Tak­ing The Lead

Nguyen Nhu Quynh, star of Cy­clo and The Ver­ti­cal Ray of the Sun, dis­cusses tra­di­tional Viet­namese cul­ture, her jour­ney to in­ter­na­tional recognition and play­ing a psy­cho­pathic mafia boss

Oi Vietnam - - Cover Story - Interview and Text by Chris Humphrey Trans­la­tion by Tra My Gar­vey Por­trait by Chris Humphrey

WHEN NGUYEN NHU QUYNH ap­peared in the film In­do­chine, it marked a dra­matic change in her ca­reer: the former stu­dent of cai lu­ong had made the big time. It was also a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Viet­nam's beauty on a scale never seen be­fore; it went on to win the Os­car for best for­eign lan­guage film, and drew thou­sands of tourists to Viet­nam. Since then she's gone on to star in a num­ber of ac­claimed French films, in­clud­ing Cy­clo and The Ver­ti­cal

Ray of the Sun. Over the last 15 years she has con­tin­ued to be a main­stay of Viet­namese cin­ema, be­com­ing one of the most dis­tin­guished fig­ures in the in­dus­try.

Nhu Quynh in­vited Oi to her home in Hanoi's Old Quar­ter. We sit on stained bam­boo chairs as she pours us some tea, her long, pas­tel-green dress match­ing the cups we drink from. The liv­ing room is a cu­ri­ous assem­bly of bits and pieces—tur­tle shells, ob­scure mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, pup­pets, and beau­ti­ful black and white por­traits of her fam­ily. Nhu Quynh is an­i­mated as we talk, by turns re­flec­tive or chuck­ling know­ingly, but al­ways calm and com­posed.

Many will be fa­mil­iar with the French films Nhu Quynh has ap­peared in, but per­haps not so with the ear­lier stages of her ca­reer. It's for this rea­son that we sat down with her to find out more about her back­story, her suc­cesses and her thoughts on where the Viet­namese film in­dus­try is head­ing. So, was act­ing some­thing you were ex­pected to do by your fam­ily, or was it your choice? Well, in Viet­namese fam­i­lies, the par­ents al­ways want one of their chil­dren to fol­low in their foot­steps— to con­tinue the fam­ily tra­di­tion.

When I fin­ished high school I was only 14 or 15, so I was still very young and I wasn't re­ally sure what to do with my life. I de­cided to do as my par­ents wished and en­rolled at the Viet­nam Theatre School. And, in the end, I loved it... I felt that I had found my call­ing. It soon be­came clear that I car­ried the act­ing gene and that it was me, not my sis­ters, who should con­tinue the act­ing tra­di­tion in my fam­ily. For my grad­u­a­tion as­sign­ment

I played the part of Thuy Kieu, a pres­ti­gious role in Viet­namese drama. My mother also played this part in 1962.

De­scribe your ear­li­est days in act­ing and ex­pe­ri­ences at the Viet­nam Theatre School?

I've been asked this ques­tion many times. My par­ents, and even my grand­par­ents be­fore them, were stage ac­tors. I was one of three chil­dren and when I fin­ished high school my par­ents wanted at least one of their daugh­ters to carry on the act­ing tra­di­tion in the fam­ily. Back then, my par­ents were in­volved in cai lu­ong, which is a type of tra­di­tional Viet­namese drama. They wanted me to study at the Viet­nam Theatre School so I could sing Viet­namese opera like they did. I started study­ing at the in­sti­tu­tion in 1968, and when I fin­ished study­ing, I joined the Golden Bell Show, which was the be­gin­ning of my ca­reer in cai lu­ong.

Then, in 1973, a di­rec­tor found a photo of me and in­vited me to act in Bai Ca Ra

Tran, my first ever film.

What ex­pe­ri­ences in your early life do you think shaped you as an ac­tress and helped you to de­velop your craft?

While study­ing I had the chance to play a di­verse mix of roles. They were gen­er­ally girls or women from ru­ral ar­eas or from fish­ing vil­lages, but they were dif­fer­ent from what I was used to. I had to read a lot and watch films to help imag­ine what th­ese peo­ple's lives would be like and bring their re­al­i­ties, their pain and their dreams, into my per­for­mance.

I de­vel­oped a firm foun­da­tion in act­ing from study­ing at the Viet­nam Theatre School, which al­lowed me to em­brace many dif­fer­ent roles the teach­ers of­fered me. But I was born a very gen­tle Hanoi girl. Girls in my fam­ily were ex­pected to be gen­tle, and so to play one of the char­ac­ters in the fish­ing vil­lage I had to learn to be un­ruly and rough to re­ally cap­ture their char­ac­ter.

Can you ex­plain how you came to win such prom­i­nent roles in In­do­chine (1992), Cy­clo (1995) and The Ver­ti­cal Ray of the Sun (2000)?

