Straight Outta Saigon —

Jenni Trang Le Talks Vietnam’s Film Industry


Jenni Trang Le was born and raised in Houston, Texas before heading to California for high school and then university. Her first project in Vietnam was in 2005 on The Rebel, a martial arts action film set in the French colonial era helmed by superstar director (and fellow Vietnamese-American) Charlie Nguyen. It was, at the time, the most expensive film made in Vietnam and along with many of Jenni’s works raised the standards for Vietnamese cinema while pushing the limits of what government censors would allow.


Having “caught the bug,” as she calls it, she continued her work after returning to America where her bilingual ability would make her the perfect candidate for the slew of U.S.-Vietnam coproductions happening at the time.


She’d later return in 2009 on a one-year contract with production company Chanh Phuong Films as an in-house feature film producer. Since then she’s continued to serve as assistant director and producer on several blockbusters that have changed Vietnam’s cinema landscape by developing genres outside the country’s mainstay comedies and training the next generation of industry talent.

“But [the censorship board] let it go, so people were like ‘Oh my god!’ Everyone in the film industry was like, ‘What the? We totally got away with having a real ghost!’ How did that happen!”

“What [“Jailbait”] proved was that if a Vietnamese film came out that was good and people connected to it, it would do better than a Hollywood movie. That was the big thing that made everyone inspired.”

At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.


Elphick Wo: So early this April, I flew to Ho Chi Minh with MAEKAN photographer Christopher Lim. We were actually doing some recording for the upcoming Sounds of Saigon project. And this time I’ll actually be collaborating with another producer called Dan Nguyen, better known as Demonslayer. So when I met up with Dan in Ho Chi Minh City he introduced me to his friend Jenni, who’s a very accomplished film producer. She has been making films in Vietnam for almost 10 years now and she was very kind to share her perspectives on the Vietnamese film industry, what it’s like growing a film scene there, and some of the unique challenges filmmakers face.


Jenni Trang Le: My name is Jenni Trang Le. I was born in 1980, I’m not afraid to show my age. And I was born and raised in Houston, Texas and then I moved to San Jose, like Santa Clara area, for high school and then to UCLA. And then after UCLA I just stayed in LA until I moved to Saigon in 2009. In 2005 I did a film called The Rebel, which in Vietnamese is Dòng máu anh hùng. It’s a 1920s film based in the French colonial era of Vietnam and it was an action drama. I was the first assistant director. So that was my first time working in Vietnam. And then I sort of, like, the bug bit, you know. And then when I went back to America I was really lucky that there was a lot of co-productions at that time in film. And so I would go back and forth just working, because I was bilingual and had worked both in Vietnam and the U.S. I would say like every year I would go back once or twice a year. And then in 2009 my old boss Jimmy had been in Chanh Phuong Films. He offered me a one year contract as an in-house feature film producer. So then I thought, at that time I had just broken up with my boyfriend and, you know, I was like, “Oh, what the hell.” So I tried it for a year and then after that my contract ran out and I just decided to stay because I felt like the film industry was growing a lot. So basically since 2009, I’ve been working both as a producer and assistant director and mostly feature films but also commercials, music videos, documentaries.


Elphick Wo: When you say you felt like there were a lot of changes in the film industry in Vietnam are there any specific things you felt were pushing the direction? How did you feel there was a change there?


Jenni: When I was younger I didn’t know what I would become. I wanted to … I knew I wanted to do something in the arts and specifically I wanted to write, actually, and so for a moment, I wanted to be a spoken word artist and to just focus on that. Probably not as lucrative a career, but then I sort of kind of fell into film with, you know, having friends that did film. And then when in the U.S. I maybe only worked in the film industry two years before I moved to Vietnam. So for me, I felt like I was growing in the film industry as Vietnam was growing. So before ’75 the film industry was really thriving, but after the war, you know, it fell off for quite a while and then I would say maybe in the 2000s it started to kind of pick up a bit. When I came in 2009 there were maybe four feature films produced a year and then now, you know, nine years later there’s, like, over 60 feature films produced and distributed, which is crazy. Because, not to say that every Vietnamese film is great, but just the sheer numbers of it is astounding. I mean, you know, before when I first came, if a movie, you know, was able to have a box office of one million dollars, that’s sort of like this far-fetched dream, you know. And then now it’s kind of, like, kind of average if you get a million. That’s sort of like maybe you’ll be okay depending on your budget, but you’re really aiming for like 4 or 5 million.


