It reminds me of a conversation that I had with a friend, where all our Asian American parents are asking, ‘Why are you all moving back to Asia?  We escaped for a reason!  We’re giving you a better life!’

Life, you never know.  Seven years ago, if you said to me that I’d be making movies in Vietnam, I would say, “Impossible.”

That kind of segues into my next question.  A number of Asian actors raised in the States have to decide, ‘I’m going to go 100% Hollywood,’ or ‘I’m going to Asia,’ or, ‘I’m going to try to have a foot in both worlds.’  Your path was interesting because you had been in the States for quite some time before deciding to move to Vietnam.  Do you see yourself solely based here, still crossing back and forth?

Well, for practical purposes, I’m pretty much based out of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, due to my production company [Early Risers Media Group] and the amount of films I make there.  It demands me to be there full-time.  I found it was difficult to try to have one foot here, one foot there.  My agent kind of gave up on me.  We’re very good friends, still – he’d always check up on me and he’s actually quite proud of the films I do in Vietnam.  He sees why I do it because he’s like, ‘Oh wow, these are the amazing roles you do there.’  But it wasn’t a conscious decision.  It’s just something that happened.  I quickly realized that I can no longer have one foot here and one foot there.  The kind of work that I do in Vietnam, it gives me a lot of creative pleasure.

I also don’t think, oh, I left Hollywood.  This is sort of what interests me right now.  Who knows what’s going to happen?  I certainly wouldn’t be able to do the things that I do, and make the kinds of films I make in Vietnam, in Los Angeles.

My last question: What was the most difficult adjustment for you, returning to Vietnam after so many years and working in cinema there?

On a personal level, there was never any adjustment period.  I just felt so at home.  The first week I was back, it never felt like I left.  Obviously the landscape is very different.  They speak differently now, they have different slangs.  I just dove right in, I just felt really at home.

Of course creatively, on a logistical level, in making a Vietnamese film: There’s no trailers.  There’s not even a proper chair.  You just rough it.

‘I only want green M&Ms.’  No, you don’t get any M&Ms.

[laughs]  That takes a little bit of adjusting to.  I was just joking – we actually don’t have trailers, but it’s not something that I need.  But for sure, everything is just harder.  It’s not different.  No different than independent filmmaking in America.  When you make an indie film in Hollywood, it’s tough too.  There’s no catering.  Your mom goes and helps you, or your friends come and cook for the crew.

Vietnam is kind of like that.  It’s just even more so because there is not an infrastructure yet for proper filmmaking.  When I say proper, I mean the infrastructure that I’m used to in Hollywood.  Portable toilets, believe it or not, it’s really hard because it’s not something they cater to.  You don’t go, ‘Oh, I’m going to start a business with portable toilets – there’s a need for it because all these films shoot.’  Over there [in Vietnam], they [are] making six, seven movies a year.  With the budget they have, you don’t need a portable toilet, you just run over here and ask somebody to use the toilet.  Little things that, of course, on a long film shoot can make your life hard versus a quick one- or two-day commercial shoot.  But these things, you just sort of accept it as it is.

In a way, it sounds more exciting – maybe more satisfying – because you’re helping to build a whole industry from the ground up.

It’s satisfying.  It’s got its frustration.  For me, I weigh out the pros and the cons because you can’t have everything.  For me, the satisfaction outweighs the frustrations.  Of course, it’s easy to say that when you’re done.  You look back and you go, ‘Wow, we really roughed it together and we got through it.’  There’s a certain amount of pride and satisfaction that you get from that kind of a shoot.

Yeah, I’d love to feed the crew better.  I’d love to put the actors up in better hotels.  Things like that.  I always try my best within the constraint of the budget.  But at the end of the day, as long as you can get decent work done and everyone’s happy, you can’t really ask for more than that, really.  And if you do it, don’t dare to ask [laughs].

Video: Dustin Nguyen interview – 2013 Busan International Film Festival
interview & video by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine

Trailer: “Once Upon a Time in Vietnam”