Action director Charlie Nguyen finds unfamiliar, but fertile ground in his new romantic comedy
De Mai Tinh (Fool for Love) sold 45,000 tickets at Ho Chi Minh City's two Galaxy cinemas over its opening weekend last month.
But this was not another cookie-cutter romp by a known comedic director like Nguyen Quang "Crazy" Dung or Le Hoang. This was the newest film by Vietnam's biggest action director, Charlie Nguyen.
Nguyen is a Vietnamese American film producer, director, screenwriter and martial artist known for his action-packed historical martial arts adventure The Rebel.
But like many artists, he says it was time to break out of his comfort zone and do something new. Hence, his romantic comedy De Mai Tinh, which tells a somewhat conventional story in a somewhat conventional way, but also adds some surprises.
Dung (Dustin Nguyen), a hotel attendant who has a simple life with no embition but harbors a strong belief in love (Photos by Dam Trung Linh)
"I was curious about my own ability to make people laugh. I knew that I could make action movies," he says. "I took the chance because I wanted to do something I had never done before."
Without the thrills and spills of Nguyen's earlier work, this film gets its charm from its strong, natural cast, and its deft score composed by Nguyen himself.
The emotional score highlights the beautiful imagery of the film: breathtaking beach scenery, fancy cars and clothes, and scenes of the bold and beautiful taking in stunning ocean vistas aboard a private yacht.
Nguyen even has a small part in the film and co-wrote the script with Vincent Ngo, acclaimed screenwriter of Hollywood's Hancock starring Will Smith, and Dustin Nguyen, who plays the film's main character.
The light romance features the chance meeting of Dung (Dustin Nguyen), a hotel attendant, and Mai (Kathy Uyen), an aspiring singer whose wealthy boyfriend just left her. Insecure about her future, and lonely, Mai must make a choice between the one who truly loves her and the one who can provide a "stable" future
Telling the story of a desperately insecure woman who seeks security in love, Nguyen battled his own insecurities as moving from action films to romantic comedy is not easy.
"I was not sure that people would ever come to my movies to laugh."
Each part of the process was difficult in the untried terrain. Nguyen is known for knowing who produces the best fight scenes and explosive sequences, but it was challenging to quickly adapt to romance and hilarity so quickly.
"Everything is challenging when you do something new. It is hard to write the script, and to find the actors."
And because Nguyen was new to the genre, he had to improvise a lot.
"I had to take risks trust my instincts and intuition." But he also had a lot of "studying" to do.
"I had to do my homework on learning how to make people laugh and the techniques of how to set up humor and create a comic perspective. And after the homework, I needed to work with each department separately about how to shoot [a comedy].
It's not just the mood and tone that change when you switch genres. Basically every element of the production is different in a romantic comedy than it is in an action film: the colors, the sets, the backdrops, the locations, the lighting, the costumes...
Mai (Kathy Uyen), an aspiring singer who seeks security in love. She must choice between her true love and the one who can provide a "stable" future.
"It all needs to support the story, and we need to know why" says Nguyen.
But the director also found a certain liberty in the light-hearted film that he hadn't had in his other films.
"Because it is a comedy, I could give the actors and actresses a lot of freedom."
Nguyen says he had to pay a lot of attention to Vietnamese culture while making the film to make sure that some of the film's racier subjects homosexual love and sex out of wedlock didn't put off local audiences.
He cut one scene in which Dung and Mai sleep with each other the night they first meet.
"I think Vietnamese people wouldn't like Mai if she was like that. They'll think she was too easy."
What is love?
Saigon by night: New "friends" Dung (in front, Dustin Nguyen) and Mai (Kathy Uyen) enjoy a ride through Ho Chi Minh City after a memorable evening of dancing
For Nguyen, the film is about love. But from his perspective, love isn't always what we expect it to be, or what we want it to be. De Mai Tinh shows audiences another side of love
"I see people everywhere who are not so in love but they're really just using the name of love to seek security. That is what Mai considers in the film. And she may trade happiness for security, but she is wrong because only love can bring happiness."
At the end of the movie, the characters begin thinking less about what makes them happy and more about what makes the ones they love happy.
And because of all this the film has a less-than-conventional ending in which the main characters do not end up together, but they still do their best to help the ones they love.
Back to the future
With is romcom experience behind him, Nguyen spends his time enjoying the little things in life: reading, writing and watching movies.
He has plans to do the art direction for a few plays and concerts, but soon enough it will be back into action for Vietnam's action king.
His next film will leave behind the themes of De Mai Tinh to peruse historical themes in a historical epic about Hanoi on which he will work with Luu Trong Ninh, one of Vietnam's most admired art-house directors.