Elphick: Right from the beginning of the conversation, Jenni started explaining there’s actually a lot of movies being made in Vietnam recently. There’s a huge increase in the productions, but more importantly, there are movies in different genres that are being explored.


Jenni: I think that before, you know, there were a lot of comedies, kind of like broad comedies, that were mostly films coming out in January, February cause—


Dan Nguyen: Yeah, during Lunar New Year usually like slapstick comedies with, you know, sound effects like [makes sound effect].


Jenni: And [makes sound effect]. Very like Three Stooges. And then now there’s more and more genres. So they started opening up to dramas and arthouse and thriller. And so it’s really good to see that. I mean comedies are still the majority. But I think that definitely there’s just more people taking chances.


Elphick: Is it hard to have your own style in Vietnamese cinematography?


Jenni: I think it is definitely hard to have your own style just because, you know, sometimes we forget, but, you know, Vietnam is still a communist country so we still have to do a lot of censorship. So everything is censored. If you’re a foreigner making a feature film then you have to submit your script to be censored and then once you get the approval then you get the permits to make the film. If you’re a local you don’t, but you do have to submit it later on once you’ve edited it and before you can distribute it in Vietnam. So in a way, it’s actually better to get it censored during the script stage. It’s just costly. So, you know, that’s annoying, but, you know, you just need to continue to find ways around it.


Dan: Can you talk a little bit about the film that, there’s this film called—


Jenni: Bui Doi Cho Lon?


Dan: Yeah, Bui Doi Cho Lon, which is very … it was like action packed, kind of like maybe a little bit mafia gangster related in the story, right. And then from the non-production side, the audience was really hyped for it to come out because I think, I’m not sure if there were trailers …


Jenni: Yeah, there was.


Dan: There was, right. Somehow everyone was like really excited for it and then, in the end, it didn’t come out. It got censored and I think it was like 80 percent done.


Jenni: Oh no, it was 100 percent done.


Dan: 100 percent done! Wow.


Jenni: We lost like eight hundred thousand dollars on that project.


Dan: Oh my god.


Jenni: I know, painful.


Dan: It looked so dope too. So dope.


Jenni: So the background is that Chanh Phuong Films was established in … I want to say in 2003, I don’t remember, but basically, you know, the company is very known for their action films. So The Rebel was an action film and then there was Clash which is the first film that I produced in Vietnam and then Bui Doi Cho Lon. I don’t remember what we decided on for the English title, but it literally means like the dust of Chinatown or Chinatown dust. It doesn’t sound as hardcore.


Dan: It doesn’t sound as gangster.


Jenni: Yeah, it doesn’t sound as gangster. It was a film directed by a Charlie Nguyen and action directed by his brother Johnny Ngyuen and also starring him as well. So basically the premise was one night in Chinatown where all this shit hits the roof and it starts off kind of like a love story, you know, a guy sort of taking the gang leader’s girlfriend and then creating basically this gang war. It’s kind of Troy-esque, you know, but like in Chinatown in the middle of the night. So basically this shoot was really crazy, because I think we shot for eight weeks and because it was all night time so basically the crew was like a vampire. You know, like, we started at like 3:00, 4:00 p.m. and then ended at 6:00 a.m. everyday.


Dan: So harsh.


Elphick: That sounds rough.


Jenni: Yeah, really crazy. And it was super super violent, you know, and like very action-packed.


Dan: It looked so awesome.


Jenni: And then the thing is when we were doing the film, there was a concern that there was no presence of police in the movie. And then our director was like, you know, I don’t have time to have these cop characters. And so we’re like, you know what, we’ll figure it out. So we just decided to do it with no cops and basically, of course, once we finished the film and edited it and we submitted it to censorship, they’re like, “How come there’s all this fighting happening and the cops never came?”


Dan: Oh, so that was the reason why.


