Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 2011. That was the year I thought I would quit making films forever and live in another country. I packed up 1 suitcase and went to live with my sister, Thuy, who owns a luxury spa in the heart of the city.
I lived in a 100 square feet room with minimal décor. Slept on a fold-out lounge couch—blue. A sturdy diplomatic style wooden desk that faced a narrow vertical window where I sat and wrote—and looked out into the night sky. It is the same window from which you could hear the live rooster crow every morning—I missed that sound. I had not heard the sound of a live rooster waking me up naturally since the age of four.
I moved to Vietnam for several reasons: 1) cuz I hate the heat and wanted to face and overcome a phobia. I figured if I go to one of the hottest places on the planet, I could deal with anything 2) I wanted to free myself from everything American: news, media, society 3) I wanted to devote my life to writing. I dreamed of becoming a sci-fi writer.
I wrote all my friends and told them I wasn’t going to make films anymore: some of them felt like I had died. And in fact, I did, but I didn’t know it.
I had gone to school and studied culinary arts a few years before and my sister hired me on (without pay) to build her kitchen from scratch. I did so, created the menu and spent a great deal of time working with contractors and designing the commercial kitchen.
At night, I met with an American friend, Lauren, and hopped on her motorbike. We’d go to Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (a California coffee chain that dominates Saigon) and talked for hours. We’d go to amateur nights and hear communist rock-n-roll and attend art shows where we met other artists from America, a Bostonian, and folks from the east coast. It was cool to meet bohemian Vietnamese artists who were trying to be outspoken about anti-establishment, homosexuality, nudity and all things forbidden in a communist country. And by the way, communism is refreshing, liberating. It is honest, transparent and has its place.
We went to rock bars and heard Vietnamese dudes sing faithful imitations of Hotel California. I looked over at Lauren and saw her face screwing up with confusion and awe. Watching her was almost more funny than watching the bands.
One day, my sister and I stopped getting along so I took whatever money I had left and took a tour up to northern Vietnam. I asked Lauren to meet me on the other side.
In Vietnam, everyone thought I was Japanese because the Vietnamese adored white skin. Although I’m far from white, they thought I was beautiful because I was lighter than the rest of the Vietnamese. It was nice being considered beautiful in a country where all the men and women are so pretty. I liked being “Japanese” for a while.
Although my Vietnamese was sparse, I picked up the language very quickly—born from my unconscious. I began to speak fluently for the sake of survival. I started to travel the country on my own—whereas before, I was helpless and relied on my good friend, Thao, who was like my version of “Alice” (to Gertrude Stein). My “Alice” translated everything for me and was very protective of me. She loved me like a sister…and I loved her too.
In HUE, I got around on xe om’s (motorcycle taxis). The heat was so unbearable that you had to walk in slow motion and breath through the fins of your every pore. It was hotter than Africa (or at least I imagined).
I finally made it up to Hanoi, where my Dad was from. I thought of him all the time—because I’ve been told I’m my “father’s daughter” and I tried to feel how he must have felt—living in the country he loved—before they had to escape the war.
I loved Hanoi because it was my lingo; my family’s dialect. Hanoi is considered more refined and educated in many ways—and that’s debatable. Northern Vietnam has a lot of royalty, dynasties heavily influenced by French culture.
I kept an on-going blog about my Vietnam experiences and it was filled with adventures; mainly drama between myself and my sister and all her employees and my interaction with them. I bonded with my sister’s housekeeper, Suong (which means “mist”) and had many hysterical stories about that lady. She was a riot. One night, while hanging out with a lesbian, Becky, from Australia, I arrived home late and the gates were closed.
The entire property was closed off with high iron fences lined with barbwire. I woke up Suong on her cell phone and asked her to pull out a 10 feet bamboo ladder. It had started to rain and Becky sat on her motorbike with a bourbon-red poncho on—waiting to make sure I got in safely.
The poor housekeeper came out with the bamboo ladder and I told her to pitch it up against the opposite side of the gate. I proceeded to climb the walls like a sniper and landed on top of a stone column, separated from the barbwire.
The rain made the surface really slippery so I took my time climbing down the bamboo ladder. Meanwhile, my stomach was cramping because I was laughing hysterically the entire time and Suong was dying of laughter as well. Becky was on the other side watching all this and we all laughed as I broke into the property.
