Saigoneer

Back Arts & Culture » Film & TV » 'Thưa Mẹ Con Đi' Producer Nguyễn Lương Hằng on Her Hopes for Vietnam's Indie Cinema

Nguyễn Lương Hằng is Zoom-ing in from Austin, Texas, to a town in northern Italy because she wants to make a film in her native Vietnam. Welcome to the world of independent Asian cinema.

The annual Far East Film Festival (FEFF) in Udine, Italy, champions the cause of commercial Asian cinema, but in recent times it has expanded its reach, setting up co-production programs that link the Asian and European film industries and help independent filmmakers get their movies made.

The poster of the Far East Film Festival in Italy.

That’s why we’re talking to Hằng, who splits her time between Saigon and Austin, but has brought her latest project — the LGBT-themed drama Youthfully Yours — to the Ties That Bind program hosted at FEFF from June 30 to July 2. In keeping with the times, the event was a hybrid of in-person and online attendees.

“We want to expand to new horizons and try for this very daring and artistic thing to be funded by private investors,” she explains.

Director, producer Nguyễn Lương Hằng.

Hằng entered the film world seven years ago, joining a film shoot as a crew member, as she wanted to learn her trade through real-life experiences. After directing a few short films as she gained experience — including The Story of Us (2014), which screened at the 2016 Focus on Asia Fukuoka Film Festival — she turned her focus to producing with Goodbye Mother (2019), known in Vietnam as Thưa Mẹ Con Đi.

One of the first LGBT films from Vietnam to tour the international festival circuit — to critical and audience acclaim — Goodbye Mother screened at the prestigious Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) in South Korea, and picked up the audience award at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival. The film was also picked up for streaming by Netflix.

Hằng is hoping that more independent Vietnamese filmmakers join her on the international festival circuit, and explore international co-production options. Along with FEFF’s Ties That Bind and Focus Asia platforms, other festivals are increasingly developing like-minded initiatives, among them the Hong Kong International Film Festival’s Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum and BIFF’s Asian Cinema Fund.

She believes the Vietnamese film industry is booming, and outside the commercial blockbusters that grab the lion’s share of receipts, there is enough room for independent filmmakers. She took time during FEFF to talk to Saigoneer about the producing process, and the high hopes she has both for her new film and Vietnamese cinema.     

How did you first film, Goodbye Mother, come about?

It was really a collaboration of close friends. I know this friend of mine, Nhi Bùi, who wrote the script and then I loved the story. The first time I heard him pitch the story, I was immediately attracted by it. I could even visualize the film’s ending. I was moved by the story. I never thought that I would work as a producer because before that I had only directed or wrote scripts. But at that point, I just wanted so bad to make that project happen and I realized that I had the skill set of a producer. So I decided to connect them to people who might be interested in funding, and then it took off from there.

And the whole thing seems to have worked out well?

It’s been great for both sides. Also, part of the reason why I was moved by the story is the subject matter itself because it handles LGBT subjects in a very gentle and close-to-your-heart way, the way it talks about relationships the LGBT people have with their family in a very honest way. I think that’s why it has been well-received by people everywhere, too.

Thưa Mẹ Con Đi is loved by fans for its nuanced portrayal of a Vietnamese family in the process of dealing a family member's gay relationship. 

Could you share your take on the current independent Vietnamese film scene?

A couple of years ago, we thought that there was very little chance for us. The mainstream themes of comedy, romantic comedy, horror and the same stuff dominated the market. But since around 2017–2018, a new Vietnamese indie wave has happened. People just make the movies and find a way for them to be distributed, and I think Goodbye Mother is a part of this wave. It’s working, and it is opening up so many doors for new talents in directing and producing. It’s looking very much more positive now than just a couple of years ago.

Can you make money? Can you get box office returns?

Actually that’s not the only thing that’s not so great. Sometimes, we don’t even manage to make our money back. But the great thing is that these projects have made great progress with the media and then discovered many new faces. So it’s proving that it could be done. There is alternative cinema to tune besides what we always see at the box office.

We're talking during the Ties That Bind workshop. What has led you here?

I am new to this whole concept of international co-production, especially with Europe. Goodbye Mother was 100% funded by Vietnamese money. But at this point of my career, we want to expand ourselves to new horizons and try more daring subject matter and there is more chance for very daring and artistic things to be funded by private investors. Investor equity in Vietnam is very flimsy and we do not have any public funds and grants. So the only way to do more daring and artistic projects is to go outside and co-produced with the world, it looks like Europe will be our favorite partner.

There is more room in the local cinema scene for independent projects like Thưa Mẹ Con Đi.

Are we seeing a growing trend of young independent Vietnamese filmmakers reaching out to the world?

Unfortunately, I don’t think there are so many young producers who know about these kinds of initiative. I should probably start to talk more and promote it to my peers. But generally, people only think about fighting funding wars in their own country. But that’s not the only way.

So what have you done so far with Ties That Bind, and how does the process work?

At first, we submit a project with the whole package from treatment to all the details, like the financing plan and so on to be considered. Once you get selected you get a chance to revise it and then present it with an older group of leaders, experts, and our fellow participants to get feedback on the creative, producing and financing side of the project. It’s very hands-on and well rounded in the sense that you get the opinions from both sides. It gives you more insights into your project. It’s all about their strength and weakness, from strategy to finance. Everyone knows a little bit and can contribute to score to your project based on their experience and where they are from. It’s really great and our project has grown from all those effects from last year. I did learn about pitching and improve my pitch but it’s a constant learning process.

Ok, how about giving it a shot then. Tell us about the project that you have brought to TTB.

The project is called Youthfully Yours and it’s a drama about a middle aged man who once abandoned his lover who was pregnant and then he never knew where she kept the baby and whether the baby was a boy or a girl. After going through a lot in his life, he's now facing this midlife crisis and suddenly the ex-lover comes back into his life. So this man, who has made a lot of mistakes in his past and is facing his midlife crisis finally has the chance to be a father and sort of like re-make himself.

Has the feedback been positive?

Yes. This project has potential. Although my director and I both know that this is a very challenging journey, it looks like there's some positive signs in the beginning for us to hold on to.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Vu Hai Anh was part of the FEFF Campus for aspiring film writers and critics.