So I ap­peared in a film in 1985, which was very suc­cess­ful. It fea­tured in a num­ber of film fes­ti­vals in Europe. We didn't win any prizes, but that was how for­eign direc­tors first started to rec­og­nize me. And then, in 1989, I acted in a movie cre­ated by a Ger­man com­pany, about the French colonies and the south­ern Viet­namese armies, so that's how I got my first role in a for­eign-pro­duced film. It was af­ter that per­for­mance that I was of­fered the role in In­do­chine, which won the Os­car for best for­eign lan­guage film. It was a huge suc­cess, and many peo­ple who saw it ac­tu­ally came to Viet­nam to fol­low the jour­ney they took in the film, from the south all the way up to Ha Long Bay. Af­ter that, I was on the list of ac­tors to be con­tacted for th­ese kinds of roles, and so I was in­vited to ap­pear in many films.

And how did your life change when you achieved this in­ter­na­tional recognition?

[Laughs] Maybe you don't re­al­ize this but for the older gen­er­a­tion of ac­tors and ac­tresses in Viet­nam, even af­ter all that suc­cess, you're still nor­mal. I was still a wife and a mother, I still went to the mar­ket. But, when I went out, peo­ple would call me by the name of char­ac­ters I had played, and that was very re­ward­ing. There were many fans in those days—there still weren't many fa­mous per­form­ers from Viet­nam then, so the fans re­ally cared about the ones that had made it. But I still con­tin­ued a nor­mal life...

Which el­e­ments of Viet­nam and Viet­namese cul­ture do you feel that your work rep­re­sents on the screen?

I think that for the ma­jor­ity of my act­ing ca­reer direc­tors have cast me as a mother who will make any kind of sac­ri­fice for her fam­ily. Den Hen Lai Len, for ex­am­ple, is a story about a girl who mar­ries a wealthy man she doesn't even love, just so she can af­ford to care for her sick mother. My whole life has been act­ing in th­ese kinds of roles. But this changed with Cy­clo. In this film I played a vi­o­lent mafia boss—it was a dra­matic role change for me. I was play­ing a strong, ag­gres­sive woman who killed peo­ple. But even then, deep in­side this psy­cho­pathic woman, was a per­son who cared deeply for a son who had men­tal health prob­lems. And when her hus­band found out there were men­tal health prob­lems in the fam­ily he left them, but she did ev­ery­thing she could to pro­tect her son.

For a long time, peo­ple have spo­ken about Viet­namese women or Asian women as be­ing deeply caring, that they will do any­thing for their fam­ily. But now direc­tors are writ­ing about how women use their in­ner strength to fight for what they be­lieve in, and to fight against men. There are more films like this now than ever be­fore, which is fas­ci­nat­ing.

What are your fa­vorite roles, and why are they sig­nif­i­cant to you?

Well, if you ask me what is my fa­vorite role of all time then, of course, there are many! But, af­ter a cer­tain point in my life, I re­al­ized how much I had to learn for each role, and I put so much into ev­ery per­for­mance that they were all sig­nif­i­cant to me. In Den Hen Lai Len, for ex­am­ple, I was only 20 years old.

The char­ac­ter, Net, does ev­ery­thing for her mother, she even mar­ries the wrong man. This was all so new to me, I was so young. It's def­i­nitely one of my most im­por­tant roles.

And then there's Cy­clo. This was an ex­tremely sig­nif­i­cant part for me. It was a to­tally new kind of role that gave me the chance to ex­plore dif­fer­ent as­pects of life. I chose to ac­cept the role be­cause I wanted to make ev­ery­one un­der­stand that Viet­namese women can be as strong and fear­ful as any man. Af­ter this role I was of­fered a num­ber of other parts, play­ing cold­hearted, mean peo­ple. And that was very ex­cit­ing. In one I played a mar­ried woman who had an af­fair with a younger man, which was in­tensely con­tro­ver­sial at the time. Men could have mistresses, but not women.

What do you think of the film in­dus­try in Viet­nam now, and what ef­fect did the high­pro­file pro­duc­tions you ap­peared in have on the in­dus­try?

Fif­teen years ago, the film in­dus­try here was very poor. The coun­try was too—all the roles re­flected how peo­ple lived here on a daily ba­sis. But since then, there's been a lot of change in terms of tech­nol­ogy. There have also been more and more Viet Kieus getting in­volved. They've brought new ways of think­ing into the in­dus­try— which is good news for ev­ery­one—it's brought the in­dus­try stan­dards closer to the rest of the world. But we are still Viet­namese peo­ple. We still have the same core val­ues. This is the string that ties ev­ery­thing to­gether.

In In­do­chine, for ex­am­ple, Mrs.

Sao has to flee south with her fam­ily. At one point they stand on the top of a moun­tain and look down to­wards the land. She re­ally feels that this is the place where her fam­ily will be safe. I re­mem­ber the di­rec­tor, Regis Wargnier, ask­ing what I thought about women in that kind of sit­u­a­tion. And I told him that, for Viet­namese women, there is noth­ing more im­por­tant than shar­ing hap­pi­ness with your fam­ily. Our whole life is ded­i­cated to pro­tect­ing our fam­ily—they must come first. And af­ter that con­ver­sa­tion, he let me act that scene in the way I felt was nat­u­ral. I think it's mo­ments like that one that have had an im­pact on the in­dus­try.

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