With seven films in the last seven years, Tran Bao Son has gone from average citizen to household name. On the heels of his latest movie, Quyen (Farewell, Berlin Wall), which chronicles the tumultuous life of a Vietnamese woman living in Germany during the fall of the Berlin Wall, the actor talks about what it’s like to play the bad guy, driving over the speed limit in Germany and bringing Vietnamese films to local audiences and beyond. By Dana Filek-Gibson. Photo by Vinh Dao.
You had an unusual introduction into the film industry: you were a businessman first and didn’t begin your career until later in life. Did you always know you wanted to act?
I started [acting] about eight years ago. I lived in New York and [during] the time I was there I was just working and doing business. I never had a chance to do acting. Maybe inside of me there was [a talent] I already had but nobody discovered it yet. When I came back to Vietnam, I married my ex-wife [actress Truong Ngoc Anh] and people started to ask me to play [roles]. That was 10 years ago.
For my first role, I worked with Dustin Nguyen and I won an award for that role [a Golden Kite, Vietnam’s highest acting honour, for Best Supporting Actor in 2008’s The Legend Is Alive]. Now, I have seven films. Besides acting I also do business: I have some real estate and investments in the States, in New York, and here, too. I opened my production house two years ago, so I just finished filming – I’m just producing it, I’m not acting – the film [Hy Sinh Doi Trai], which will come out in September.
Now that you’ve experienced the industry as both an actor and a producer, what is it like to be on the other side of the camera?
Producing is just a part of the business. I see potential in Vietnam. The film market is growing every day, more theatres are opening up and more Vietnamese films are opening up. I think that in another five years it will be very different. It all depends on the film: if you make a good film, you’ll be successful. I always pick a good director, a good crew and a good cast. If you have those three, it’s easy for you to win. And the script also, and PR, so that’s five.
In Quyen, you play Hung, a gangster with a checkered past who helps immigrants cross international borders. He’s not exactly a nice guy, and does some pretty terrible things in the film. Do you prefer playing the bad guy in movies?
In the trailer, the director [Nguyen Phan Quang Binh] wanted people to look at me like I’m a bad guy, but with this story I think in the beginning you will hate me but at the end you will love me.
I like to play those kinds of characters. They have a lot of colours. Different kinds of tones, different kinds of colours; I have to play every different scene. I have to change very carefully, because when you’re shooting a film you don’t shoot from the beginning to the end, so when I read the script I know exactly when I have to get to that point. In your head, you have to know exactly the whole picture. I really liked this role because I think it was very challenging for me.
Over the course of a few months, the cast and crew of Quyen filmed both in Vietnam and in Germany. There is a lot of fighting, fake snow and sex scenes in the movie. What was it like filming some of Quyen‘s more intense scenes?
I have done a lot of action films before but this film, the director didn’t want us to train at all. He wanted us to fight like it was real. More street fighting, you know? So whenever we had a scene like that, he explained how we would fight; we just went and fought for real.
I had an experience in Germany when we were racing the cars: if I drove a little bit over [the speed limit], they were so scared. They said: ‘Stop it! Stop!’ In Vietnam, you know, sometimes the actors just do whatever but in Germany they are very safe. They want to protect the actors and actresses as [best] they can. I love to drive fast and they said: ‘No! No! Oh my God, if anything happens to you we’re going to die!’ The whole crew was like: ‘Why did you drive like that? Please don’t drive like that!’
This film is set in Germany but most of its characters are Vietnamese. As someone who left Vietnam at a young age, how did you draw upon your own personal experiences to play this role?
This role is about a Viet kieu. I’m Viet kieu, too, so I have experience from the time I lived in New York. There were a lot of gangsters, there were a lot of mafia at that time, even in New York. Before, they had a gang called Born To Kill, or BTK. It’s a gang that was very, very popular in the 1980s and 1990s. I used some of the experiences that I’d seen, and I put them in the film to play the role.
At the time, I think that in New York – or not only Berlin but around the world – Vietnamese came from a different country. When they came, it was something so new to them; they didn’t know what they were doing so they just, most of them became like gangsters to survive. I used some of the experiences I saw in the past and put them in the film. That’s why I like the character. It’s not that I was in a gang before, but I saw a lot.
In the past few years, Vietnamese films like Dap Canh Giua Khong Trung (Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere), Lac Gioi (Paradise in Heart) and Huong Ga (Rise) have begun to push boundaries and tackle stories seldom covered on the big screen. Why do you think these films are gaining ground now? What are the challenges in bringing more of these stories to local moviegoers?
Before, there were a few of the movies that were different, but I don’t think it was the right time yet because, first of all, they didn’t have a lot of theatres in Vietnam. Right now, theatres in Vietnam are expanding very fast and Vietnamese people, they love to see Vietnamese films. They want to see something real, they want to see something like everyday life.
But when you do this kind of film your budget has to be very big. It’s probably a few times bigger than the other [films] so there aren’t so many production houses willing to do it. Just like me, I have three scripts in my company I plan to do this year. One I have to shoot in New York and Vietnam, so for those kinds of films I have to wait for the right time to do it because the budget is high. But I want to do it.
I want to have some films that I can bring to Venice, to Cannes or Berlin, Toronto or even the Oscars. I want to have something to bring to let the world see Vietnamese movies. It depends on the story. In Vietnam, I think with our history we have a lot of good stories. We have a lot of layers [and] so many histories, with the French, the Americans, the Chinese. In our history, we have been [through] a lot of struggle, so we have a lot of stories that the audience out there will want to see.