Following up 2008’s successful release of Passport to Love, director Victor Vu is back at work on his latest film, a thriller called Inferno. Thomas Maresca sat down with the young, Southern California-born director to discuss his new project and the state of the film industry in Vietnam.

How’s the shoot going so far?

It’s been going so well. I feel really energized, even though I’m getting three hours of sleep a day. The actors, the technical crew, the art department, everyone’s really pushing their limitations trying to create the look that I wanted.

What’s Inferno about?

Without giving too much away—there’s literally a twist every 10 or 15 minutes—it’s about a couple that survives a horrific car accident. The woman is okay, but the man is horribly burned and loses his memory. During the time where he recovers and finds out more about himself and tries to puts his life back together, he discovers a lot of dark things.

It’s a psychological thriller and the design of the film is kind of dark and has a sharp edge to it. So it’s very different. Maybe not to the American market, but for the Vietnamese market, it’s different.

It’s a big departure from Passport to Love, which was a romantic comedy. Which genre do you prefer?

I loved Passport. It was a lot of fun. I just never pictured myself doing something like that because I’m not funny or romantic at all.

Are you dark and psychologically thrilling?

I don’t think I’m that either, but psychological thrillers are my personal favourite. Hitchcock has been a real influence for me, ever since I was young. I caught The Birds when I was very young, on TV one Sunday afternoon. It’s actually kind of disturbing.

But when I watch these kinds of films I like how things are structured. The thing about psychological thrillers is that they’re really just dramas told in a mystery form. The genre is just a vehicle to tell a normal story.

How do you think Vietnamese audiences will react to something so different?

The way I see it is—luckily my producer has the same vision as well—you can eat pho five times a week but you’ll get sick of it. So if every year people are watching the same damn thing, they’re bound to get sick of it. Yeah, it might be a blockbuster this year, but people will get sick of it.

Even now Vietnamese audiences are a lot more sophisticated from even three or four years before. They’re watching so many more films, and they’re not going to let anything slide.

Yes, once in a while you hear someone say, “Well, it’s a Vietnamese film, so it’s ok…”

You mean as far as cutting corners?

Yes, cutting corners. They think, well it’s good enough for Vietnamese films. When you hear that, it’s sad, but it’s also understandable because, one, our industry is still developing, and, two, our budgets are 1/100th of what they’re spending in Hollywood.

I think the one thing that doesn’t cost money that we can work on more is the script, and the actual blueprint of the film. I think that’s where cutting corners really hurts the most.

So audiences have been changing. Is the process of making a film different this time around?

The difference is that I can see not only actors but technical crew wanting to push the envelope, wanting to push the limits and saying, “Wow, this is cool. This is different.” And not being scared: “That’s too weird—why are we doing this movie? Vietnam doesn’t do stuff like this.” The actors aren’t afraid to play dark characters, not afraid to be seen in this dark light, and that’s really cool.

What was the casting process like?

It was pretty harsh because I needed a certain look and performance from them. They’re not really normal characters. Everyone’s a little off, everyone’s a little cuckoo. I really needed to see that psychotic element in their eyes.

So we cast for several months. Some of the actors we brought back two or three times to perform the same scene. I was really happy that they agreed to do it. We all know in Vietnam that nobody likes to audition. They think it’s some kind of stigma, which I think is insane. Because casting is so beneficial to both the filmmaker and the actor. In the States even a name actor will have to come in for a reading with the director.

Passport to Love recently had a theatrical release in the U.S. How did that turn out?

It actually did better than we thought. We started in six cities and we ended up in 15. The good thing about this release is that they only opened in the more mainstream megaplexes, so here were people who never walked into a movie theatre coming out to watch the film, Vietnamese folks.

Then again, it’s still a niche market. It’s still limited. But I think it shows that there is an audience. And theatres do recognize it—there just aren’t enough films to go around.

How much do you think about your films crossing over in the U.S.?

I’ll be completely honest: that’s not my main target. Not that I don’t care about other audiences but my main target is Vietnamese audiences.

I grew up in California. I grew up on Hollywood films. But I’ve never made an English language film. Even my shorts in film school were Vietnamese with English subtitles. My parents are still confused by it. I’ve always had a fascination for Vietnamese culture. Maybe it’s because I didn’t know anything about it.

I’ve heard other overseas directors talk about how much easier it is to get a project off the ground here than it is in Hollywood.

There’s a very obvious reason it’s easier: we’re in the correct market. Back in the States, if I wanted to make a Vietnamese language film, it’s cuckoo. It’s almost illogical because the market doesn’t support it. And so there’s no way to survive.

But here we’re making films for the actual market. This is the Hollywood of Vietnam, this is what we have. What we do are the mainstream films that play in theaters. So it’s a whole different ballgame, and for me it’s a more logical and natural fit because these are the films I would want to make anyway if I were living [in the U.S.].

Have you run into any censorship issues with content here in Vietnam?

The industry is opening up as far as content goes. I think that what you can do now you couldn’t have done four years ago. I am very happy that there’s more artistic freedom because I think that’s what makes an industry prosper and really be able to compete with an international market. You have to have artistic freedom. Otherwise it’s always going to be what you can or can’t do, versus other industries that are able to express themselves.

Do you imagine that Vietnamese cinema will someday get the kind of international attention that Korea or China has?

I do believe it will happen, and that it will happen sooner than you think. I was at the previous [Golden Kite] award ceremony and there were so many different types of films competing. The last few years we’ve seen a growth in all kinds of genres. Things are moving at a good pace. Vietnam has talented artists. There need to be more opportunities for them to fully express themselves.

Hap tip & photo credits to AsiaLIFE; interview by Thomas Maresca.