One of the most talked about films of 2011 makes its debut on Cinema Asian America on XFINITY On Demand this month, the dramatic, pulse-pounding hip-hop dance film, “Saigon Electric.” Shot entirely in Vietnam, and featuring some of the country’s top dance crews, “Electric” follows the intertwining lives of a set of individuals dreaming for more in the big city of Saigon, all the while negotiating the harsh details of reality. Mai is a traditional ribbon dancer recently arrived from the countryside; Kim is a talented, but troubled dancer with the Saigon Fresh crew; Do-Boy is the charismatic captain of Fresh and Hai is a rich kid from the landed side of the tracks, drawn to Kim. As crews battle, loves blossom and stakes are raised, each finds themselves at a crossroads and ready to take a leap.
Saigon Electric features performances from many well known hip-hop dancers in Saigon; how did you go about casting for the film, and more generally, what drew you to taking what is a recognizable genre in the U.S., the urban/teen dance film and revitalizing it in Vietnam?
SG: Basically, we needed to get an endorsement and support of the hip-hop community to be able to make this film. One of our producers met with Big Toe, the premiere dance crew from Hanoi. Since we were shooting the film completely in Saigon, we enlisted the Big South crew from that city. With the help of Viet Max, the local guru, we began open casting for principal dancers. Hip-hop has been booming in Vietnam in the past few years. In my objective of telling a film about youth culture in Vietnam, I thought dance would serve as an interesting backdrop, since it also represents the speedy transition of Vietnam into a modernized culture.
There are some incredibly choreographed and shot dance sequences in Saigon Electric. Who developed the moves and styles that we see in the film?
SG: A combination of two choreographers worked on the battles. Ricky Cole from L.A. handled the Saigon crew and Viet Max worked with the Hanoi crew. There were sequences in the film, for example, dance montages, where the dancers performed routines they normally practice.
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You were born in Vietnam and grew up largely in the U.S. All three of your films have been made in Vietnam, where you’ve also produced and acted. What has drawn you to make films in Vietnam, as opposed to the U.S. or other places in the world?
SG: What interests me are stories from the “motherland,” since I find the modernization of Vietnam fascinating. My first trip back to Vietnam was in 1994, and I’ve seen phenomenal economic progress. With that change comes social change, and I see stories in that. Plus, it’s encouraging to see a film industry in Vietnam being reborn, and being a part of that development. As I run out of stories to tell in Vietnam, my next stage of films will most likely take me to other places.
Your previous film “Owl and the Sparrow” (which has been offered on Cinema Asian America) looked at an unlikely bond made between an orphan and two strangers and in “Saigon Electric” you also explore how families are created not through blood, but circumstance and need. Tell us about this recurring theme in your films.
SG: The themes are innate, meaning I don’t have intentions of themes in the script, but my voice comes out. I think the notion of “family” is of the highest importance in Asian cultures, so if you’re finding your place in the world, you’ll gravitate to any type of family around who will support you on your journey, whether it’s escaping an orphanage, or trying to win a hip-hop competition. These are positive messages about opening your heart to strangers.
What are you working on now?
SG: I’d like to diversify my work a little now. I’ll be pitching a series to American networks about historic San Francisco and the tong wars of the 1890s. I’ll also be traveling to Paris and locking myself in an apartment to write a thriller in the City of Lights. The same way that my past films have been love letters to Saigon, I’d like to do a love letter to Paris. I think my stories are derived from what inspires me at the moment.