Filmmaker Spotlight: Bao Nguyen

Bao Nguyen is the director and producer of “Employed Identity,” a series of digital shorts that will be featured on the X1 Asian American destination in April’s Vietnamese Stories collection. We had the pleasure of asking Bao what inspired his filmmaking journey and how his Asian American heritage influences his work.

Bao Nguyen (Photo: Pham Tam)

 Tell us about your film featured on X1 this month.

Bao Nguyen:Employed Identity” is a series of digital shorts profiling Vietnamese overseas who have returned to Vietnam to pursue their passions and reconnect with their culture and identity. We feature individuals in the filmmaking industry such as director Ham Tran, producer Jenni Trang Le and Kathy Uyen along with Vietnamese-Dutch music producer Duong Khac Linh and French-Vietnamese fashion designer Linda Mai Phung.

How did you get into filmmaking?

BN: The point where I wanted to follow my creative passion was when I was in my mid-20s. After earning an undergraduate degree in politics/international relations at NYU, I was studying to become a lawyer. However, during my time at NYU, I used my spare elective credits to study film at Tisch School of the Arts, the film school at NYU. These classes made an impression on me, and I began contemplating whether or not I wanted to become a lawyer or an artist. After studying intensively for months for my LSAT, I decided that law was not the path I wanted to take, and I suppose the rest is history.

What are some films and/or filmmakers who have inspired you?

BN: I’m a big fan of the early Italian masters like Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” and Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist.” In terms of contemporary filmmakers, I will watch anything that is made by Paul Thomas Anderson, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Christopher Nolan and Laura Poitras without hesitation. I can also say definitely that watching Yung Chang’s “Up the Yangtze” was the moment I knew I wanted to make documentary films.

Lastly, my dear friend Stephane Gauger, who tragically passed away last year, had a deep impact on my filmmaking career. His seminal film “Owl and the Sparrow” taught me that it takes a true independent spirit to make the film you want to make—not money, resources, or anything else we always think we need.

“Employed Identity: Kathy Uyen” (Photo: Bao Nguyen)

Do you have a favorite Asian American film?

BN: I loved Michael Kang’s “The Motel.” It reminded me so much of my upbringing and my relationship with my immigrant parents. I grew up as sort of this awkward kid working at my parents’ various small businesses, and I felt like I had lost a lot of my childhood because of that. I still cry at the last scene, and ever since then I’ve never seen such a poignant and authentic portrayal of my generation.

How does your Asian heritage influence your work?

BN: It’s inherent in my perspective as an Asian American, but I don’t deliberately go out of my way to put my Asian heritage in my work. All filmmakers draw from their own experience when they make a film, so it’s hard to avoid. I do think this is a good reason to advocate for diversity in the film industry, though. If the same group of people are constantly dominating the industry then it’s a very singular voice telling stories. As the novelist Chimamanda Adichie, once said, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

What is your outlook on the state of Asian American cinema?

BN: I’m cautiously optimistic. With films like “Columbus” and “Gook” doing quite well in 2017, I think it’s definitely headed in the right direction. I do think it has to step away from the reliance on identity that defined it in previous decades, though. “Columbus” is a good example of where Asian American cinema can go without relying on the lead to explicitly state his Asian American-ness. When I think of Asian American and Asian cinema, I look a lot to the Mexican transnational film movement spurred by the work of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron. Here are three extraordinary filmmakers making films on their own terms, and because they are the directors, you could technically label their work as “Mexican cinema,” but it’s so much more universal than that.

What’s next for you?

BN: I have a couple of feature documentary projects that are currently in production as well as a feature script I’ve been developing in Vietnam. I helped produce a film by a first-time feature director in Vietnam called “Rom” that should be finished soon. I’m most excited about a film company I’m forming with a community of filmmakers in Vietnam. We’ve been all working independently or as crew on each other’s projects in the past, but to create something more collective is something I’m really looking forward to.

“Employed Identity: Kathy Uyen” (Photo: Bao Nguyen)

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Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, Bao Nguyen! Watch the “Employed Identity” series on the X1 Asian American destination or with Xfinity Stream this April.

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For more Filmmaker Spotlights or Asian American news and entertainment visit Xfinity Asian American.