interview: Director Mye Hoang, whose edgy film “Viette” closes SFIAAFF30, talks about coming of age traumatically and putting it all on film
The 30th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF30) closes its 10 day run this evening in San Jose and director Mye Hoang’s compelling first feature film Viette, which had its world premiere last Saturday in San Francisco, is sold out. Viette is an enthralling story modeled after Hoang’s own experience as Vietnamese American teen trapped in a very suppressive family environment, a situation that looks ok from the outside but in reality is toxic and life-threatening. When Veitte uses her older lover as a means of escape, she trades in one kind of pain and betrayal for another. The film captures a remarkable journey of private struggle, perseverence and reconciliation with the past. I caught up with Mye Hoang this weekend and she agreed to speak candidly about her courageous film and the secret demons many Asian Americans of the 1.5 generation may battle.
How did you come up with idea of making Viette and what does Viette actually mean?
Mye Hoang: Viette is based on my life as a young Vietnamese American woman (born in the US) during the most transformative years of my life, my late teens. I was trying to live my own life while being a dutiful daughter to my parents who were very traditional and didn’t speak English. It was a very painful family situation, and the experiences I had trying to break free were extreme and sounded like a movie to my friends who encouraged me to make this film. It took time but I realized that I was not alone in this. There are many young women I don’t know who have similar life experiences but don’t talk about them—the humiliation, fear, shame. And once I broke free from my family, I found myself in another very controlling situation in which I was very vulnerable. I wanted to explore all of that in the film and put it out there for others too, so that they don’t also have to feel alienated.
As for the title, “Viette” is the Americanized version of the common Vietnamese name, ‘Viet,’ which is often mis-pronounced and is broken down to the two-syllable “Viette.” Also, the character is a die-hard romantic and I felt this name best suited her (it has a little French ring to it).
How did you come to play Viette?
Mye Hoang: I knew what I wanted for the role and the picture and I knew that I was not going to compromise. We could not afford to pay the actors and it would have been a very risky situation to ask for nudity —no one would have done it. It’s also a huge risk to have someone agree and then back out at the last minute, compromising the film, so I cast myself in the role of Viette, knowing that no one else would be more committed to the project.
Viette also needed a certain sense of vulnerability that extended into her twenties and to project that vulnerability and loss of innocence. That comes with the way I look, my size and my experience.
This film spans 9 years with you playing Viette from age 18 through 27, about 9 nine years. Do you mind me asking you how old you are and how you managed to do this so convincingly?
Mye Hoang: I am 35. I have to thank my parents for the young gene. That was one complaint that I got from the film’s first screening that I looked young throughout the film and didn’t age. I really did try to look and act older.
What is the 1.5 generation exactly and does the term apply particularly to an Asian-American phenomenon? Is it as simple as the children are growing up in the U.S. but their parents who brought them here are unassimilated and enforcing a traditional lifestyle that seems out of place in America?
Mye Hoang: Basically, it’s being in between the first and second generation. I/Viette was born in the U.S. Technically, I should be 2nd generation but I had live by 1st generation rules. I should be assimilated but am kept from fully doing so.
Although I’m not an expert of Asian American studies, I do believe 1.5 generation can apply to both the community at large as well as to non-Asian communities. I’ve heard it used.
I have older siblings like the one depicted in the film who were born in Vietnam but were educated in high school and beyond in the U.S. Technically, I’m not sure which generation they would fall into; but I know they had the same difficulties as me growing up, if not more so.
In this film you chose to depict the father as the harsh disciplinarian who beats and verbally abuses his child. The mother, who is depicted as powerless and also under his thumb, capitulates and lets him go way too far, at least by American standards. Are there some family situations you have heard of where the mother is the perpetrator of violence and, if so, how is that different?
Mye Hoang: When I was young, it was actually my mother who was the harsher of my two parents and, later, it was my father. She was definitely a believer in physical punishment and I am not sure why that is because she never spoke about it. It probably had something to do with her being unhappy about being in the States and about her being so isolated and it was hard for her and she took that out on me. In the film, the father has all these fears about Viette, especially about her being ruined before marriage which will reflect poorly on the family. He doesn’t seem as concerned for her welfare as he does about this. He is not able to be calm and to talk things through rationally. She knows this and hides who she really is from him and from her mother. He also displays a very strong distrust, intolerance, of her relationship with a Caucasian which is also very common among fathers whose daughters go with White guys.
Ironically, the reason why they go to the U.S. is to escape the life in Vietnam and to provide their children with a better life than they had there. Instead, they create this private hell which seems like it might be worse than the situation they left. It does all backfire. I wanted to show how it backfired for everyone though—the parents as well as for Viette. And that is what really happened in my life too. Without realizing it, she in the movie, and me in my life, went from an abusive family into another abusive and controlling relationship. In both cases, I felt I had very little power and I wanted to show that for Viette too.
That first love relationship does represent a very real bond for Viette as well as for her boyfriend, but over time, this develops into an increasingly unhealthy situation. She is trapped and she knows the truth but isn’t facing it.
Mye Hoang: Yes and that is what really happened and it’s common. The situation in her family conditioned her to be like a child and to accept control. She bonds to Matt sexually and emotionally and because the family is so unhealthy, she is very conflicted and really relies on him. She loses herself in Matt and when she leaves them for him, pretty soon, she is trapped again.
The issue of marriage also figures significantly. They are together for nine years and she dreams of marriage but they never marry. Why?
Mye Hoang: Well it’s complicated. In real life, I did get married and I took it very seriously. We were together for 9 years and so we felt very married. To simplify the story in the film, and to keep the budget trim, I omitted any kind of wedding for Viette but it was part of the dream for her. They were in a long-term relationship that she took very seriously and yet she knew all along what the conflict areas were going to be. She stayed and it got very out of control.