Jenni: The first reason. And then also it was very violent. So the problem was twofold, you know. So we decided to, okay, we did extra shoots and we actually went as far as making one of the characters an undercover cop and sort of like adding these scenes of cops and basically keeping everything, but, like, you know—


Elphick: Adding more scenes and stuff.


Jenni: Exactly. But the thing is that behind-the-scenes during that time our director and our action director went online, and this is when Facebook started getting really really popular in Vietnam, and they put up the letter from the censorship board of, like, what we need to change and sort of a call to action of like, “Hey, you know, we’re so limited by these guidelines, if you want to advance cinema in Vietnam we need to have the government be more understanding.” You know, like, whatever.


Dan: I remember that post. It was a big deal.


Jenni: It went crazy viral. And then the thing was like an argument was also, you know, like, it’s actually an anti-gang movie and so it needs to be violent, because it needs to be so crazy that, like, at the end of the day people don’t want to join gangs. If nothing really happens then it’s kind of like, okay, maybe gangs are not so bad. So that was kind of the argument we were going for, but the problem is that once they became public with it…because everything is very behind closed doors. You know, you lobby for your film, you try to push the envelope, it’s not like black and white, but it’s very much negotiating and different ways of bargaining. Then because the letter was put on Facebook and then immediately went viral and then everyone took sides and then the journalists got in on it and all the bloggers and everybody was sharing it and forwarding it and writing articles and there was like newspapers. And then there was a lot of pressure on the Censorship Board which essentially is the government which essentially is the party, then it became this thing where it was like, “Oh my god.”


On the producer side, because I was the coproducer of the project, we were like, “Oh my god, this is too much. We’re not going to get our film passed.” I knew at that point. I had a feeling that it wasn’t going to pass because at that point it was kind of like the point of no return where if our film got passed then basically it’s as if the party was wrong. You know what I mean? We had at that point basically became a martyr. So they had to stick to their guns and they had to keep, like, this film is not getting passed. So even though we got to a point where we actually put in the cop scenes, we cut a lot of the action, and we made it, like, it was almost to the point of they would start the fight and then cut to everyone’s dead. Yeah, a lot of it was so tame compared to, like, an action film. And it was still like, you know, when adults lose face it’s kind of, like, okay, what are you going to do. So that basically is…it was a big lesson, you know, because like how far do you push. You know I think that it’s hard because coming from America, you know, it’s kind of like when we have an injustice it’s like, okay, you know, let’s protest, let’s lobby and strike and it doesn’t work so much here. That’s not quite the way. It’s kind of like you got to do a little more finessing.


So, unfortunately, it was really sad. And then the thing is, like, you know, it was 100 percent done, like, literally ready to go. And we still don’t know where the leak came from. Someone leaked an unfinished version of the film, like uncolored, you know, the wire removal wasn’t all done. It was picture locked, but the sound wasn’t done. And so a lot of people watched it, you know and so it kind of became, like, “Oh, well, that’s crap.” And we definitely didn’t want to do that. If people are like, “Oh, you guys leaked it!” It’s like, “No, dude, if we leaked it we would have leaked, like, the full version.”.


Dan: Yeah, the perfect version.


Jenni: People were like, “It’s really annoying to watch.” I actually didn’t even watch that version, because I didn’t want to see that.


Dan: Yeah, you didn’t want to get frustrated.


Jenni: So it’s still there. There’s been talk of, like, okay it’s been a while now, I think it’s been, like, six years maybe or five years. I don’t remember. So there was talk of resubmitting it, because now it’s kind of like a different time and, you know, a lot of people still, there’s some straggler hardcore fans, but then at the same time we’re kind of like, okay, a lot of people saw it so we don’t know. We haven’t really thought about, like, should we reopen it, but definitely since then the company has not made another action film just because it was so heartbroken.


Elphick: It’s interesting to hear from Jenny about censorship in Vietnam, since y’know, Hong Kong is fortunate enough to be free of government censorship. But we do hear about all our collaborators and friends in China getting affected by heavy censorship. Same with China, Vietnam is also a communist country and there are a series of censorship laws and rules that protect the image of the ruling Communist Party. These include Ho Chi Minh, the famous leader and chairman of the Communist Party cannot be shown in films, even pictures of him. This actually goes as far as Vietnamese flags too. But it doesn’t just stop here. Censorship can actually stop entire film genres from developing in Vietnam.


