Vietnamese actor achieves directing dream

Vietnamese-born Dustin Nguyen grew up in America to become a film actor, director, writer and martial artist. He talks to Bao Khanh about his movie, Lua Phat (Once Upon a Time in Viet Nam).

Dustin Nguyen, 50, is best known for his roles as Harry Truman Ioki on 21 Jump Street and as Johnny Loh on V.I.P. After nearly 30 years working in the film industry, he has finally realized his dream of producing his own film. In Lua phat (Once Upon A Time In Viet Nam), he takes on a film's three most important roles: director, screenwriter and star.

Inner Sanctum: You seemed to be under a lot of pressure when making the film. Do you think 50 is a bit late to become a director?

It is true that I am under a lot of pressure, because this is the first time I have taken such important roles in a film. But I don't think it is too late to direct a film; rather, this is the best age for me to realize the dream I have nurtured since I started pursuing my career.

Inner Sanctum: The road you have taken is quite similar to that of many Hollywood actors like Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, and Kevin Costner, who became directors in middle age.

I dare not compare myself to such famous names. But my experience in acting has reinforced my confidence in becoming a director at my age. There are many ways to reach viewers in film. I feel most confident in the role of an actor, but it is time I reached the masses in other roles.

Inner Sanctum: You have nurtured this idea for a long time. Is that why you have refused all the offers of international film producers - even those in Hollywood - to create the film in Viet Nam, in an unprofessional environment where it's hard to attract investors given the current economic crisis?

When the screenplay was introduced in the US, 20th Century Fox Film Corporation was very interested and ready to invest about US$20 million in the film. Another film producer in China also wanted to invest in it. But if I accepted one of those offers, either English or Chinese would be used in the film, and there would be lots of interference. When writing the screenplay, I expected the film to be totally Vietnamese, from the script to the background. I want to make a film for Vietnamese viewers - one that foreigners can also appreciate.

I've been working on the film for five years, since the film Dong Mau Anh Hung (The Rebel). It has been constantly delayed but I'm determined to be patient. I want to do it my own way, as freely as possible, without any interference from the producers. Just as a driver wants to control his own car, I want to control the film in my own way, which, however, might not be the fastest.

Inner Sanctum: I heard that the movie contains many elements from Western cowboy films.

I have always been fond of the images of strong men who stand alone to fight evil in classic Western cowboy films, like The Searchers and High Noon. I'm also interested in male social status.

Films tend to set out role models of male heroes that we rarely see in real life. But in Lua Phat (Once Upon a Time in Viet Nam), I'm concerned about normal men that few people pay attention to, who face real challenges to take care of their families. They are the kind of male characters that I want to discover.

Of course, I don't want to produce a tragic film that few people watch. I want to put my characters into unique contexts – that is, an imaginary and fictitious world.

Inner Sanctum: What does the name of the film, Lua Phat (Once Upon a Time in Viet Nam), mean?

The film is about monk soldiers. They are not completely monks because they do not lead religious lives in pagodas anymore, but neither are they ordinary people because they lead a secluded life in the mountains. They look so normal that no one guesses their true identity, but when the country is invaded, they are willing to descend to protect their hometown, even though they know that once they put their hands into blood, there will be no way back. But if they do not accept this challenge, the inner fire –the fire of Buddha – will consume them.

Inner Sanctum: In the five films in which you starred in Viet Nam, your characters were either gullible or cruel. In the film you wrote, you must have portrayed yourself in a more flattering light.

As I have said, my role is a soldier monk, an ordinary man forced to descend from the mountain to protect feeble people. Of course, he also has a mysterious past. Whether the character is beautiful or not depends on the viewers' opinion!

Inner Sanctum: To produce an action-fantasy film, do you pay special attention to special effects?

Though the film is produced a bit like a "graphic novel", set against the backdrop of an ancient village on the sandy hill of Mui Ne , I'm very wary of using special effects. Because techniques in Viet Nam are not up to Hollywood standards, special effects might look cheesy to viewers who have watched masterpieces of special effects like Avatar.

Therefore, special effects are barely used in Lua Phat. What I focus on is the martial arts, and especially the psychological development of the characters. I'm blessed to have a group of the finest Vietnamese actors participate in my film.

I also have many friends who have helped me with these techniques, one of whom is Thai-American director Wych Kaosayananda. He has been my friend since we worked together in Hollywood and is also the director of the upcoming action film Angels in which I'm the main actor.

Inner Sanctum: "Clement weather, favourable terrain", now you only need to win the heart of the viewers?

This film is certainly not intended to earn a large amount of money. In the world of Vietnamese film producers, no one dares to predict anything. Investors know they are taking risks, but they also want to contribute to a film that makes them proud. — VNS

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