One of Jeannie Nguyen’s earliest memories is metaphysical: In bed one night sucking her thumb, a preschool-aged Nguyen looked up at an acrylic painting her father had recently acquired of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck playing a game of baseball. Suddenly, a black vortex formed in the middle of the frame, producing the head of a translucent green tiger. As quickly as the apparition appeared, it vanished.
Apparitions aren’t seen as scary in Vietnamese culture—instead, they’re rather comforting. Such surreal aspects of childhood/adolescent memories and experiences, especially when it comes to navigating biculturalism, have inspired the 33-year-old filmmaker’s spiritual energy throughout her work. In her 2017 short, First Generation—revisited as a proof-of-concept earlier this year, and now in the early stages of episodic series development—Nguyen reflects on her experiences growing up Vietnamese American in California in the 1990s. My-Linh, the high school–aged protagonist who serves as an avatar for Nguyen, grapples with the omnipresence of European beauty standards, cultural pressure imposed by her immigrant mother and the uniquely excruciating experience of coming of age in America. Nguyen is deeply invested in exploring Vietnamese diaspora and culture in her films while unearthing truths about herself in the process. “Vietnam is always going to be a place I’m trying to figure out,” says Nguyen. “It will be something I continue to do throughout my filmmaking career. It’s my way of understanding my culture better.”
For Nguyen, filmmaking is a fairly recent endeavor. A child of refugees raised by a constantly working single mother, Nguyen always believed that the stability of a nine-to-five would satiate her the way her tumultuous childhood never could. It was only when she met her current boyfriend, a cinematographer, that her interest in filmmaking was piqued. Self-teaching combined with helpful advice from her significant other allowed Nguyen to ring in her 30th birthday by directing First Generation, her first short. One year after that melancholic debut, Nguyen traveled to Vietnam to direct Sigh Gone, a playful, atmospheric short about lost love shot on location in the country’s largest city. Nguyen went back to L.A. in 2019 for Clam Dog, a hilarious misadventure in millennial ennui about a food courier who debates delivering a tainted order.
Nguyen’s quest for self-understanding includes exploring her family’s country of origin and its global diaspora. Currently, she is in the early stages of developing a feature centered on a Vietnamese family of refugees living in a dilapidated floating village on Cambodia’s Tonlé Sap Lake. As the waters rise, the family hurries to rebury a loved one before the grave is lost to the murky waters. Intending to shoot on location in Cambodia, Nguyen hopes filming can commence in 2022.
Centering Vietnamese narratives in her films is also Nguyen’s way of personally combatting the prevailing image of Vietnamese people in American films as faceless soldiers or nameless casualties of war. “Vietnam is a country, not a war,” she reiterates. With each subsequent project, Nguyen grants herself space to explore all the realms she inhabits. Much like the ethereal green tiger that appeared above her childhood bed, Nguyen’s work occupies space between two worlds—imagined yet tangible; unfamiliar yet inherited.—Natalia Keogan/photo by Andrew Yuyi Truong