Jenni: I always talk about for censorship that one thing is ghosts are not allowed in Vietnamese cinema because ghosts don’t exist. So you always have to make it a dream or somebody was crazy and then imagined it.


Elphick: So there’s no horror?


Jenni: For Vietnamese, if it’s an independent foreign film it’s fine, but there was a film that was released two years ago called The Housemaid, Cô Hầu Gái, and the ghosts in the film ended up…there was a fake ghost, but there also were scenes where it was a real ghost, but they let it go, right. So people were just like, “Oh my god!” You know, like, within the film industry everyone was like, “What the—! You totally got away with having a real ghost, like, how did that happen?”


Elphick: While creative freedom in Vietnam it is going to be an ongoing battle, for the time being, Jenni and her friends have set sights on challenges that they can tackle immediately. For example, the industry standards and the working conditions of the Vietnamese film industry.


Jenni: I think we’re still…one of the things where me and my colleagues are trying to kind of improve on the current system is sort of like the sense of organization and the way that film sets and productions run. And especially and also, like, sort of paying people their creative dues. You know, I think that there’s certain…you know, in a film crew there’s like hundreds of positions there’s so many things that you don’t realize that go into making a film, that certain things like a script. So like the script is the backbone of the project and yet we never really have a huge budget for scripts and there’s a huge demand for scriptwriters, like, huge demand! I mean there’s, like, barely any writers out there. Like it’s weird. I don’t know, like, Vietnamese writers. And so, but then you know if you compare it to writers in the Hollywood industry they get paid a lot. They get paid, like, almost as much as the producers. Here they don’t get paid as much, but it’s such a long period of time. You know, and then—.


Dan: So there’s not, like, just a flood of scripts that are submitted to you guys all the time? Like in Hollywood?


Jenni: There are a lot scripts submitted and a lot of bad ones. There’s actually a lot of bad writers, but I think it comes with a lot of educating the youth and the new generation of filmmakers coming up on every level of, like, producing and directing and writing and lighting and art and styling. I mean all of it needs work. You know, everybody just wants to be a director. Everybody wants to be a director. I know that saying is in America, but in Vietnam, I feel like it’s even more.


Dan: Yeah. Are they not aware of what goes in and like the history? You know, I meet a lot of people that are, like, I want to be an actor, actress, but it’s not like a very deep awareness and knowledge of what came before, what was in the history, like, just the overall process. I guess it’s the same with like being a DJ or producer or a street artist or something, you know, I think they just see maybe the surface level stuff or maybe the rewards, you know, and, like you said, not knowing about all the steps that it takes. Because to be a great director you got to know how to do everything, right?


Jenni: Yeah, at least a little bit.


Dan: Yeah, at least know the process right.


Jenni: Yeah, but at the same time it’s not all their fault either, because there’s very limited access to education in terms of proper training. And at the same time, because the film industry in Vietnam has grown so exponentially and so rapidly, like, there is a high demand. So you’ll see kids that PA-ed or interned on one project then all of a sudden and, because they’re okay, they’re sharp, and they’re like, you know, like, amicable, then suddenly they’re being asked to produce another project right away and then they’re like, “Uh, okay.” And they just do it and then maybe at some parts they’ll get lucky and then you know they skip so many steps, it hurts later, you know. So it happens a lot. I see it all the time. With, like, even the people that I’ve chosen to mentor, like, I feel like they still need more time with me, but then they’ve already jumped in and are, like, doing their own thing and I’m kind of like, “Oh, okay.”


I mean they’re still, like, better than a lot of other people, but at the same time, you know, I wish that I’d had you for just a little longer. Especially in the film industry, it’s all about paying your dues. So you do so much work, like, free and you do so much work as an assistant for, like, years, and then you slowly kind of make your way, you know. But in Vietnam, the demand is so high. It’s like they’re just kind of, like, well we don’t have anyone else. And when I…even when I ask about it I can’t even really recommend anyone else. It is kind of like, well, there really isn’t…it’s like I’m busy and they’re busy and I don’t have more people. It’s this weird thing where the filmmakers that were really like progressive would be the ones that just naturally have, like, a thirst for knowledge and are more humble about it, feeling like, “Okay, I still want to learn.” Like even for me, like, I guess, you know, some people would say that I’m at the top of my game here, but at the same time, I feel like I still have so much to learn.


