Go backBack to selection

“I Don’t Want the Audience to Remember My Film as Just Another Film Banned in Vietnam”: Trương Minh Quý ơn His Cannes-Premiering Viêt and Nam

Viêt and Nam

Set shortly before 9/11, Trương Minh Quý’s Viêt and Nam begins underground with two coal miners, their bodies soaked in sweat and caked in dirt. As they wait for instructions, they talk about a dream — one concerning water, plastic bags, and drowning. In the silence, they comfort each other by caressing each other’s faces. Suddenly, a bell rings. They rebutton their clothes. Moments later, a bomb can be heard exploding in the distance.

Only above ground do the details surface: Viêt and Nam are lovers who are on the brink of separation as Nam, influenced by Vietnam’s migrant boom of the late 1990s to early 2000s, prepares to leave his home country for greener pastures abroad. But before his departure, his mother suddenly dreams of his father, a soldier who disappeared 26 years prior. With only their murky memories as their maps, the three search for his remains across the vast forests of Vietnam with one of the father’s former buddies, hoping for a closure they hadn’t been aware they’d long needed.

Shot on 16mm stock, Viêt and Nam is at once a touching portrait of provincial poverty, a rousing love affair between two men, a heartbreaking exploration of a relationship between a mother and son, and a depiction of being haunted by a history that’s a relentless and faceless ghost. As solidified in his shorts Déjà Vu (2014) and How Green Was the Calabash Garden (2016), which play with illusion and memory, and his experimental documentaries The City of Mirrors: A Fictional Biography (2016) and The Tree House (2019), which find filmmakers looking back at history from dystopic futures, Quý uses cinema as a means of crossing invisible borders while questioning their existence in the first place. By intertwining personal narrative, speculative fiction, and documentary filmmaking techniques, he has become one of Southeast Asia’s most vital contemporary voices.

Quý spoke with Filmmaker over Zoom, a week and a half before his Cannes premiere at the Un Certain Regard section and only days after the film was not licensed for distribution in Vietnam. Sitting in his home in France, a stack of books and a poster of the Biebrza Wildlife River behind him, we spoke about the five-year journey of Viêt and Nam and its uncertain future. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Filmmaker: The trigger for Viêt and Nam was the Essex lorry deaths in 2019, which  involved the death of 39 Vietnamese migrants who were smuggled into Europe. What about that incident captured your attention, and why did that trigger this feature’s creation?

Trương: That accident happened when I just moved to France. At that time, I was living in Belgium, not so far from the harbor where the container started. It ended in the UK, and we know the end of that tragedy. So, there is this complex feeling, because I was here as a Vietnamese and they were also here, but in a different situation. That event created different questions in me. 

It [became] a strong emotional starting point, but the film is not trying to tell the story of that event. [Viêt and Nam] tries to see that event from different personal and historical layers. We don’t see it in the same way [when] we read about the tragedy in the newspaper. It’s told [from a] different perspective. I think only with fiction can I try to express my personal feelings firstly and make [a] connection with different events. I just had to be clear that this event is not the film. Because now, in Vietnam, people are thinking that this film is about this event. I don’t want people to think that. I want to respect the people of this tragedy and I don’t want to make a film about them in this situation. [Rather,] it’s an emotional inspiration [for] the film.

Filmmaker: You set the film in 2001, just shortly before and after 9/11. What made you set it in that period?

Trương: First, I’m a bit nostalgic. I always want to look back and see things in backward motion. Then cinematically speaking, I always like it when a certain landscape can embrace the future, present, and past, and we can see its timelessness in that landscape. Here, it’s a small industrial town. In the film, we don’t try to set up anything to make it look like it’s in the past. Everything in the film is almost as it is [now]. So, this overlap between the present and the past is already in reality and we try to capture that.

The story about 9/11 comes from my personal memory. I think I was just 11 years old when that happened. I was living in a small town and people were still talking about that event in my neighborhood as if it were something so close. It took a lot of attention at that time. I remember the fear of asthma. In some way, when I was writing, I wanted to bring that personal memory into the film. I feel that everything is somehow interconnected, even if [that] story happened in the US and this story now happens in a small town in Vietnam.

The starting point will always be personal memory. But I think when the work is finished, it always becomes a bit out of control. And here we can see how it’s also the starting point — of the war on terrorism, of different things — and it’s one of the reasons for a lot of problems happening now in our modern time, how it relates to the Iraq War and the Vietnam War.

Filmmaker: The first time I became acquainted with this project was at Rotterdam through the 2021 Cinemart. Our batch at the Young Critics Programme awarded it a prize.

