Quyên Nguyen-Le laughed when they (the filmmaker’s preferred pronoun) talked about “Love Stinks!” — the 2016 short they made for the Viet Film Fest‘s “Youth In Motion: A Workshop for Emerging Filmmakers” program.
It’s a comedic short about a young woman insecure about her sexuality. The characters innocently walk around, carrying different fruits — a notoriously foul-smelling durian, a bunch of overeager bananas, a snooty pineapple — alluding to “physical markers that people usually conflate with gender.”
“My friend was like, ‘Did you really make a film [that hints at] masturbation and screen it to a family-friendly audience with kids?’ ” Nguyen-Le said of their debut entry into the festival.
Though “Love Stinks!” is a light-hearted twist on a rom-com, Nguyen-Le’s other work — including “Hoài (Ongoing/Memory),” screening at this year’s Viet Film Fest, which takes place at the AMC Orange from Oct. 11 to 13 — is more serious, grappling with their identity as a queer and gender non-conforming Vietnamese American.
As an overachieving student at USC (graduating with two majors, comparative literature and philosophy, politics and law, as well as two minors, cinematic arts and Spanish), Nguyen-Le took a film production class taught by actor/director James Franco, where he proposed students make short films inspired by the poetry of Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges.
It was Nguyen-Le’s first taste of Hollywood, but they soon realized that success in the mainstream film wasn’t what they were chasing. They had their own questions that needed answering.
Nguyen-Le’s first independent documentary, “Queer Vietnameseness,” followed three Vietnamese Americans who identify as queer: a post-punk graphic designer, an academic/activist and Nguyen-Le’s cousin, a claims adjuster.
Nguyen-Le described the project as “an intimately personal exploration of my own confused, angry, political, lonely, ashamed [self] desperately yearning to find others who were like me.”
One of the “Queer Vietnameseness” documentary subjects, Ro Nghiem, went on to star in Nguyen-Le’s next short, “Nước (Water/ Homeland),” an experimental film that explores the abstract ways Vietnamese refugee parents and their children communicate, especially when there are language barriers. It played at the 2018 Viet Film Fest.
This year brings Nguyen-Le’s “Hoài (Ongoing/Memory),” co-written by Ly Thuy Nguyen, about a queer, second-generation Vietnamese American woman Hoài (played by Ngoc Anh Hà) who is returning to her father’s house after a difficult breakup.
In this contemporary story, which tackles anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment in America, Hoài clashes with both her karaoke-singing father, who doesn’t understand why she must put herself in danger in political protests, as well as her non-Vietnamese girlfriend, who tells her “Vietnamese people [should] have more radical politics, given the atrocity of the Vietnam War.”
“I wanted to express that feeling when a romantic partner breaks your heart, when your family and community breaks your heart, and when the country you live in breaks your heart, all at the same time,” Nguyen-Le said.
It’s important to Nguyen-Le for their films to depict a nuanced representation of the dynamics between first- and second-generation Vietnamese Americans.
“I would call any claims of a generational political divide simplistic, though it seems to be a common way people try to explain our community’s complicated politics,” Nguyen-Le said. “Implying that Vietnamese culture is inherently traditional and conservative erases not only the multitude of leftist thought in older generations, but also implies that liberal thought is a product of U.S. assimilation, which is untrue.”
Nguyen-Le’s films are made in English and Vietnamese and also include subtitles simultaneously in both languages — a gesture to their refugee parents, who met in an American video store that sold Vietnamese-language bootleg movies.
Their parents often come to their film screenings, and it’s a way Nguyen-Le is able to use their art to communicate their gender-queer identity to them.
“There’s a lot of public discourse about conservatism, homophobia, trans-phobia in immigrant Asian American communities, and especially being a queer Asian American person, I wanted to offer critiques and express hurt, yes, but always also hope,” said Nguyen-Le.
Nguyen-Le’s next project is a short documentary commissioned by the Pacific Arts Movement that follows Julie Tran, a thirty-something funeral director who suddenly has to grapple with her own father’s death.
“Hoài (Ongoing/Memory)” will screen at the 2019 Viet Film Fest on Oct. 13 at 3:30 p.m. Nguyen-Le will also be moderating a panel on Oct. 12 from 5 to 6 p.m. called “From Script to Screen: Pathways and Possibilities” at with Leon Le (“Song Lang”), Maegan Houang (“In Full Bloom”), Van B. Nguyen (“Thanksgiving), and Thien A. Pham (“Actress Wanted”), and participating in a panel called “Reconciling Homelands” on Oct. 13 from 5 to 6 p.m. with Tim Tsai and Thao Ha of “Seadrift” and Allison Vo from the social justice organization VietRISE.