The clash and combination of old and new Vietnam are at the heart of Saigon Electric, a new film by writer-director Stephane Gauger that recently won the Best Narrative Feature Award at the Philadelphia Asian Film Festival.
The movie follows a local hip hop dance crew called Saigon Fresh as it challenges the national champions, North Killaz from Hanoi, for a chance to compete internationally in South Korea. At the center of the story is an unlikely friendship between the rebellious hip hop dancer Kim and shy Mai, a traditional ribbon dancer who left her home in the countryside to pursue her dreams in the big city.
Scenes courtesy Saigon Electric
Listen to Stephane Gauger's interview with VOA's Sarah Williams:
Gauger says the contrast is intentional.
“That theme, the yin and the yang, of having two friends, one being a traditional dancer, and one being a hip hop dancer, is addressing some of the things I think are important about Vietnam now, which is a changing society,” he said. “What’s happening in Vietnam is that the new modernization is, in my mind, endangering the old traditions.”
He underscores the national growing pains in the personal struggles of the young dancers as they come of age. A romance blooms between Mai and the Saigon Fresh captain, Doboy, as they teach each other the meaning of hip hop and the tradition of ribbon dancing. As that unfolds, street-savvy Kim becomes infatuated with Hai, the son of a rich family who woos Kim with glimpses of a better future.
“I would say that teens everywhere in the world are going to have the same issues. The issues with belonging, the issues of fitting in, the issues of class. Because in Saigon Electric, we have a classic poor girl-rich boy scenario. But I wanted to address that in a new fashion with Vietnam because one of the things I wanted to address in the film was modernization as the country is developing,” Gauger said.
The community center where Saigon Fresh practices is threatened by a developer planning to tear down the building to make room for a hotel. The dancers appeal to city officials to intervene, but the authorities say they can’t stand in the way of change. Gauger says as Vietnam develops economically, urbanization is changing the fabric of the communities. Perhaps an inevitable development, but one he says is worth reflection.
Gauger has personal ties to Vietnam, and to the struggle of fitting in. He was born to a Vietnamese mother and American father in Ho Chi Minh City, known as Saigon before the war-torn North and South merged in 1976. He moved to the United States when he was five and nurtured his Asian roots through his Vietnamese grandmother who lived with the family.
He returned to his birthplace in 1995 for a film project after college and realized the potential of doing movies in and about Vietnam.
“The industry in Vietnam is burgeoning as more screens are being built and the population has more disposable income to go see films,” he said.
Gauger said he also wants to pursue a drama series for U.S. television. But his fascination with the old and the new is unwavering. The series would be set in San Francisco’s Chinatown at the turn of the last century.