I understand that her parents were intolerable but she also leaves her older sister. Can you explain that relationship to me—it seems strange that she doesn’t make any attempt to get back in touch with her sister and find out how she is.
Mye Hoang: In actuality, the sisters were not that close. The sister is older and, at the most important times, sides with the parents when it comes to Viette—she wouldn’t dare defy them the way Viette does. There’s that pivotal scene where the sister betrays Viette and shatters any bit of trust. I think that says it all for the complicated kind of relationship (or lack of) that they had. There was a huge age gap too, and a lot of resentment because the older sister wouldn’t stand up for Viette. She, of course, also had to deal with the consequences of Viette’s defiance of the parents which must have been very difficult.
How did your experience impact your sense of identity? Do you describe yourself as Vietnamese American or just American?
Mye Hoang: I am Vietnamese American but if you ask me how I feel, I don’t really feel Vietnamese, nor do I have any strong ties to the culture. Had I been able to embrace aspects of both cultures, it would have been easier to embrace the Vietnamese side and the language. I grew up in a family that never really talked or showed affection or even hugged and I never understood that. A lot of Asian Americans either really relate to this or they don’t. But I think anyone who has experienced extreme loss will be able to relate to Viette’s struggles.
Had you worked with any of the actors before?
Mye Hoang: No but it all worked out very well. Chi Pham, the father, had starred in All About Dad (2009), which came out a few years ago and this was his second film. Yen Ly, the mother, had also played the mother in All About Dad and Bang Bang. There are not many actors to choose from in the Vietnamese American community, but Chi and Yen are so generous and giving. We could not have pulled off the film without them. Sean McBride who played the boyfriend Matt had auditioned for the role— he was actually the very last audition and gave the best line reading. We were extremely lucky to find him. Many had shied away and possibly didn’t understand the material, but Sean is very intelligent and thoughtful. I think he has the most challenging role in the film because he has to display a wide variety of emotions, and he is convincing in each part. I didn’t feel like we rehearsed very much, yet I rehearsed with Sean the most because he has to carry the film as much as Viette does, and it was important to me that we’d feel comfortable doing the love scenes together. It was critical for those scenes to feel authentic, otherwise, why would the audience care about them if they didn’t seem in love?
Viette doesn’t shy away from sexuality. How did you use sex in the film and are there particular stereotypes/themes that you wanted to explore?
Mye Hoang: There’s a lot of sex sprinkled from beginning to end to foreshadow what is to come. It’s not just a story about family issues, there’s a relationship at stake here too. It’s very passionate and I tried to shoot it in a neo-realistic way, which is my style of the film. I wanted it to feel raw and honest. In much of American cinema, we tend to sugarcoat sex when in reality it can get really dirty, and even unnerving, if we were to see it from the outside. I also wanted to explore how their sex life changed as time went on, and as technology advanced. The internet and cell phones have introduced a whole new element into our lives, giving easy access to pornography, and are portals to new forms of infidelity. The intimacy they had in the beginning is no longer there in the end.
In creating Viette, and forcing yourself to revisit your past, what did you learn?
Mye Hoang: Writing it was a good way for me to really process what I had experienced because, for a long time, I was surprised by how everything had turned out in a short amount of time. It really seemed like a movie. I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve been traumatized by these events, which were a long time ago. I have a great circle of friends now and the film could not have been made without their tremendous love and generosity. However, there will always be this void in my heart for the dreams that didn’t come true, for reasons that were completely out of my control. I’m still learning to accept these facts of life. Often times the things we want out of life just aren’t in the cards. Sometimes we fall in love with people who aren’t good for us, or who are just plain not good people. I’ve done that repeatedly. I’ve been treated horribly by men who supposedly loved me. They love you for one minute and then easily dispose you for the next new thing. I’ve learned this is a common feeling (especially among women) in today’s times, and I’ve learned not to waste one more second on these people. It’s better to be alone than with someone who keeps hurting you. If there’s anything my film can impart on the viewer, it’s that.
What was the world premiere like?
Mye Hoang: Our first Q & A went on for over 40 minutes and a lot people had serious issues they wanted to talk about, so that was very positive. I’m glad that it has elevated this discourse and that it got to people. The film starts out all lovey-dovey and sensual but it drops into something serious and dark and that’s what I wanted.
I understand you are very involved in the world of Asian American film despite this being your first full-length film.
Mye Hoang: In 2002, I started the AFFD (Asian Film Festival of Dallas) during the period that I was going through all of this. It grew to become the South’s largest showcase of Asian and Asian American cinema but I eventually left that festival and moved away from my hometown of Dallas. I then moved to New York and became the public relations coordinator for ImaginAsian Entertainment and helped launch the first all-Pan Asian movie theatre in Manhattan. In 2005, I co-directed and produced a short comedy called Press or Say 2, which has been shown all over the world and has won several awards. Up until a few months ago, I worked in San Diego for the San Diego Asian Film Foundation/Festival, the 2nd largest showcase of Asian cinema in North America. I’ve probably rejected a lot of other filmmakers’ first films—always the worst part of the job—and I’m a little relieved to not be in that role for awhile.
Mye Hoang: We are going to the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in May and are trying to get Viette on the festival circuit. I don’t even think about making another film these days. I’m trying to find a job, and I’m just in survival mode. I’m not trying to be a filmmaker. I honestly think you have to be independently wealthy to keep making films. But if one day I do return to filmmaking, I’m interested in documentaries.
Viette‘s trailer on Vimeo: http://vimeo.com/37965287
You can learn more about Viette at http://undertowpictures.com/
or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/viettemovie
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