Oi Vietnam

The Vietnamese Hamburger Movie

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COMING-OF-AGE STORIES NEVER GET OLD.

Like it or not, we all have to grow up somehow, and that sometimes painful process has seen umpteen iterations. A recent addition to the list is Em Chua 18 (English title:

Jailbait), a comedy about a young-at-heart, well-to-do pickup-artist and his club-footed foray into the world of high school dating. After a bet gone wrong, the fashionabl­e and capricious Hoang (Kieu Minh Tuan) mistakenly spends a night with a girl, Linh Dan (Kaity Nguyen), who only reveals her age to him the following day. When she blackmails him with the video evidence, forcing him to play her boyfriend as vengeance on her high school ex, Hoang accidental­ly finds that he too is stuck in his juvenility. The story perhaps sounds familiar but, in this instance, variations on this age-old theme beat new life, and new laughs, into a story detractors might consider something of a dead horse.

Le Thanh Son, director of this smash hit, sat down with me to discuss the success of the film, the stories he wants to tell and his thoughts on the Vietnamese film industry.

Em Chua 18 is remarkable for a number of reasons, notable among them perhaps is its dedication to a clean, polished aesthetic. The film is set in Ho Chi Minh City’s most affluent neighborho­ods, depicting the lives of wealthy middleclas­s individual­s, tinged with the American 80s comedies that built up the backbone of the genre. At first glance one is reminded of Clueless, which epitomized the ‘daddy’s princess’ archetype, The Breakfast Club, which sorted high school students into instantly-identifiab­le cliques, and Mean Girls, which distilled its predecesso­rs and created a host of new clichés to reflect the changing times. The often-charming world of these characters is brought back for Em Chua 18 but it feels different. We are not in suburban America but what looks like District 7. There are Westerners speaking Vietnamese, an openly gay, camp student, expensive cars, brilliant nightclubs, a prepondera­nce of English phrases and an overwhelmi­ng obsession with who will become this year’s prom king and queen. This Vietnam is perhaps not the one we all recognize and Son admits this.

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