It is difficult to accurately pin down Ha Kin as she wears so many different hats—a filmmaker, blogger, writer, singer and photographer—her talents numerous. She was born in Hanoi, educated in the Unites States, and it is difficult to know which of her many lives to tackle first.
Sitting down in late summer, Ha Kin looking petite and pretty joins me in Hanoi’s Old Quarter to discuss her life and where she is going next.
Her journey into Vietnamese film was different from many others, and now she want to be a pioneer of “visual storytelling.” After graduating in international relations she had a brief flirtation with a career in diplomacy, but quickly gave it up to pursue writing and the visual arts.
About 12 years ago, she started blogging, mostly about the normal things a young woman would blog about– her first love, daily life, her dreams. Her writing made an emotional connection with the audience and was soon turned into a best-selling book “New York Love Stories.” The book became a phenomenon and was the first in Vietnam to be enclosed with an audio CD in each copy.
She soon moved from the world of writing to film, making several short films. Here is an edited version of Chào’s interview with Ha Kin, which formed part of the UNESCO project “Mobilizing film professionals for film professional cooperation in Asia.”
“One of the reasons that I am focusing on the positive sides is because of censorship. In Vietnam, cursing, sex and violence are not allowed in films, but they are existing in real daily life.”
Why did you choose to be an independent filmmaker?
I didn’t choose. This is the first step for me to be a filmmaker since I just got back to Vietnam from the U.S. To be a filmmaker, you have to build a good portfolio, or else no one will invest in you, or hire you. In order to have a good portfolio, you have to make some works as an independent filmmaker.
You launched an online donation campaign for your film “Ruby.” Could you tell me more about that?
I am raising money through crowdfunding. Every filmmaker has to crowdfund to get money to make your first film. The film industry is a very tough industry. Making a film needs lots of money, even a short film. Now I have received donations from my classmates in the U.S. We need more kinds of funding support.
How do you fit in to the Vietnamese film industry?
I am very new to the Vietnamese film market and I do not know the big picture. There are differences between the Vietnamese way and mindset of filmmaking and mine. I am properly trained in the U.S. I know the American way of filmmaking. Compared with the old traditional way of Vietnamese people, my mindset is still Americanized. The Vietnamese are not getting used to the American way I learned in the U.S. Now it is difficult for me. Because I have to prove I can do a film in my own way. They may follow my way and my film types in the future.
What is your favorite type of film?
I’d say my favorite film is “Forrest Gump.” I’d like to do stories about daily life and normal things and to turn them into beautiful art. I want to make people feel better and happier when they see films. That is also good for society. But in the future, I may also make films focusing on the dark side.
Nowadays, some filmmakers like to create films on complicated topics and big messages. For me, my knowledge has not yet reached that level, so why not start with something simple and short. My latest short film is about a Vietnamese girl falling in love with a Japanese boy in a beautiful café.
My films focus on the beautiful side of the world. I want to make films in a beautiful way. One of the reasons that I am focusing on the positive sides is because of censorship. In Vietnam, cursing, sex and violence are not allowed in films, but they are existing in real daily life. If you want to talk about the dark side of Vietnamese society, you have to get approved, which is difficult.
Now I want to do something that is really cultural and emotional, but with no big messages or actions. I like normal and real things. I want to make films in a different way from Vietnamese filmmakers.
Compared with western countries, lots of developing countries sacrifice heritage and good environment in exchange for economic development. How is the film industry beneficial to sustainable development? Do you care about environmental issues when you are making films?
There are two types of films. One is the targeted audience, the audience that will pay the tickets. The other is self-expression. Films that are beneficial to sustainable development fall into the second category.
What kind of childhood did you have?
I had a very happy childhood and family, I was always going out to have fun. My father worked for the Vietnam Red Cross. I went with him to many of the poorest areas in the country where you can see kids are bony and skinny, who are too poor to have something to eat. And then it was really very rare for an 11-year -old girl to see Agent Orange (a kind of chemical weapon). My mother was a diplomat, but was doing research and had nothing to do with power. She earned a low government salary. We could afford to buy fresh meat when we moved to the U.S. with my mother when I was 11 years old.
My parents told me how to empathize with things around me and pay attention to poor people. Also at 11, I went to study in the U.S. for junior school and high school, and then went back to Vietnam for college, then back to the US to pursue a master degree again. I am well educated.
“Women have to work harder than men. You have to be talented and unique.”
What are the main challenges for female filmmakers? What should they be aware of?
Filmmaking requires lots of thinking and labor. Being a female filmmaker is challenging physically and mentally. Besides, mental challenges for creative ideas, you also have to control all the things happening on site. You have to work 12-14 hours per day no matter if you have periods or not—when you are easily getting tired. When you get married and have children, men rely on their wives to take care of their children. Women probably have to carry their children with them in the workplace.
In addition, there is lots of racism and sexism in Vietnam. Women have to work harder than men. You have to be talented and unique. I have to work hard every day to get a good portfolio, to earn every opportunity, to prove myself.
You have been lived in many cities, such as Hanoi, LA, Athens, could you tell us a little more about how culture helps great cities develop and become more sustainable?
There is not much sustainable development here in Vietnam, but this gives us something to think of. In the past, people got used to plastic, now more and more people have stopped stop using plastic stuff like straws. It is part of filmmakers’ responsibility to raise the importance of environmental protection and awareness. We have not used film to promote sustainable development. Filmmakers should pay more attention to that. In order to do that, there should be some funds, grants, and organizations so that filmmakers to do this. Filmmaking is actually one of the best tools to educate people. Films can reach a large population.
“I have the advantage of being able to to tell Vietnamese stories. We have many Vietnamese expats who are educated in Hollywood in the U.S. and come back to make films, but they do not have the culture. “
What would you want to see for future of the Vietnamese film industry and Vietnamese filmmakers?
In the future, Vietnamese films do not have to make the distinction between artistic film and commercial film. To me, films can attract all kinds of audiences, at the same time they can still be well done and beautiful, like pieces of art.
I hope our films will be beyond borders, and at the international level in the future. I have my own way to make films, it means I must prove to others that my way works. In the future, I would like to stay in an environment where my talent and ideas are appreciated and I have more opportunities.
I have the advantage of being able to to tell Vietnamese stories. We have many Vietnamese expats who are educated in Hollywood in the U.S. and come back to make films, but they do not have the culture. I live here and know the local lifestyle. I am from the countryside and have traveled a lot in Vietnam. I am a Vietnamese inside; if you throw me in a crowd of Vietnamese, I can live like a Vietnamese. I can make films in a professional way due to my education in the U.S., but the films I make are still very Vietnamese. [They are] about, for and related to Vietnam.