Tuan Phan talks to actress, producer and poet Jenni Trang Le about film and life in Ho Chi Minh City. Jenni’s most recent project was as producer of the film Loi Bao, released in. Photo by Romain Garrigue.
You’re Viet Kieu, but were you born here in Vietnam and returned, or were you in the States and came back?
I’m nguoi My goc Viet, an American with deep Vietnamese roots. So I was born in Houston, Texas and didn’t come back for the first time until 2004.
I was an assistant producer for a feature film called Holly which shot in Cambodia. I was there for nearly three months, so I decided to go to Vietnam for the first time ever, since I was soooo close. At that time I only knew one person in Saigon, director Tuan Andrew Nguyen, who was the first Viet Kieu to move back that I knew of. I call him my Saigon staple, aka Patient Zero.
How have you found living and working in the city? What has been most frustrating? What has been most illuminating or most rewarding?
I freakin’ love living and working in Saigon. I’ve been here for nine years and it still surprises me. The energy of this city invigorates me and because I’m a very extroverted person I love being able to have human interactions everywhere I go. Most frustrating would probably be finding love. As a woman in Vietnam you have to be very strong. As an American woman, I feel like you have to have even thicker skin to survive. Random people call you fat, dark, pimply, etc and you just gotta suck it up and not take it to heart. The old adage of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” doesn’t apply here. So I am definitely a strong woman and to be honest, finding a man who loves strong women is hard here. Can’t compete with the “bánh beos” …. those girls who are delicious but with no nutritional value — you know the type!
But at the same time… everybody being up in my business is also what is illuminating. That it really is a community and everyone notices everyone. I can’t tell you how many times Grab bike drivers have said, oh I picked you up the other day. Or even pre-Grab bike days where it was just normal xe om drivers (I don’t drive here)…. sometimes a driver would recognise me three years later!
One of the biggest charms of Vietnam is that people make time for you. There’s great importance placed upon face to face interaction. If I was on the phone talking with someone for more than five minutes, that person will say, “hey you wanna meet for coffee or something?” There’s always time for coffee. Before I moved here I wouldn’t make any plans. I would just land, put my SIM card in and say, hey! I’m back. Next thing you know, I had three people coming for coffee in 20 minutes and ten others ready to grab dinner. It’s beautiful like that. People are busy here, but they make time.
Most rewarding is for sure improving my Vietnamese and getting close to my family. I actually only have some family in Hanoi but otherwise in Saigon it’s just me here.
Can you tell us about your current projects? Were there particular projects that were especially fun, exasperating, or ridiculous?
My latest feature film, Loi Bao, came out on December 22 last year. It’s directed by Victor Vu. Victor is a very good friend of mine since 1999 and while I’ve been an assistant director to him, this is my first film as his producer. What a crazy project. Shooting in Dalat is beautiful and the weather is amazingly cold. Unfortunately we were hit with four tropical storms, which made us cancel five shooting days at a huge cost. We went way over budget.
I have many film set stories. One was when shooting Bi, Don’t Be Afraid!, an art house feature in Hanoi. Interestingly this was the first film crew I’ve been on where I was the only “foreigner”. The whole crew was mostly from Hanoi. We had a nhau (drinking) scene and my director, Phan Dang Di, wanted everything to be as real as possible. He wanted the actors’ “sweaty faces to turn red and the veins pop out of their necks”… so we gave them real beer.
We basically shot the scene until they got so drunk they couldn’t remember their lines. And you know what? It was probably the best nhau scene in the history of Vietnamese cinema.
Have you felt the city, and country, to be invigorating or frustrating — or both — for people with creative ideas and projects?
Obviously we should talk a little about censorship. I think the bottom line is a concern that the general population is very influenced by cinema. For me, I’m so used to it (censorship) that instead of being frustrated with it, I find creative ways around it. If you want to make a ghost story but can’t have a real ghost, then maybe the ghost was all in the mind. So now we’re doing a film surrounding mental health issues. It’s a new topic. A whole new direction. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.
You gotta go with the flow and find solutions. That’s essentially what a producer does.
What’s to come in the future for Jenni Trang Le in Saigon?
I love producing and working on projects that mean something for me. But my origins were in writing and poetry. I want to write my screenplays finally. I’d like to put time to do my stories – centred around strong women and women themes. I feel the film industry (worldwide, not just Vietnam) is still so male oriented and we need to change that. So there are a handful projects I would like to write and direct.
And I’m also getting old, so if i could fall in love in the near future and start popping out babies that would be swell. If I don’t fall in love before my geriatric eggs stop working, then I will adopt. After nine years of failed dating in Vietnam, I’ve realized I need to import.
Jenni’s latest project Chang Vo Cua Em (My Mr Wife) will be in theatres in August.