Vietnamese independent horror film Chase is taking you on a ride
Late one evening inside of an apartment nestled inside of that maze-like section of District 3 nested in the crook of Dien Bien Phu and Cach Mang Thang 8 streets, Quynh Anh moved quickly to strangle the thin young man on the couch with his eyes closed.
“Oh my God,” he said opening his eyes wide with surprise causing Anh to hesitate, softening her expression.
“Okay, stop!” writer and director Sivaraj Pragasm shouts from across the room as Anh, the film lead, who in this scene is supposed to kill with resolve, breaks character and resumes being a nice, young, perhaps nonviolent young woman.
“That’s not how you kill someone. It has to be faster he asserts,” demonstrating the speed and directness that has to occur to take a life, or at least make a movie audience believe that’s what’s happening.
Chase (www.facebook.com/batmeanschase) is a film about a woman involved in a car crash. Preferring to remain opaque about the story, Sivaraj talked instead about what the narrative seeks to accomplish and the narrative devices. “This would be one of the first films in Vietnam where you get a strong female lead. The message… is against female violence.” Nam Tram, assistant director, added: “It’s like a f **ked up Kill Bill. I mean, Kill Bill’s already f **ked up, but you get what I’m saying.”
For the story, “we’re going backwards. Nonlinear,” Sivaraj said. Like reverse plot film Memento? “Kind of yeah. Along the way you get clues.” There are two plots running simultaneously, and in one instance two characters are played by the same actor. Confusion and disorientation are a storytelling tactic in Chase to heighten the mystery and sense of fear. The chaos is written into the film to add a cheap scare.
Back row: Tuan Anh, Quynh Anh, Emma and Nam; Front: Sivaraj
Tram said he was personally bored of what in his industry is called the “jump scare,” the moment in fright films when something jumps out a hiding place. “I think if a film does that, it’s a bad film,” Tram opined. “A good horror film would make the audience scared expecting something to happen, but it doesn’t just pop up like that. It should give the audience a real feeling that you’re expecting something. The really good ones, they do that really well.”
Making a Vietnamese language horror film with Vietnamese actors touches on a particular feature of this culture. Tram said thrillers in Vietnamese culture have historically been places where moviemakers and audiences are exploring the hyperrealistic fears common to Vietnamese storytelling. “Spirits, ghosts, stuff like that. It plays a bigger role in our society than in the American one.” Nam’s position matches filmmaking tastes Sivaraj shares. “You’re going to see it jump out, as opposed to ‘I heard about this ghost,’ but you don’t see it and that makes you scared.”
Emma Nguyen, assistant to the female lead and a former student of Western literature, said Vietnamese storytelling also tends to feature comparatively simple structures than those in US or British storytelling. For example, the flashback as a narrative device is something she never encountered in her high school literature classes, she said.
“The first time I saw American Horror Story, I didn’t understand anything.”
The script for Chase was in development for six months. During this time, Sivaraj was writing the film bouncing ideas off of Anh making refinements at her suggestion.
Teamwork and collaboration define the work style on stage. The scene the team rehearsed during Oi’s visit was done a number of ways, differing between takes. Rather than working through specific blocking or stage direction, the crew creating Chase negotiate through the scene offering feedback and workshopping potential strategies.
Sivaraj, a self-described taskmaster, said the experience has taught him a great deal about leadership, including that he needs to “chill the hell out.”
For Sivaraj, the experience of making the film has been a place for him to explore a range of subjects including authenticity. One of the film’s female characters dons a fake mole, which he sees as a symbol of the fronts people offer to others in place of their real selves. This piece seemed especially pernicious to the team who expressed revulsion at the self-making that happens online, the performing of a self that may have little to do with the user behind it. “[The mole is] meant to be a representation of when you’re fake, and when someone finds out your true colors. It’s something that’s happening in Southeast Asia, not just in Vietnam. I get it in Singapore as well,” he said.
The boyfriend of the woman in the film with the fake mole finds out it’s a prosthesis and becomes enraged and physically, violently, accidentally killing her. The violence against women was an inspiration to Sivaraj to write Chase. He said the idea for the film emerged out of the anti-harassment campaign #MeToo. He wondered what would happen if women responded to abuse not with web activity, but with real action.
Emma signed on to work on Chase, bringing in her real experience with sexual harassment. When she was 12, a drunk uncle attempted to rape her. She said she reported the incident to generally unsympathetic response. “The Vietnamese [men] would say ‘Oh, he just wants to play with you’ or whatever,” she said. Emma shared experiences getting unwanted attention from men and even once having her drink drugged when she worked at a club.
Because the film’s women are often subject to compromising situations they have to answer with an aggressive push back, Emma said her experiences there have given her an emotional place from which to coach Anh so she can execute a tough response on screen.
A filmmaker by trade, Sivaraj made his first short film in 2009 as a film student at LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore. He has created seven short films since then, including A Ride Home. This work was shown at Ho Chi Minh City film festival Future Shorts and five other international film festivals. He intends to make Chase the first installment of a trilogy. Sivaraj is also working on a feature- length Vietnamese language film that he intends to release in 2020. Around this time, the movie will be available for public viewing. Sivaraj intends to finish shooting and editing Chase in February 2019 and debut it at a film festival abroad shortly after. Film festival rules prohibit public release of film entries until at least a year after it’s shown at an event.
Images by Vy Lam