In conversation with the talented Ngo Thanh Van – actress, model, singer and producer
When the sequel to Hollywood blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was released last month, international audiences received a long- overdue introduction to Vietnam’s own action heroine, Ngo Thanh Van. It’s a modest role but a significant step for Van, who has been a prolific force in the Vietnamese industry in numerous capacities. Originally a beauty pageant contestant and model, she went on to reveal a strength of character and physical presence that would make her synonymous with martial arts flicks in her acting career, while releasing several popular albums as a singer along the way. Now with her own talent agency and opportunities to direct film projects already in the works, Van’s Hollywood debut marks a new crest in an already impressive career in entertainment.
Van, who first came to the attention of mainstream cinemagoers in the 2007 local hit The Rebel, shows no signs of slowing down. The opportunity to audition for the new Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny film came while she was already waist-deep in a local movie that she was producing, Ngay Nay Ngay Nay. “My agency in the US notified me that Crouching Tiger 2 was going through the casting process,” she says, “but I could only send in a clip instead of attending the audition myself. After many callbacks, I finally got the role of Mantis and flew to New Zealand to film. Mantis is a small antagonist role, with just a few scenes and lines. It was mostly amazing action sequences with a Chinese spear, which I’d never tried before in Vietnam.”
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny – which hits US cinemas and Netflix simultaneously on Van’s 37th birthday – is not the only major screening we’ll be seeing her in this year. Local audiences are hotly anticipating the release of Tam Cam: The Untold Story, a modern reboot of a traditional Vietnamese Cinderella fairy tale (a retelling of which featured in Ơi Vietnam’s September 2015 issue), which Van directs and performs in. Expected to represent a significant evolution of Vietnamese cinema techniques, the film will be an opportunity for her to showcase the maturity of both the local cinematic arts as well as her own progression in the industry.
“The special effects of Tam Cam: The Untold were performed by talented Vietnamese engineers, who are just as incredible as their Hollywood counterparts,” enthuses Van. “The cast is a highlight of the movie, boasting veteran actors like Huu Chau, Thanh Loc and members of the idol band 365, who appeared together in a movie for the first time.”
The movie will recast a classic of Vietnamese culture into a new context. “Revisiting folk stories has been a global trend,” explains Van, “but it’s still lacking in Vietnam. This prompted me to retell a well-known Vietnamese story in a more modern way while still retaining its essence, via the wonderful language of film and drama. Viewers will think ‘Wow, this is the Tam Cam tale that I know, but 60 percent of its content is only revealed now.’ The movie is filmed wholly in Vietnam, with breathtaking scenery that will charm our viewers. I’ve chosen the most remote and unknown landscape in the movie to promote tourism there as well.”
Much of Ngo Thanh Van’s conspicuous inner strength is something that’s been with her since childhood. Van is from the Mekong, hailing from rural Tra Vinh, where she stood out even then for her courage. “In the vast countryside, there wasn’t much to do for us kids except rowing, showering in the river and dueling with swords made from bamboo,” she remembers. “I’ve loved martial arts since then, which may be the reason for me becoming a martial arts actress, as I’m known in the Vietnamese movie industry. My fondest childhood memory is going to the local markets and paddy fields with my mom and my brothers. Life was difficult back then, but also tranquil, and Tra Vinh remains the most beautiful land in my heart.”
The intention to pursue a career in the entertainment industry was never a conscious thought for the young Van. She emigrated to Norway at the age of ten, where she was oblivious to her transformation from a scrawny Mekong waif into a tall, fair-skinned beauty until her return to Vietnam at the age of 19, when her stunned brother insisted she enter the Women’s World beauty pageant, in which she placed as a runner-up.
“I’ve enjoyed singing since I was little,” says Van, “and joined some performances at school. Back then, I didn’t even intend to become a singer – it was purely a hobby. In Norway, there are many extra-curricular activities for students to showcase their talents. I chose to sing, and didn’t feel any stage fright as I was so excited. Instead, I sang my heart out as if the stage was my own.” “I came back to Vietnam only to visit my family and my hometown,” she continues. “There were no intentions to join any beauty pageant or enter the entertainment business at all… I was truly astonished that many brands started approaching me after I won the second runner-up award in this contest. From then, I began to take my career in show business more seriously.”
Fortunately, Van quickly connected with a number of talented mentors, including the composer Quoc Bao – who mapped out her career as a singer – and The Rebel director Charlie Nguyen (who is also co-producing the new Crouching Tiger film), who helped to establish her reputation as a martial arts actress.
“Before The Rebel,” says Van, “I’d already studied martial arts for the TV show Rouge. But in The Rebel I had to spend three months learning much more difficult and unique positions with cascadeurs and teachers. Afterwards I acted in other action movies, so I often had great opportunities to practice for both my roles and my health.”
Following on from her own successes in the entertainment field, Ngo Thanh Van went on to establish her own talent firm, Vietnam Artist Agency, or VAA. It was the realization of a long- term dream for Van, who admits that she has always desired to train and manage other Vietnamese talents in a comprehensive way. “Through VAA,” says Van, “both I and other teachers can share our knowledge and experience with young artists and shape their direction in entertainment. This is different from being an artist, but it’s also quite an advantage as I can collaborate with my talents in various ways. My biggest success to date is 365 – the only idol band in Vietnam that has been active for five years running, with many devoted fans and achieving great milestones.”
Van’s agency and interests as a director and movie producer are likely to represent her future direction as an artist. While her music career has trailed off (her album NTV Virus remains her representative work, the title of which has since become her handle as a celebrity figure), we can expect to see more of Van’s work in the cinematic arts from this point going forward. “Film is still a great passion of mine that has tremendous potential for growth and creativity,” says Van. “I can’t wait to contribute more to the film industry in Vietnam – and if I have more opportunities abroad in the future, I’ll grab them and advance my career path there too.”
Images By Kim BTN