Taking the Lead

Award-winning actress Hong Anh opens up about women in films, the indie cinema scene in Vietnam and her rise to fame

It’s something that veteran Vietnamese actress Hong Anh may be reluctant to admit – and it takes a long time to get her to say the words – but there’s no escaping the fact that she’s one of those rare natural actresses. It’s something to do with her presence, her bearing as she makes her graceful, easy movements, the rough, rich way she pitches her voice like a woman in love. In her acting career, she has repeatedly been cast in deeply emotional, melodramatic roles – women scorned or completely lost to the heart – and watching the gentle gravity of her own unguarded expressions, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that she was born to play such parts.

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That observation, however, may be a tad unfair. Hong Anh is a proud method actress who has adopted a particularly determined work ethic. Her career spans twenty years in dancing, acting, and now film production, and her dedication to the craft cannot be denied – but even after much discussion about her technique, the hard work she does to get into character, and the ways in which she studiously works with film directors to put the most accurate expression into her performances on screen, she eventually smiles, shyly shifts her gaze, and lightly concedes what her fans and colleagues have been saying all along: “Yes, I think there is something of a natural inside of me.”

Hong Anh has a refreshingly unpretentious candor for someone with such a distinguished public image, which is probably the key to understanding the one thing that doesn’t make sense about her career – the fact that she seems to have gotten it all completely backwards. Working as a producer of indie movies is something fresh film-school graduates get into before making their big break in commercial cinema, whereas Hong Anh has now made the rather curious choice of essentially giving up the red carpet and getting into short films for arthouse audiences instead.

Last month, her company Blue Productions held a test screening of a virtually unknown masterpiece by French Viet Kieu director Pham Van Nhan. Hai The Gioi was filmed in France in 1953; 62 years after the fact, Hong Anh has just picked up distribution rights – other firms had passed on it, feeling that there was essentially no audience for such a work. Hong Anh’s no stranger to investing in quality where she sees it regardless of any marketing concerns – not long ago, she blew VND6 billion on a young Australian VK director’s first feature film The Race – which was eschewed by local audiences in favor of the kinds of movies she now flatly turns down roles in. That film too was a fine piece of work – and she has no regrets.

There’s only one explanation that makes sense as to why Hong Anh has decided to reverse track, and it’s clearly the same, simple reason for everything she’s done in her life. Hong Anh is a woman who resolutely follows her passions, and she obviously needs no other excuse for anything she chooses to do.

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“The Vietnamese cinema industry, I think it’s still a bit slow to keep up with modern life,” she says in an attempt to justify why she has suddenly turned away from the commercial cinema that made her a household name in Vietnam. “Indie movies are different. Young Vietnamese moviemakers can produce films that correctly reflect reality. They can express LGBT love, triangle love, multidimensional characters – but what a pity, it’s just a small flow, an underground trend. It might take five years for it to develop before it can influence and change Vietnamese cinema. That’s why I’ve been cooperating with young directors, in many projects and campaigns, to help encourage them, from short movie festivals and competitions to online movie-making projects. I’ve seen their potential, and I want to help them.”

There’s another reason that Hong Anh seems disappointed in the commercial cinema scene, and that’s the sense in which all this celebrityhood seems rather beneath a person who is so fundamentally down- to-earth. She’ll be the first to admit that she wasn’t at all expecting to set out on a career in the entertainment business when she first enrolled in the HCMC School of Dance. “I loved dancing, and I often watched TV, just watching the dancers,” she remembers. “My parents were against it, but finally they changed their mind and let me take the entrance exam. The judges gave me a piece of music and I had to dance to it. That was how they evaluated your potential if you had no dancing knowledge. During the test, they asked me: ‘Why did you dance like that?,’ and I said I didn’t know. I just followed my feelings. Honestly, I still don’t know why I passed the test, because I told the judges that the real reason I wanted to learn dance was that I was actually hoping to lose weight.”

Whatever potential the school saw in Hong Anh was picked up on again at a talent contest some time later, when she won an award not for technique, but for her elegance. That event was attended by well-established director Le Cung Bac, and he was so impressed with the young Hong Anh that he decided to cast her in a pivotal role in a new television drama called The Beauty of Tay Do that launched her career on-screen.

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“I was chosen to play Bach Van, who became a very famous TV character at that time,” she says. “I had no training in acting, actually. I just followed my instinct and passion. I built the character based on how I felt about her, and so I didn’t even understand why she was popular with audiences – there were so many things that I didn’t get. I acted following the instruction of the director. I read the script and sympathized with the character. I cried during her tough times, and even when the director said ‘cut’, I just couldn’t stop crying.”

