Love's Labor Lost
"Down! Down! Down!" respond a line of flag-waving folks, some holding umbrellas bearing South Vietnam's red stripes to shield themselves from the late Sunday sun.
Had you been on historic Main Street in Garden Grove any Saturday for the past month, you probably would have gotten an earful of similar sentiments.
Only these protesters aren't outside Viet Weekly's offices, where the conservative residents of Little Saigon have been flocking to loudly protest the Vietnamese-language paper, accusing its staff of supporting terrorism. They're at a parking lot across the way from Costa Mesa's Pacific Amphitheatre, where in a few hours, director Ringo Le's well-traveled movie musical, Saigon Love Story, will be shown in the county for the first time.
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Posters for the premiere billed it as a "red carpet" event—which Little Saigon anti-communist activists seem to have taken as a political statement.
Just yesterday, Fountain Valley resident Long Pham was at a Viet Weekly protest. Today, he protests the premiere and showcase of pop singers from Vietnam for two reasons: First, he says, the artists from Vietnam are here under Resolution 36, a 2004 policy issued by the communist government, which is supposedly designed to milk Vietnamese refugee communities of their hard-earned cash. The presence of overseas pop stars such as My Tam and Dam Vinh Hung "sends a false message that there is democracy and freedom in Vietnam," says Pham, who works as a nuclear engineer for Southern California Edison in San Diego.
Second, he says, the exportation of artists is largely one-way. The communists have no problem "taking advantage of our society" by sending performers out here to earn dollars, he says, but try sending Vietnamese-American artists to their home nation, and "the government will censor everything."
"Communist sympathizers can go to Vietnam, but not the other singers," he says.
Ringo Le is one of these communist sympathizers, adds Hanh Tang, another protester from Huntington Beach, pointing at his photo on a flier.
But Le's film is about love, isn't it?
"They have to use that message to infiltrate our community," she explains, holding up a color photocopy of Le's movie flier and reading out a portion that says the film "'will take you on a journey into the heart of modern-day Vietnam.'"
Le's flick will probably paint Vietnam and its government in a positive light, she says, as a nice place to visit and spend all those dollars.
Later, Tang says via e-mail: "In the film, of course, people would see beautiful things, in some sections in Saigon probably, and would never see how poor the majorities are."
Had she and the others crossed the street and plopped themselves down for Le's vaudevillian spectacle, they might have been pleasantly surprised. The film did not once illustrate the grandeur of the country. And if there were any subliminal messages screaming, "Visit me! And bring your dollars!" they were lost on the crowd.
Instead, the tale revolved around poverty and how the desire to please his mother and marry rich tore one baby-faced young man from his true love.
Perched on a ledge by the stage-right side of the outdoor venue, Le snorts at the portrait of himself as a communist sympathizer. He speaks to the Weekly just as his film starts up in the background.
The movie "was a love letter to my parents, basically," he says, as well as a journey "to understand what it means to be Vietnamese."
"I'm not promoting the country," adds the 29-year-old Cal State Los Angeles grad. "I'm promoting the culture."
Like so many others, Le left Vietnam as a refugee when he was an infant. His generation is hungry to find its cultural roots, he says, and yet, when they do, they're pigeonholed as communist supporters.
"What they are doing," he says of the commie-hunters, "is a mistake."
As for that offensive red carpet, it consisted of two rumpled, orangish rolls of red, each of which were probably a little more than 10 feet long, sitting side-by-side next to a large board printed with the film's name and sponsors—a sad facsimile of its Hollywood counterpart.
"Red in Vietnam culture is a sign of good fortune and prosperity," Le says, furrowing his brow at the anger his event sparked.
"They're saying red equals 'red scare.' Come on. This is the 21st century."
View the movie trailer below:
Click here for a slideshow of images from the protest and pre-movie concert.
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