Trương: That’s why I was remembering you!

Filmmaker: This is maybe one of the few instances I’ve seen a film from genesis to its release.

Trương: It’s great to see how, incidentally, we started from the same moment in cinema and now, we meet here.

Filmmaker: In 2021, I was so struck by how its moving parts exhumed this underground love story. What has changed about it since then, especially after participating in so many labs and project markets about the story and the treatment?

Trương: A lot. When I was at Cinemart, we hadn’t scouted [locations] yet. It changed but at the same time, it didn’t change much. [Laughs] Of course, we have to adapt to real locations and real conditions. Some scenes we had to cut out. Some scenes, we had to film differently because of budget problems. We always had to adapt during the shooting period. Then we come to the editing. Because [when] someone like you who has read the script sees the final film, [you realize] the film is simpler. The [initial] script had different subplots and sub-characters, but in the film we didn’t have that anymore. It’s the nature of filmmaking: Nobody knows the final film.

The location is the most difficult thing to find. I think that determined a lot of things we can or cannot shoot. I wanted to shoot in a real underground mine, but after scouting it’s almost impossible. We couldn’t shoot in a real underground mine for safety reasons. It’s very dangerous. It’s very small, claustrophobic, and of course, the company didn’t allow us. Accidents still happen. Every year, they have one or two. So we had to build the set in a cave and that limited a lot of the intention. But I think it’s not bad, what we got in the end.

Filmmaker: The locations are beautiful — the beaches, mountainsides in the Central Highlands and even the town. How did you find them? And what other adaptations did you make when you found these locations?

Trương: Actually, the locations are spread over the North and South [of Vietnam]. The main location is the coal mining town where Nam and all the characters live. It’s a real coal-mining town. I like to build research based on newspapers before I really go to the location and I think that was really helpful, because reading newspapers and trying to connect everything felt a bit like journalistic investigation. You can see and reduce the possibilities. Then at the end, you have a few names of locations you should go to. The town is a very small town. It had this timeless feeling. They have a real coal mine there and the company agreed for us to shoot there. So, it’s all easy. 

We changed some scenes to adapt to the location, like the river. In the script, we don’t see the river. There is no black river. But then when I saw the river, it was nice. It’s strong. The idea that they had to dig in the river to find coal aligned with the narrative of the film about digging into the earth. So, that’s why we see the scene where Nam and his mother dig in the river to try and find coal.

The house of Nam and his mother was very important. It had to be a house where they really made coal. Everything had to be blackened, to have a certain texture, and that’s very hard if we had to build [it]. When you watch the film, you might think it’s all set design. But no, all of the locations are real. We really worked hard to find real locations and tried to adapt the scenes.

Then come the questions of planning and budget. So, if we have this main location—let’s just say the town—I would try to find everything around and inside the town so we don’t have to move so much. Otherwise, it would be a disaster for the budget. It’s the surprise of life that what we needed to find was actually not so far from where we were. So, all of the main locations in the film are in the same town and we’re lucky for that.

There’s, of course, the forest. I had to adapt a lot, because we couldn’t move between forests that were very far. It’s funny, because in the first scene where they go to the south, we see the skeleton of an elephant.

Filmmaker: I was actually going to ask about that.

Trương: That elephant is in the real location. When I saw that, I thought: ‘Wow, it’s very beautiful;, so let’s try to put it in the film”—because it’s also about the bones, you know? I rewrote the script, the dialogue for the scene so that when the veteran would mention an elephant that he saw while watching the night with Nam’s father when we go there later and we see the skeleton of the elephant, it makes sense. I wanted to match reality.

Filmmaker: How did you access the Ba Chúc Memorial? It’s such a striking image — the Grievous Tree leading up to it, the bones inside the memorial, the lotus-like architecture of the exterior. It becomes this conduit between the past and present and reiterates this theme of how the bones of yesterday persist until today.

Trương: The first time I visited this memorial was on my personal trip in around 2016 or 2017. I came to that memorial without knowing about this place. When I was inside, it was strong because of the architecture and how the bones looked down on you behind the glass. Somehow, the memory of that visit to the memorial stayed with me. That mise-en-scène, where we see few people, families in the background sitting on the bench talking, is an exact replica of my photograph of the memorial back then. So, there’s this layer of trying to reenact the memory of what I saw.