Back to Hanoi.
I stayed at a hotel on the fourth floor where outside the window was a neon red sign that blinked on and off. I carried two of my favorite movies with me: a DVD of Robert Bresson’s AU HASARD BALTHAZAR and a rare pirated copy (that I burned myself) of the 1980s teen flick, TIMES SQUARE starring Robin Johnson.
When I first watched Robin Johnson in TIMES SQUARE, I was smitten. I had fallen in love with her iconography, she was bigger than life.
I invited Lauren into my hotel room and we watched TIMES SQUARE together on my laptop. She brought her portable speakers, which were very powerful.
TIMES SQUARE had original footage of NY city’s seedy night life, the way it used to be. So It was apropos to watch the movie from a hotel room in Hanoi with red neon lights flashing outside my window. Lauren enjoyed the movie very much because the film was so punk rock and edgy in every way: it puts all 1980s teen flicks to shame.
At that point in time, I was still working on my story, RED AS BLUE, which was written well before I saw TIMES SQUARE and also carries a lot of that youthful rebellious spirit, first love, and yes, RB is based in the 1980s. When I was first introduced to TIMES SQUARE by my good filmmaking buddy, Jack, he told me that it would inspire me to finish my story.
I had a fallout with my sister and I packed up and headed back home to America. There, I decided to move straight to LA and commit to something the Heavens had planned for me all along: which is that I can’t quit filmmaking (because I can’t quit being intrinsically what I am)…the two are one and the same and there was a reason why destiny kept fouling up my plans. I gave up the notion of living a nomadic life as a “Viet-Q” (Việt Kiều; a derogatory term in Vietnam for Vietnamese people who become Americanized).
In LA, I began to write a short version of RED AS BLUE, which is now to be known as NUNE (pronounced “Noon-nay”)—a modern, present-day version of the story in a different and short film format.
The reason I mention Robin Johnson is because I wanted badly for her legacy to live on but I didn’t predict that I could create that. When I watched Robin Johnson performed as Nicky in TIMES SQUARE, I was so enamored by her rawness as an actor.
The story behind TIMES SQUARE is that the director, Allan Moyle had put out a casting call competition and thousands of people vied for the role of Nicky. Then one day, I believe it was the production manager, who walked by a schoolyard in Brooklyn or Queens, NY and saw an edgy girl smoking cigarettes and talking shit with her friends. He knew immediately that this girl was right for the “Nicky” role and called her in to audition.
Although Johnson was a non-actor, she didn’t just become Nicky—she WAS Nicky. And the things she brought to the screen were her own invention. She was quite a badass.
TIMES SQUARE was so innovative and ahead of the times that it didn’t become the commercial success that it should’ve been. It was very truthful and because of that, the film failed. The producers and distributors distorted the story and chopped up the romance between the two girls and made them straight. They did a lot of damage to that film and pissed off the director. I guess back in the 80s, no one was ready for a film like this—but they are ready for it now.
This is a good time for NUNE, it is also ripe for RED AS BLUE. History has paved enough roads filled with trials and errors for these stories to reach a state of ease in their purity and effulgence of expression.
Nicky is like Antigone, for every era there is an Antigone—a female heroine, a dark antihero and this has to be revived again and again because this character is not meant to die. We can’t keep watching old films to relive the heroine, so she has to be revived in NUNE.
I want to create characters that you keep dreaming about forever—that keep the iconography of an ideal alive. Characters that possess a sense of immortality and last for eternity are what give movies a meaningful and timeless quality. You want to see them cast in stone in your mind. They live and relive.
If you were to ask me what a star-like quality in an actor is, I would say, it is a quality of being immortal, hence indestructible. And what shocks me about the way NUNE turned out is that I never imagined creating a character taking over and commanding the screen in the way Brianna Joy Chomer portrayed her.
Like Johnson, Chomer brought to NUNE something that came from her own invention of Nune Lusparian; small details that myself, as director, could never take credit for. One day I will name them all.
So how did I go from Ho Chi Minh City to NUNE? It has to do with the hotel room where I watched TIMES SQUARE, eleven thousands of miles away from America, not once guessing that I’d move onward to produce something that reinstates my sense of awe.
It just goes to show, dreams travel far.