Dan: Yeah, it’s like how I was talking to you guys about the graffiti and street art scene. It’s the exact same thing. It’s like you skip out on so much stuff on history, on traditions, on culture, and you just jump. And of course, when someone else who’s experienced looks at it they see what’s missing from it, you know. When you see, like, a film that’s made and you’re like, “Okay, they took shortcuts,” or, “Oh, look at the lighting.” You can totally tell you know when you’re experienced.


Elphick: Has your approach towards filmmaking kind of changed because of that?


Jenni: I think film is still growing and it’s still like, we don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but at the same time you can’t completely adopt the Hollywood system here. So it’s really about, like, working with what you have and then working with locals and sort of learning from locals while they learn from you. At the same time, I want to surround myself with people who really understand that, like hey does this work or is this not going to work, and then know your audience too, right. So when we’re doing, like, a feature film it’s kind of, like, “Okay, is this something that is for the Vietnamese audience or are we trying to make it international?” But then you kind of run the risk of, like, if you make it too international the local market won’t like it, but then do you care about that. You really have to, first of all, decide what your audience is.


Elphick: As someone that’s coming from a mixed background, who also knows both audiences, I could see that Jenni was in a unique position to make the kind of films that would bridge different markets. This, of course, would depend on if those markets were ready


Jenni: Yeah, I feel like the in between, they’re not quite sure what to make of it yet. But at the same time, it’s still changing. Like even now sometimes I meet some of the younger kids who are, like, now in their 20s and it surprises me what they’re into and what they’re interested in. And, like, even when I went to the experimental music thing the other day actually it was a lot of, like, I would say maybe half locals and half expats, which I feel like it would be just an expat thing.


Dan: Probably four years ago, five years ago, it would have been. Now I see it in every industry I guess like fashion, music, and art, like the amount of locals is raising up. And I think that’s probably because Vietnam finally has fast internet, you know. Everyone now knows what the standard is.


Jenni: Vietnamese are getting more affluent, you know, like those Ferraris that you see hanging out, those are locals-owned. Those aren’t expat-owned, you know. But, you know, I think for me as a Vietnamese-American and also for Dan, you know, we’re both Vietnamese-American so we’re in a very unique position where we grew up over there, but we are Vietnamese. So we’re kind of like that middle bridge, not to be cliche, but very much, like, enjoying both and then at the same time trying to figure out both where if you make a product, you know, I wouldn’t want only expats to like it. And just because I am Vietnamese-American for sure it’s not going to be only locals that like it either. So it’s kind of like trying to figure that out. And it’s still like there’s no answer to it.


It’s funny because a few years ago we felt like, “Okay, we know what the film industry is like and what people like.” And then there were a few projects where that didn’t do well in the box office and we’re like, “What happened?” And then there were projects where we were like, “Oh yeah, that’s terrible.” And then it did really well and we’re like, “Wait, what?” You never know. And I think that now for me I feel like PR and marketing is a huge thing and only because, like I said there’s just so much content that people don’t know what to watch, what to do, what to see. And I think that is across the board. So you’ll see industries like branding becoming much bigger in Vietnam than before. I would say that when I first came there was no branding. People didn’t think about that, like, “Oh, how do we brand this?” They were like, “Huh, what does that mean?”


Elphick: Listening to Jenny and Dan talk about the creative challenges in their own city, it felt pretty close to home. Hong Kong has similarities in that we talked about framing the scene around the mixture between east and west, local and international or expat. For creatives that are arriving from overseas, I’m always curious what the reason is for staying in their new home, even with all of these obstacles


Elphick: For a difficult environment like this, what makes you want to keep pushing more and getting more involved in changing this scene?