This memorial is for the victims of the Khmer Rouge Massacre on the Vietnam side. This part of the history is less known. Not many people know about this memorial and many people, even the Vietnamese, would be surprised when they see this memorial. When we shot the film, they already renovated, so everything looked new. But when we were there, everything looked even stronger with the state of the memorial back then. But of course, we cannot do anything. We cannot touch everything. So, we just capture and edit.

Filmmaker: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you work with a more improvisational nature. What was the shooting process like? And how did you arrive at the visual language of the film?

Trương: What we cannot change is the spirit of the film, of what we want to say. I think with my cinematic approach, I still managed to keep what I wanted at the beginning—the framing, the camera movements, the expression of the characters, that lyrical feeling of the story where the characters speak their heart, speak their feelings. I think those things still are under my control. What we adapted actually was mainly the script, because it changed to match with the location, like what I mentioned about the elephant, or the dialogue.

For example: When the veteran at the end of the film confesses, given the pre-production, we changed the story of the confession to match his real emotion. I think these were the biggest and most important changes that happened with pre-production. The next biggest adaptation was the editing. Because, for me, it’s the time where I want to try possibilities for the stories. We tried a lot. The new story is written through the voiceovers—which are actually not in the script nor the shooting. It only happened during the editing and that happened through improvisation, bringing all of these elements together.

Filmmaker: The soundscapes you created [with sound designer Vincent Villa] have a lot of composed silences that are occasionally disrupted by mining explosions or trains. But there are instances where you use Anh Ang’s music and even voiceover. How did you choose when those silences would be broken and what would break those silences?

Trương: What we see is small and limited by the frame, but what we hear enlarges our sensation. For example, the scenes with the explosion in the mine: We always see a limited frame — a group of miners waiting. Then we hear a huge explosion that brings the audience to imagine a very deep and large coal mine. Likewise, the treatment of the sound also goes along with the themes. We don’t see but we hear a lot. 

There are only two shots of complete silence, when the sound completely disappears and what we see is only landscape. I like the use of silence. I already used this in my previous film The Tree House (2019), when sound disappears and what we see is the image in silence. I feel like silence is very strong. It creates this attachment to what we are seeing. It has something to do with the physical state of the audience because when it’s silent, suddenly what we hear is ourselves in the cinema. It creates an interesting sensation. When the sound comes back, the audience jumps back into the reality of where they are, which is the cinema.

Then we have the music in the barber shop. It’s a scene where we use a lot of voices from the radio, different songs. I think this particular scene needed some kind of romantic feeling, which is why we put the audio from the radio. We had the excuse to put [in] the music, but I didn’t want to use music as a soundtrack. At the same time, I wanted the audience to feel the sensation, the emotion, that the music brings to them. But the audience has to have distance from the music. I didn’t want them to indulge in the emotion. We decided on a treatment: using the radio from the neighbor, so you cannot hear so clearly but the emotions are still conveyed to you.

The song [“Oi Tinh Yeu,” performed by Ahn Ang] is very nostalgic, very melancholic in this barber shop. It’s the transition moment that allows the characters to speak about the separation to come. The customer in the barbershop shares about his wife who is working overseas and sending money back home, and this [encourages them] to speak about their love story. I think music helps in this case because it’s one of the most used cinematic languages. When it appears, the audience immediately gives themselves to the emotion. We use it in the barber shop, in the birthday, and of course, in the end.

Filmmaker: Now that we’re talking about the love story, you made a short film, The Men Who Wait, in 2021 that competed in Berlinale and was nominated for a Teddy Award which also follows a relationship between two miners. In the process of making that short, what about the relationship in Viêt and Nam became clearer?

Trương: The Men Who Wait was quite different from Viêt and Nam. Of course, we still had this background of the coal miners and the coal mining industry. But in the short, it looked like the future, when coal mining’s already shut down, like the present in Europe. What we see in the short film is the mountains of the coal mining industry. It also holds the idea of the fossilization of the past already, even if it was only 50 years ago. The trees are already growing. The forests are already growing in what used to be the coal mine. That story talks about the continuation of the past that transforms into this intimate encounter between two old men whose fathers used to be miners.

But in the film, we see quite a direct encounter of their bodies, just like in the short film. During the process of making the short film… I think everything relates from one film to another, but not in a direct way, but in more of a subtle, mysterious and cinematic way. For example, in the short film, we see a shot of the mountain and in Viêt and Nam, we also see these shots of the mountain. Then how the bodies are exposed in both films. In the short film, the two older men are talking about their fathers. In Viêt and Nam, we also see a scene like that, when they’re lying naked and talking about their fathers.

Filmmaker: How did you find the actors, especially Viêt and Nam? And how did you communicate what would essentially differentiate the two crucially?

