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Inside the Poignant Vietnam Episode of Netflix Animated Series 'BoJack Horseman'

In season five of Bojack Horseman, an animated show that follows a self-loathing humanoid horse and 90s TV star BoJack, the producers devote an episode to Vietnam.

The trip involves BoJack's ghostwriter and one of the main characters in the show, Diane Nguyen, traveling to Hanoi in hopes of reconnecting with her Vietnamese heritage after a heartbreaking divorce. At the end of the episode, instead of the usual version of the show's theme song 'Back in the 90s' performed by indie pop band Grouplove, a Vietnamese rendition by Vietnamese-American singer-songwriter Thao Nguyen from the band Thao and the Get Down Stay Down plays. In an interview with IndieWire, Thao shared that she relied on her mom's help and the musical variety show Paris by Night during the translation process.

Video via YouTube channel Netflix.

Despite knowing conversational Vietnamese, Thao struggles when it comes to formal settings such as introducing people, which is the central theme in the original lyrics. Therefore, as she revealed in the interview, she sought help from her mom. She also turned to Paris by Night, a show popular among native Vietnamese living inside and outside of the US, for references. “I was like, ‘How are they introducing the television star on “Paris by Night”?’ That actually was my line of thinking."

Because Vietnamese is a tonal language, maintaining both the song's melody and an accurate translation was difficult for Thao. However, Vietnamese music often involves themes of loss and sentimentality, which fit the show's theme and Diane's character. The episode's focus on Diane's soul-searching journey also struck a chord with the singer-songwriter's experience of traveling to Vietnam for the first time.

“I remember channeling a wistfulness or some notion of regret that is actually very prevalent in the Vietnamese music I was exposed to growing up. Vietnam’s always been entrenched in some kind of war, some kind of loss of land and freedom. There’s a melancholy that I’m very familiar with in Vietnamese music.”

Photos via Reddit.

“The way ‘BoJack’ approached and rendered that experience of feeling like you don’t quite belong anywhere, I related to,” said Thao. “The people knew immediately that I was not born in Vietnam, not raised there. I am conversationally fluent, but they could tell immediately that I wasn’t a true native speaker.”

While the episode was praised for exploring a nuanced narrative of a Vietnamese-American character, some have an issue with the fact that the show features an all-white cast and Diane is voiced by Alison Brie, a white actress. The show creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, recently took to Twitter to express his regrets for the hiring decision.

"I love my entire cast, but if I were doing it today, I would not cast the show (or any show) with all white people. I've really soured on the idea of 'color-blind' casting as an excuse to not pay attention," he wrote on Twitter.

"We did a complete disservice to the character by making her so white. Obviously what white-coded means is subjective, and there are Asian women who relate to Diane and I don’t want to discount their experiences. But I do think we have avoided stories that could have been more interesting because of my own fear and guilt about the casting," he told Slate.

Nonetheless, the show has made an effort to hire more people of color. Vietnamese-American actress Hong Chau, who starred in the 2017 film Downsizing, is a recent guest star. For the episode where Diane goes to Vietnam, Vietnamese-American actress and writer VyVy Nguyen was brought in as a consultant.

Have a taste of the episode through this short clip below:

Video via YouTube user everthing TV.

[Top photo via Medium]

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