The popularity of her character on TV very quickly led to roles on film – and shortly thereafter, her first leading role in the award-winning Hai Nguyet, for which she received a Golden Kite for “Young Potential Actress.” She was soon typecast as playing women from the countryside, developing a reputation for her dramatic portrayals of young Mekong women – on one occasion preparing for a part by living and working in the fields, experiencing the hardship of rural women first-hand as her back ached and her skin darkened alongside the other laborers under the raw sunlight.

She loved the experience. Such roles hearken back to Hong Anh’s family background in the small Mekong city of Tra Vinh. “I was influenced a lot by Tra Vinh culture,” she says, “and that helped me to portray Southwestern women. Even though I grew up here in Saigon, I often visited Tra Vinh in the summer when I was young. My parents didn’t force me to study like my friends did. I had the freedom to explore everything. I love it there, so I don’t feel that I belong to the luxurious world, to the red carpet and long dresses. I would go to the festivals or film premier events because I had to, but I always felt awkward there.”

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The Tragic Woman

As her career developed, so too did her awareness of the conflicts inherent in playing traditional female roles in contemporary times – and it was at this point that she began to perceive the distance between her characters on screen and those more true to life.

“Many directors have tended to invite me to portray tragic women who have to struggle with life, to endure their low and difficult social positions,” she says. “A part of it is because of Asian culture, where women are expected to be that way. A lot of movies try to reflect that as a way to illuminate the stereotype. They’ve shown how women have lived from the period after the war to modern times. But to be honest, Vietnamese movies are kind of old, and still far behind modern life. In some ways, Vietnamese movies still use an outdated image of Vietnamese women. Those that do portray modern women are mostly comedies, which attract audiences but are nowhere near deep enough.”

“There’s a hint of change,” she notes. “In movies that express life as it was a long time ago, women didn’t fight for themselves. But in some of my movies, they start to fight back, sometimes silently, to hold on to their love. I often hope that it will change how people think. That as a wife, a woman has to endure bad behavior while men can have wives and a mistress. Men have started to face criticism for that. But there are few movies that are good enough to express this.”

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Making a stand for the suffering of women is a complex issue for Hong Anh, who has faced harsh public criticism in her personal life for following the dictates of her own heart. Some years after the fact, she remains philosophical as to whether or not she can remain a role model to the women of Vietnam. “I still work to inspire women to change,” she says. “My fans still love my characters. Most of my audience are middle-aged women. When they see my movies, in which my character devotes herself to her family while her husband cheats on her, they do sympathize. For example, when I played a woman who divorced her husband because he cheated, the audiences agreed with the solution, they agreed that she didn’t have to tolerate that kind of situation. But it depends on the audience. When my mother saw me in that movie, she asked why I chose that character, because I was a wife and a wife should not divorce her husband. She thought that when you choose to marry a man, that’s your choice and you have to agree with him, in all cases, even when he is bad. Divorce is a terrible thing to her.”

“But I think my audience will not choose me as a role model,” she says somewhat sadly. “I don’t know much about entertaining young women nowadays. I don’t know many coffee shops, I don’t like to go there. Maybe in working, I can be a role model. I work hard. I love helping the community. I’ve joined campaigns. But to have a lifestyle like mine, maybe no. My friends always say I’m too boring.”

With the world of acting now behind her for the time being, Hong Anh has refocused all her energies on Blue Productions and her work with charities and environmental groups. She recently partnered with Marcus Cuong of YxineFF, an online short film project, both in indie movie production and in the Wildfest initiative to promote public awareness of the cruelty of rhino horn use – which she hopes will shame local buyers of rhino horn under the scrutiny of international audiences. She speaks with marked enthusiasm about these projects, but for all her mastery of acting, she can’t hide a certain poignancy when she speaks of the performance career that she has, however temporarily, left behind.

“I love experiencing the lives of my characters,” she smiles wistfully, “getting to understand situations and people, especially those things related to human behavior. I don’t know why I’m interested in those characters who are far different from me, who have struggled so much in life. But whenever I’m introduced to those characters, I’m eager to dig into their thoughts and their feelings, to totally understand them and express them.”

“Besides, to me, acting is not as difficult as dancing,” she sighs. “Dancing requires me to express myself so much more, since I’m not allowed to speak. I have to use my face and my body to express my feelings through the music. Many directors said that it was good that I started my career as a dancer, because dancing required me to have good facial expression. They even said that I was good at acting with my eyes. It gave me my figure, it gave me light and flowing movements.”

It may be unfair, but it is difficult to believe that all these graces came to Hong Anh through her studies of acting and dance. There is something dramatic in her every breath; there’s rich expression in the most casual of her gestures. It’s hard indeed to escape the conclusion that, for all her activities in the several years since turning her focus away from her performing career, Hong Anh remains an actress to the core – it’s something, after all, that comes from within her.

Images of Hong Anh in denim shirt by Ngoc Tran; all others provided by Hong Anh

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