Trương: I think the priority for the casting was that they were non-professional actors. We opened the casting call. It’s a long process. For Ba, the veteran, of course he’s a real veteran, because we needed to find a veteran who really lost one arm, so this cannot be an actor. We had to go to different veteran organizations and disabled organizations, and then luckily we found [Viet Tung Le]. Somehow, he had a talent like an artist to be in front of the camera and behave like himself and he can tell the story his own way. That makes the film convincing and natural. So we were quite lucky to have him because otherwise, it would be tricky because of the requirement of his physical appearance.

But for Nam, [Thanh Hai Pham]’s a friend of a friend of a friend. I came to see his performance, because he’s more of a performance artist than an actor. From his appearance and performance, we see a guy who’s enduring; [who has] a kind of strength inside him without needing to speak. I think that’s a quality I needed to find for Nam. Nam endures something inside him and we feel that strength, that burden, but we cannot explain [it].

For Viêt, [with Duy Bao Dinh Dao], I wanted to find that sense of softness. [He]absorbs other people’s stories, stays behind but is actually the stronger person in a couple, who has the vibe of an elder brother who protects the younger brother. Something like that. This would be an interesting combination between the two. 

To make them different from each other? Hm…it’s actually the contrary. I wanted to make them look the same. [Chuckles] There are a lot of wide shots with the two of them in the frame from a distance. For many in the audience, they’d be confused: Who is who? They don’t know who is who by only watching the shot, because they have quite the same haircut. Most of the time, they are dressed in similar clothes. From afar, they look similar. They are transferable. They are switchable [in] their roles, their personalities. I would like it to be like that to have this mythical feeling, in a way. It looks like they are from the same family, from the same mother and father, the same body. They carry the vibe of a mythical story — of two persons who share everything, [who are] the same, but soon they must face a future of separation. This is the tragedy.

Filmmaker: Is this why they’re never named throughout the film? Even in the credits, they’re credited together as Viêt and Nam.

Trương: Yes. That goes back to the mythical feeling. We don’t need to know who they are, what their name is, their identity.

Filmmaker: Your films have a lot of mothers and I know you have a strong relationship with your mother. Maybe this is personal, but is there any aspect of your own relationship with your family that informs Viêt and Nam, especially because the mother is so prominent in this film?

Trương: Yeah, a lot. The state of the family in the film is a lot like my family. Of course, my father is still alive and he didn’t go to the war. But I’m talking about the absence of the father and how the mother, like my mother and Nam’s mother, is the one who takes care of the family, the one we see most of the time inside the house; that feeling of motherly presence and fatherly absence and the mother and son’s relationship. In my family, my parents had four sons and no daughters. That makes it stronger, the relationship between mother and sons, mother and men. I transferred that into the film. But it takes another approach, another perspective that’s bigger because the father of Nam goes to war. It’s something more historical.

Actually, it’s quite funny because [Thi] Nga [Nguyen] is the name of the actress. She didn’t want to go to the casting, but she went with a friend who applied for the film. During the casting of her friend, I saw her and felt that there’s something interesting in this woman. I asked her to do a small test and it went surprisingly well. After that, we tried more tests with her and eventually chose her to play the mother.

It’s funny, because the character of Nam’s aunt, the rich woman in the film with the big house, I copied that character from my real aunt who is also rich and who also behaves a bit similar to the character in the film. Some characters I copied from my family. And that situation of father and mother was also seen in the film.

Filmmaker: The gestures throughout the film are so romantic. Viêt and Nam do such small things to express intimacy and care — holding hands under the table, circling each other on motorcycles as a farewell before training, cleaning each other’s ears. At some point, Nam professes that one of these acts brings him close to seeing his father’s face. Where did that idea come from? Because it solidifies one of the film’s theses — that intimacy and love can bring us closer to some shared history.

Trương: The moment when our minds become blank, when the body begins to belong to another body, when everything becomes one and suddenly becomes empty… In that state of consciousness, something appears—in this case, his father. I think it has something to do with psychoanalysis. I feel like in the most intimate moments of our personal lives — I don’t want to use “history” because it’s too big — but the events, the “history,” find a way to appear in a brief moment.

Filmmaker: Your work often straddles borders and captures the tensions between two opposing forces — the real and the surreal; the past and the future; memories and falsehoods that masquerade as memories; the natural and the urban, and so forth. You’ve made dozens of short films and three features now. In these explorations, have you grown closer to understanding these tensions or why there are borders that need to be crossed in the first place?