Jenni: Well, on a personal level I think because I am Vietnamese that, like, you know, doing and making films in Vietnam in the Vietnamese language for the Vietnamese people. It just…there’s a satisfaction that is very deep and it’s very meaningful. And I’m not saying that, like, every film is, you know, an Oscar film. Definitely we’ve done broad comedies, you know, but I think that when I was making film in America, not necessarily on subjects that I felt close to, it’s very different from making a film here and with people that I really love and I think that the film industry in Vietnam is small enough where everybody knows each other and everybody supports each other. And I’ve always said that that’s the one thing that I really love about the film industry here, because it’s not as competitive as other industries in the sense that, like, Vietnamese film is lumped into one category. So like when a Vietnamese film comes out and it’s good it’s a win for everybody. So whenever a Vietnamese film comes out and it’s bad, then in general people are just like, “Oh, Vietnamese films suck.”


So it’s like whenever a Vietnamese film comes out and especially one that is made by, like, a Vietnamese-American filmmaker, which is another kind of category as you could say, then there’s even more pressure. Then I am like, “Oh my god. Please be good. Please be good.” Because if a lot of Vietnamese films come out and it’s good then it’s great for all of us. But lately, when the boom happened, when it just jumped from like freaking 40 films a year to 60 films a year, which is in the last couple years, there are definitely a lot of films that came out that are really rushed, made for like no money, made by people who had never directed anything, but just thinking, “Wow, films make so much money. So I can do it. Let’s make a film. Let’s make some money.” And that’s where the motivation is coming from, not necessarily, like, let’s make a great film or tell a story. And then it’s like, you know, let’s put money out and hire this really popular actor and then that really hurt the film industry as a whole, because then the audience became confused like, “Oh, I thought this guy made great movies but then now that movie was so bad.” And then it’s like, you know what, Vietnamese films suck again and, like, we’re going to watch, you know, the Hollywood movie or a Thai movie. It’s kind of slowly, I don’t know if it was last year, or the year before last year, was a really bad year for film, where I think, like, 99 percent of the films failed in terms of didn’t make their money back. But this year has been better and, like, last year was definitely better. So I think that now it’s a lot of PR has a big part of it, like, you know, how do you market your film and in some ways the film industry is still growing and even films that we think will do really well don’t necessarily do well. So it’s really, like, it’s something that we’re still learning and I think that the reason why I’m in Vietnam, and I’ve been in Vietnam for, like, nine years, is that it’s so unpredictable, you know, and I feel like film is still unpredictable for me and I still feel, like, very inspired by Vietnam.


Elphick: Box office success can be hard to predict, but more often than not, a good story is the first place to start and if it’s really good, star power, production value and marketing become less relevant.


Jenni: So it’s also very inspiring because last year there was a film called Em chưa 18, the English title is “Jailbait.” It’s about a 17-year-old girl, high school senior, who basically traps a 35-year-old man with a sex tape in order to get her ex-boyfriend jealous. It’s a teen rom-com and it did…it broke the box office record and, you know, it was produced by my old company and, you know, like, it’s really crazy. It was a phenomenon. Like we knew that it would do well, like when I saw the first cut I was like, “Oh my God, this is going to do well.” But we didn’t think that it would, like, crazy break the box office, because before there’s sort of, like, a scale of, like, the highest box office for Vietnamese films and then a highest box office for Hollywood films. And there’s kind of, like, a big gap, you know, like at the time the record was a little less than five million dollars. And then the top three Hollywood was like Fast Furious 7, 8, and Kong. Kong was like a hundred sixty billion or something, little less than 8 million. And then Em chưa 18 made, like, 10 billion more.


So which is like crazy…like it’s not even, like, it barely beat the record, like, it smashed it. And it’s just, like, this little, like, you know teen rom-com with like…and actually even the cast wasn’t anyone you would call A-list famous. But it was just such a great story and it was charming and hilarious so people just kept watching it and it just became this crazy phenomenon. And the thing is, not only in terms of numbers, but what it proved was that if a Vietnamese film came out that was good and people connected to it, it would do better than a Hollywood movie. And so that was like the big thing that made everyone really inspired. You know, cause I think there are still some other Asian countries that are like, “Oh, Hollywood is the top.” You know, it’s like we can never beat, like, what a Hollywood movie will rein in, you know, for us. And then also, like, last year, I don’t know if it’s beginning of this year or last year, maybe beginning of this year, Em chưa 18, won a National Award in Vietnam that traditionally always goes to what we call a government film, you know, like a government-funded film. So it was the first time a privately owned film was able to win the first place which also was like a, you know, huge point of pride. Because even, you know, all these awards, you know, it’s always a government film that wins. And the fact that they’re open to, like, independently funded is a huge milestone, like, on a national level.


