The children of the Vietnamese Diaspora might have the most interesting relationship with their roots of all the second generations of the major immigrant groups in the United States.
They're allowed back to Vietnam, and many of them visit (myself included), but many them feel almost a complete disconnection from the Fatherland. Their parents stressed learning the language, but without people to practice with or experience with tonal languages, their abilities may be a little lacking. Depending on where they grew up, they might barely have a Vietnamese cultural identity at all.
It's an interesting relationship that's defined by small, almost unnoticeable mannerism — mannerisms that Ham Tran's How to Fight in Six Inch Heels captures nearly perfectly. The hour-and-a-half romantic comedy is wickedly funny and beautifully paced, but where it really shines is in its treatment of the modernization of Vietnam and the relationship between Vietnamese Americans, local Vietnamese, and the country.
Santa Ana-raised Director Ham Tran (who splits his time between Orange County and Vietnam) and San Jose-born Actress/Writer Kathy Uyen (who is currently based out of Saigon and is a UCI Alum, zot zot) are possibly the only two people that exist who could so perfectly commit such a relationship to the screen. Six Inch Heel's characters are immediately memorable, and their actions are mirrored in the everyday life of young Vietnamese Americans — from the trouble with tonal languages to the intense pressure succeed and occasionally awkward interactions with Vietnamese locals.
The film headlined the wonderful Viet Film Fest, hosted by Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association, just last week, and will be showing May 3 at the LA Asian Pacific Film Fest. If you can, you should go; the film is an unexpected hit with stateside audiences in part because it's just so good.
And now, an interview with Director Ham Tran
On the writing and rewriting process:
"The script was originally written by Tim [Tori] in English and translated into Vietnamese. It started out sounding very formal. It took us a few rewrites to get it right. After the first rewrite, it was still a weird mix of South, Central, and Northern Vietnamese, but we got it eventually."
On the difference between Vietnamese and Vietnamese American audiences:
"Vietnamese comedic sensibility is very vaudevillian. There's a lot of facial expression and a lot of physical movement. Compared to other movies in Vietnam, [Six Inch Heels] is paced much faster. It sort of tapped into this new sensibility in the Vietnamese viewing audiences."
On the surprise success stateside:
"I had no idea that it was going to do so well. It played in San Francisco, and the reception there was way crazy — it was better than our premiere in Vietnam. Kathy and I looked at each other, and it just sort of showed how American we are… I think part of the success is because of the pacing, but a part of it was also because of humor. We went with a mix — it's not just making faces like what the Vietnamese audience is used to. There's a lot of depth to appreciate."
On the future of Vietnam:
"Change in Vietnam is amazing. It's growing at such an exponential speed. I think the youth is starting to take over. That's reflected in the film, the modernization of Vietnam. That's something I mandated — there wouldn't be any shots of any rice paddies or the Notre Dame church in Saigon. Everyone's seen that. We wanted to show the side that's made such great progress."