Review: Saigon Electric (2011)

By Rowena Santos Aquino

Saigon Electric’s unabashed definition of itself as a youth dance film à la the Step Up franchise is initially off-putting. But what saves it from being consigned to pejorative straight-to-video damnation is its colorful visual form, its understanding of the city’s crucial role in “interrogating themes of place, memory and identity” (T.C. Chang, “Place, memory and identity: Imagining ‘New Asia,’” 2005), its referential significance to Vietnam’s currently and rapidly unfolding modernization, and with it the rumblings of an energetic national film industry.

Saigon Electric presents the intertwined stories of two teenage girls eking out their lives as they pursue their respective dance desires in Saigon. Mai’s specialty of traditional ribbon dance marks her as of the countryside, while Kim is an orphan who lives in an after-school center and belongs to a hip hop crew composed of her fellow colleagues at the center. Filmmaker Gauger admits wholeheartedly that these two young women are “archetypal characters.” One is naïve and represents tradition, while the other is street savvy and represents the now. Their rocky friendship is also archetypal, as well as the individual situations in which they find themselves: Mai and hip hop crew leader Do-boy strike a close friendship (opposites attract) and Kim falls for a guy from the upper class (Cinderella fairy tale but with a sour conclusion). Even the dialogue is archetypal and explicitly smacks of soap opera exchanges. And as a youth dance film, it contains dance battles between rival hip hop crews. So what is left?

What remain are issues of performance, how Gauger captures the city’s vitality, and the film’s role within an emerging Vietnamese national film industry and modernization. The mainly non-professional cast’s performance is solid, including actual hip hop guru Viet Max as the leader of the rival hip hop crew. Above all, Quynh Hoa is fearless and revelatory in her portrayal of Kim’s tough ups and downs; in this sense, she constitutes a great part of the film’s emotional and thematic core. Phan Tan Thi is actually a professional actor who works mainly in theatre. His understated performance as the Professor and Mai’s landlord — whose prestigious musical past and the death of his wife have reduced him to being an ornery, lonely old man — constitutes another substantial part of the film’s emotional and thematic core.

As director and DP, Gauger’s very hands-on and immersive approach to camerawork and vision of the urban environment in which Mai, Kim, et. al. live is eye-popping, vibrant, and a testament to his intimate ties with the city (he was born in Saigon) and Vietnam in general. Gauger’s talent for capturing the energy of the urban place and the simultaneous changes that are happening in it was already apparent in his debut feature film, The Owl and the Sparrow (2007). The Owl and the Sparrow is arguably the superior film in terms of narrative subtleties: it follows an orphan girl’s journey to Saigon and finding the kindness of strangers in an overwhelming city space. But in both of these films, Gauger’s ability to immerse the spectator in the city’s pulsating spaces comes through well; given that the city is ultimately the main character here, the film is all the better for it. The film’s undercurrent subject of the changing face of urban city spaces—as the site of tradition and modernity—through dance, city structures, and the privileging of female experiences and perspectives are its strongest points.

Though the archetypal plot is so ponderous most of the time that it dilutes the impact of Gauger’s preoccupations, the attempt to chart Vietnam’s rapid growing modernization pains is genuine. To package it in youth dance terms is all the more commendable, precisely because Gauger, his co-producers, and the film know exactly who their audience is. Take into consideration the fact that 60% of the national population in Vietnam is under 25, and a youth dance film no longer seems so negative. That young people can think about issues of modernization and their particular role in it is a great thing. When the film does veer into this path towards the end of the film, it becomes more digestible. The city, as Gauger presents it, is full of energy, even if some of it is negative, such as the rich hotelier who wants to raze the orphan/after-school center to build a hotel. In response, Mai, Do-boy, and Kim rally the local community to fight against this move. In the process, they transform the center, which becomes a microcosm of the city, into a “constellation of [different, simultaneous] place meanings” (Chang), where traditional and modern arts come together and emotional conflicts are resolved. By extension, the site of the dance battle between Do-boy and Kim’s crew Saigon Fresh and rival North Killaz comes to embody a similar space.

Saigon Electric and Gauger’s work in general contrast with the fast-paced martial arts action films that have been making strides in Vietnam and abroad, such as The Rebel (2007, Charlie Nguyen) and Clash (2009, Le Thanh Son). It is a welcome contrast and an encouraging sign of a growing varied film industry. It is strengthened by the increasing numbers of Việt Kiều, or overseas Vietnamese, returning to the country after receiving film training abroad or for other reasons. In fact, Việt Kiều comprise Saigon Electric’s producers. Crucial yet paradoxical to Việt Kiều’s role in revamping an inert film industry beginning in the mid-2000s was 1986’s series of economic reforms, Đổi mới, which gestured towards a market economy and privatization. Paradoxical since the local film industry initially suffered under Đổi mới.

In the 1990s, infrastructure was all but nonexistent. Until 2005 or so, feature film production remained in single digits. After 2005, numbers began to grow into double digits, reaching up to 20. Most recently, this year saw record-breaking attendance figures for a local Vietnamese film, the gangster comedy Long Ruoi/Big Boss (2011, Charlie Nguyen). In the U.S., Saigon Electric will be breaking new ground as well: it will be the first Vietnamese-language film to open in 12 cities across the country on 7th October 2011.

63/100 - Gauger’s ability to immerse the spectator in the city’s pulsating spaces comes through well; given that the city is ultimately the main character here, the film is all the better for it.

Sr. Staff Film Critic: Recently obtained my doctoral degree in Cinema and Media studies at UCLA. Linguaphile and cinephile, and therefore multingual in my cinephilia. Asian cinemas, Spanish language filmmaking, Middle Eastern cinemas, and documentary film.