Trương: That’s true. I don’t know why, but in my films there are always multiple layers, narratives, and sometimes, there are tensions between them. Maybe I’m very gritty about life because I want to connect everything, to try to see life in a full view. In doing so, it means I have to bring different and at times paradoxical events, layers, times, characters, stories, approaches into one film. It only makes it difficult to try and balance and harmonize everything. 

But this view, this way of telling stories, has something to do with how I see and perceive life and people. I can say the way I see a person or event is somehow spiritual. I try to understand the present, of course. But I also try to understand the past and the future, and how everything relates together in this precise moment, in this encounter between me and them. So that point of view of life translates into the film.

Cinematically speaking, I think it relates to my perception of documentary and fiction. Because I don’t see the difference between them. From an outsider’s point-of-view, there are differences. But when I make a film, I don’t see that. So that’s why in the film — whether this film or other films — we can see there are layers of documentary narration and layers of fictional narration. The challenge of the filmmaker here is to blend them together in one film. 

Filmmaker: Viêt and Nam is an international co-production between eight different countries. I know you left film school because you wanted to be more independent. What was the co-production process like for you? How do you maintain and communicate your voice and vision amidst competing interests and understandings?

Trương: I’m very lucky to have these producers. I know that to make this kind of international co-production, it could easily become a nightmare because of the nature of communication. We are different people and have communication problems, and that could be the starting point for different mistakes and disasters. But I’m lucky to have these producers and am grateful because I realized that everyone joined the film because of the belief in the film itself, in the quality of the film. That helped a lot. Otherwise, if the producers don’t believe in the quality of the film, it would be more difficult.

We still have these consistent structural problems in international co-production structures. Eight countries have different regulations, different deadlines, different cash flow requirements. How do you solve everything at the same time as the shooting period? It’s a huge question. From my experience in the film, some funding structures — like cash flow and money release — need to be revised from the perspectives of the funders. Some regulations from them make it really, really difficult for us to have a smooth shoot. But we cannot expect that to come soon.

Filmmaker: In your director’s statement in 2021, you wrote about how you were aware that this film would cause controversy in Vietnam because it touches on the sense of nationalism generated by state propaganda. I know there still isn’t a local distribution scheme for the film. Is there any trepidation about its release and reception locally, when the time comes?

Trương: The film is actually banned in Vietnam.

Filmmaker: Oh. When did you find out?

Trương: A few days ago.

Filmmaker: I’m so sorry about that.

Trương: The question is now how to deal with this. As a filmmaker, I don’t want the audience to remember my film as just another film banned in Vietnam. But at the same time, with this decision from the Cinema Department, this becomes a narrative about the film and the life of the film.

Regretfully, I think the film has been seen from a different perspective in Vietnam by the Cinema Department. By approaching it from that perspective, they see the film as different from what I intended to do and what I wish the audience to see. We can see that there are different stories in the film, that the film is probably big in scale, but eventually, it becomes a personal feeling from me as a filmmaker to the stories of my country, Vietnam. All the characters are seen and all the stories are told through a tender and emotional way. So I hope that someday, some people can see that — that the film is a tender and emotional expression of what’s happening in the country from a Vietnamese filmmaker.

Filmmaker: Is it possible to appeal the decision?

Trương: I think time will appeal for us. It’s quite sad indeed. But what else can we do? We cannot do anything.

Filmmaker: It’s not how I envisioned this conversation to end, but Viêt and Nam centers around this idea of home and the different tensions that rip us from our homes and prevent us from returning to them. There’s this placelessness — a sort of physical, economical, emotional and even political exile — that your characters feel, which now unfortunately seems to apply to the film. But your conclusion is remarkably touching, depicting how companionship is a balm to this homelessness. Why end with this image?

Trương: From my perspective, it looks like a fairytale. We know there’s something not real here. They’re in a coal mine, stuck. Then they’re in a truck. Then actually, they’re floating in the ocean. Over that, we hear the story of a prince and the watermelon, who is exiled by his king to survive by himself, who manages to grow some watermelon and survives, hoping to one day return home. So, in a way, it’s sad. It’s melancholic. It brings a question of reality when we see them stuck in the container. But with the combination of the story, the music, the image at the end of something like a dream, everything all at once creates that dreamy feeling more than an image that was heavily realistic. That’s what I want to end the film with. The music brings something so sweet. I don’t want to end the film so heavily, on an image of stuckness. There’s something about dreams and fantasy, about love, about hope to return home.

‘Viêt and Nam’ will have its World Premiere on May 22 at the Un Certain Regard section of the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham