Down in the Dump
Photo by Daniel C. TsangHanoi filmmaker Do Minh Tuan hopes his fifth feature, Foul King, elicits some compassion for Vietnam's poorest of the poor, even—as he explains in this interview—from Little Saigon residents who detest the Vietnamese government. We recently spoke with Do—who is currently a visiting Rockefeller fellow at the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts, Boston—at a private Vietnamese-American residence in Westminster.
OC Weekly:Why did you do this film? Do Minh Tuan: I would like to relate the stories of people who live at the bottom of society. Is this a critique of the modernization program (doi moi)?
I have quite a few messages in the movie. From under a certain lens, actually, it is a depiction of human conditions . . . within this garbage site, but definitely all of these people are striving to achieve a better life . . . in their own way.
You depict a wedding at the dumpsite. Is that an optimistic look at the future?
The wedding scene addresses the root of the culture because wherever people are in an economic situation, they always yearn for modernization, especially in the areas where it is deeply stricken by poverty in the world. . . . So, evidently, what we see is the ultimate "American dream" . . . in all parts of the globe, including Third World countries.
How many feature films are made in Vietnam now every year?
Some time ago, about 100 films were made a year. Nowadays, less than 10 annually are supported by government grants, with a limited budget equal to about a kilometer of highway construction.
Is there competition from people with camcorders? Is there a lot of independent filmmaking now?
There are considerations of forming private companies, but the government is still considering it [film] a propaganda tool. . . . There are people who are standing by to invest in film and support us. . . . They are just waiting for a better opportunity.
Do you want to be an independent filmmaker?
I have been inspired to work independently and always look out to become in the same standard with my colleagues in the world, and I hope I will be able to do that.
You picked the topic of a rubbish dump. Is that politically correct? Does the government rather you do something else with your film?
The Ministry of Culture and the Cinema Department did not agree on the title [in Vietnamese, it's King of the Garbage Dump] in the beginning, fearing the insinuation of Vietnam as a garbage dump. . . . They finally agreed because it speaks about the beautiful relationships among people living in the garbage dump.
What is it like at Joiner Center doing research? Is there a lot of cultural exchange?
I have found that very delightful. [I] also discovered areas where there are misunderstandings, mishaps. . . . These misunderstandings are actually misunderstandings from the past, from both sides. . . .
One of the "misunderstandings": There's a lawsuit brought by some people in Little Saigon against the Joiner Center for having people from Vietnam as research scholars.
Those from Vietnam do not represent any officials of government. . . . This is definitely a misunderstanding we haven't come to agreement with.
Do you find people in this area suspicious of you, among theViet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese)?
It is easy to understand that people are not against me personally but allergic to the name William Joiner Center. . . . But after a while, they will see I'm exactly like them, that there's no difference.
Would you rather put on a play? You've said that a lot of your work is like theater.
I have two plays that have been staged at the youth theater in Hanoi, and it had become a phenomenon of the year 2002 . . . [with] sold-out tickets . . . and critical acclaim. The first play is called Life Depends on the Telephone, really about the market economy, how it pushes people to live depending on the services it entails. The second one is called The Only Child, about a son and his relationship with his father.
Do you think people from Little Saigon will come to seeFoul King?
By coming to see it, I am sure they will develop more of a compassion for those people actually living in the garbage dump or even those living in Vietnam right now.
What has changed your view about people here?
My understanding of America was definitely through Hollywood, and I have found it is much more peaceful, and I have felt closer to the American people who have opened so many doors of opportunity to me.
Americans always want to know what you did during the "American War"?
I was an only child, therefore I was not able to participate in this war. But I witnessed and went through the time of the war and have experienced many emotions that let me understand how the war went on.
Thanks to Newport Beach Film Festival programmer Andrew Le for serving as interpreter.
Foul King screens as part of the Newport Beach Film Festival at Lido Theater, 3459 Via Lido, Newport Beach, (949) 253-2880; www.newportbeachfilmfest.com. Thurs., April 10, 5 p.m. $8.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.