Made in Vietnam
(Canada, 100 min.)
Dir. Thi Vo
Director Thi Vo, as the title of his new films suggests, was made in Vietnam. He chronicles his journey to Canada in the preamble of his documentary and this story describes how his parents planned to flee Vietnam when he was only a baby. Vo notes how complications arose and prompted his father to make a difficult proposal to his mother: take the baby and flee. Vo says his father promised to meet them later, but never did.
Vo embarks on a journey 30 years after he arrived in Canada to meet the father he never knew. The homecoming is important for the filmmaker, particularly since his relationship with mother is strained at best and he describes little effort on her part to make contact with his father.
This task is ambitious since the only information Vo has to begin the hunt is the name of his father, Dan, an old family photograph, and address of a relative in Vietnam, his great uncle Sang. Production history notes say that Vo made contact with Sang in a 2013 trip to Vietnam, but filming on the feature commenced two years later. The doc features some snippets of interviews in which Vo pitches Made in Vietnam to local media as part of the process, which conveniently outlines the project. There’s some transparency here that the dramatic trip to Vietnam is not in fact the first, while conversations that arise throughout the film fill in some of the holes that leave a viewer wondering about the research Vo did in the interim.
This easygoing and personal documentary sees Vo film his story with a small-scale crew equipped with a mix of professional cameras and consumer-friendly Go Pros. Among the skeleton crew are his long-time friends Daniel, introduced as Vo’s “homeboy” in the awkward title cards that float on screen, and Kaleb, whose relationship with Vo is likened to an “old married couple.” The friends and crewmembers become part of the journey as they join Vo on the search to meet his father.
Things take an abrupt and unexpected turn upon arrival in Vietnam. The film becomes a different journey than the one Vo anticipated, although to reveal more would be to rob the journey of its power. Many people might have packed up and quit after the twist Vo encounters, but the film forges onwards in the director’s search for closure and meaning.
Made in Vietnam doesn’t hide the fact that Vo and company shot it on the fly, rolling with the developments and revelations they encountered along the way. The doc has ample shots of the team planning in action, and there’s a hyperawareness of the camera’s presence as interviews and conversations are interrupted by direct addresses to the camera or conversations between Vo and the crew. Busy and jittery camerawork adds to the film’s ragtag style for better or for worse as it puts the viewer along for the journey.
The film takes Vo and his friends all over Vietnam. From the sprawling centre of Ho Chi Minh City to the smallest of towns, Vo connects with his long lost culture and connections that went dark when his parents were forced to flee. The impact of the journey is understandably emotional, not just for Vo but also for the people he meets along the way.
Vo’s pilgrimage speaks the circle of refugees who lose connection to their heritage when made to leave their homelands. The story of repairing these ties resonates with larger stories of migration and belonging, and while his story is specific, there’s a universal power to the pull one feels back home and of the need to understand one’s origins in this increasingly chaotic world. In this one Canadian’s quest to discover his place in the world, Vo has made a film in which many members of the diaspora are bound to recognize their own stories.
Made in Vietnam screens at Reel Asian on Tuesday, November 14.