Minh Duc Nguyen’s first feature film was “Touch,” a 2011 Southern California-based drama that tells the story of a Vietnamese American manicurist striking up a friendship — and romantic relationship — with a Caucasian mechanic with filthy hands.
“Touch” made its world premiere in Orange County at the Vietnamese International Film Festival, or ViFF. Audiences loved it and told Nguyen he should make another sweet, romantic film.
Sweet is how Nguyen’s latest film, “Actress Wanted,” starts, but that’s not how it ends.
In fact, “Actress Wanted,” which made its world premiere Oct. 13 at the 10th Viet Film Fest in Orange, evolves into a horror and thriller movie that bears resemblance to the best — and creepiest — moments in “Psycho” and “Vertigo.”
“When I made the movie, I kept thinking, ‘How do I keep this movie interesting for the viewers?’ It could be a ghost movie, or it could be that [the main male character] is delusional,” said Nguyen, a Fullerton resident who edits non-scripted reality TV as his day job. He worked on Lifetime’s final season of “Project Runway.”
“I wanted to lead the viewer down a few different paths,” he said. “I wanted to keep people guessing.”
“Actress Wanted” stars Long Nguyen, Minh’s brother, as Vu, a lonely janitor who hires a struggling actress to reenact 10 of his favorite memories with his dead wife. Thien Nguyen (no relation) plays Mai, the young actress who answers the ad and after some hesitation, gets into the role. However, things eventually get quite weird — and scary.
The movie also stars Isabelle Du, Luu My Lan (an accomplished singer turned actress) and Dang Hung Son.
The film was shot entirely in Orange County over the course of 18 days. Locations include the house where Vu lives in Buena Park, Little Saigon, downtown Garden Grove, the Dalat Supermarket, also in Garden Grove, and downtown Santa Ana.
“Shooting in Orange County, we saved a lot of money,” Minh said. “I paid maybe $1,000 total for permits. When we shot ‘Touch,’ we filmed in Los Angeles. I paid $10,000 for one permit.”
For Long Nguyen, who has recurring TV roles in Hollywood, shooting in his home county was “almost like a homecoming.”
“I loved it, because I know a lot of these places already,” he said. “I just moved to Huntington Beach, so it’s like home. It’s really good to live here and shoot a movie here.”
Long started his career as a visual artist. His paintings are in the collections of the San Jose Museum of Art, the Oakland Museum of California and the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara.
As an actor, Long has appeared in Oliver Stone’s “Heaven & Earth,” Timothy Linh Bui’s “Green Dragon,” Ham Tran’s epic “Journey from the Fall,” “CSI: NY” and “NCIS: Los Angeles.”
“I have an advantage,” Long said about the character he plays in “Actress Wanted.” “I’ve known the script for 12 years already. I’ve spent a long time thinking about this one, how an actor would play this character. I decided to keep the part simple. When I play a nice guy, I play as weak as I can. When I play creepy, I play as creepy as I can.”
When the film made its world premiere at the Viet Film Fest, it sold out its original theater seating 450 people. Additional seats were made available in a nearby overflow theater. Overall, the reaction was quite positive.
“It scored pretty high,” said Thuy-Van Nguyen (no relation), director of the film fest. “It was a roller coaster of emotion. People felt for him, but at the end, he was scary. This one is completely different.”
The film won the festival’s best actor and best actress awards for its leading man and woman.
“That was really unexpected,” Minh said. “This time around, they had a lot of famous actors from Vietnam for this festival, so I didn’t even think we had a chance.”
According to producer Thien A. Pham, who also lives in Orange County, “Actress Wanted” has a tentative release date of Nov. 23 in Vietnam. The filmmakers hope for a limited release in the United States in the first quarter of 2019.
Viet Film Fest director Thuy-Van Nguyen said she has received inquiries and done interviews with multiple Vietnamese American media outlets about the movie.
“It seems like [our festival] is a platform for independent filmmakers everywhere — international, in the U.S. and locally — to come and showcase their work,” she said.
For writer, director and editor Minh, he’s grateful that the festival embraced and honored his work, which cost just under $100,000 to make. That’s definitely considered a shoestring budget for a feature.
“I knew it was a risk, because it doesn’t fit neatly into one genre or category,” he said. The Viet Film Fest “recognized that I was trying to tell a Vietnamese American story, so they supported it.”