Elphick: I finished our chat by asking Jenny one last question of what the future holds for Vietnamese cinema and what she hopes to accomplish as a producer.


Elphick: Do you have any particular goals that you want to see in the future of Vietnamese cinema?


Jenni: Oo, that’s a good question. I think in general I’d like to see more different types of films. People really pushing the envelope and people taking risks of, like, doing a subject matter that may be a little uncomfortable.


Dan: I’m really interested in, like, when you said there’s not supposed to be any ghosts. What are some other interesting censorship things that are either hilarious or makes you very angry?


Jenni: One thing is, like, you can’t touch anything that has to do with politics. So that’s a huge thing. So there was this movie and it was actually made by a local filmmaker. It was a total local crew and it was a movie about the prime minister. And it was actually called Prime Minister, I think the title was. And they made it and edited it and then at the end of the day they weren’t able to release it, because they were like, “Oh, this movie is about the prime minister.” But they were like, “Yeah, but actually the prime minister is a good character and nothing bad happens to him.” But they’re just like, “No, you can’t do a movie about the prime minister. It is not a documentary. It’s like a fiction.”.


Dan: Even though it was just positive, painting a good picture.


Jenni: Yes. So they lost their investment for that movie, which is like…you know, obviously I never saw it. That was one thing and then the Vietnamese flag or the picture of Ho Chi Minh cannot ever be seen on film.


Dan: Not even the Vietnamese flag?


Jenni: So whenever we shoot, like, on the streets, you know, there’s always a lot of flags so even it’s like way far away we have to be like okay. The art department has to run down and, like, take down the flag or, like, ask the company, “Can I put down the flag for this shot and put it back up?” Which is really annoying. And I remember, like, we did this film INSERT NAME.


Dan: Yeah.


Jenni: And there was this shot and we didn’t know this rule at the time, but the flag was right in the middle of the frame, like, waving and establishing and we had already shot the movie and edited it and everything, so we couldn’t do a reshoot of it. So we actually ended up having to erase the yellow star in the effects.


Elphick: What about yourself? Do you see any plans for the next two to five years?


Jenni: There’s definitely projects I want to write and direct. I really enjoy producing. I love producing and I’m not someone that wants to full time direct necessarily, but there are specific projects that I definitely want to do, like, specifically women-centered, like, strong female characters. And over the last nine years I’ve been distracted with just working on other people’s projects which is really great and I really am proud of every project that I’ve been a part of. And I’ve been really fortunate that like 95 percent of the projects I’ve worked on have been with people that I like to hang out with and are, like, my friends as well, you know. And what I really love about producing is really helping my friends realize their dreams so that they can be free to focus on making this project and for me to, like, take care of everything basically. But I think that, like, now I’ve gone back to freelance starting this year and so I’m trying to figure out, like, okay, put some time into writing. You know, to go back to that, because I’ve always…I’ve really essentially stopped writing, which is, like, very sad and I still write poetry, but, like, sort of, like, long-form I wanted to put time into that and sort of, like, yeah, like I said, like, do more, you know, women-centered and probably based on myself.


Elphick: Thanks for listening. If you’d like to get the full MAEKAN experience, head over to There you’ll find photos and a few of Jenni’s recommended Vietnamese movies as well as a transcript of this recording. The audio production for this story was done by myself, Elphick Wo, the photos were shot and edited by Christopher Lim and the script by Nate Kan. The rest of the MAEKAN team includes Charis Poon, Alek Rose, Gordon Hui, Alex Maeland and Eugene Kan.

For those interested in seeing more work out of Vietnam as well as some of Jenni’s works, check these out:



My Mr. Wife — Chàng Vợ Của Em (2018)

Suboi – N-SAO? (2018)

12 Chòm Sao: Vẽ Đường Cho Yêu Chạy (2015)

The Rebel — Dòng Máu Anh Hùng (2007)

Owl and the Sparrow — Cú và chim se sẻ (2007)

David Kenji Chang talks with the founder in his LA studio and new shop to talk about his life’s work and staying weird in a weird world.