You were born in Vietnam?
Yes, I was born in Vietnam and I lived there for the first 15 years of my life. My mother went to Vietnam from China via Hong Kong via North Vietnam, and when North Vietnam became communist, she went to South Vietnam and she married my father, who is Vietnamese but educated in France. But my mother was, like many Chinese women, patriotic - there was the Chinese culture that she really wanted us to maintain. I went to a Mandarin school in Saigon and, because of the education situation there, we were allowed to learn a foreign language and went to a foreign school, provided we took the same subjects in Vietnamese as well and passed the Vietnamese normal school exams. So I had to study everything twice. I never had a childhood, really!
But it helped me that, when I was old enough to travel, I got a scholarship, an exchange student to Hong Kong. Because of the war, my parents wanted us to have a more normal teenage life so, when we were old enough, we were sent away. When I was living in Hong Kong with my younger brother, going to school there, the war ended and we found ourselves in hardship overnight, that we were persona non grata, we were refugees, we were persons without a country.
It was difficult in Hong Kong in those days?
It was really difficult because, as you know, Hong Kong is such a commercial state and there's no social welfare, there's no system at all to help people in need. We found ourselves for a week or so having to sleep in the street.
But it was by chance that we were aware that there was a film school or drama school being set up in Hong Kong. That was the first training for film and television in those days, and my brother and myself were both lucky enough that we applied and got accepted as actors in the drama school - I guess partly because my mother was an actor as well and we grew up in the back of the theatre where acting seems to be part of your life.
We were supported by the school and given a certain allowance. But we were allowed to study four days in the week and work two days a week for the school, being hired out by the school as extras on film sets to pay for the tuition. There was quite a bit of criticism in those days, that the school was exploiting the students and turning them into little slaves because whatever we made, we weren't allowed to keep. But, at the same time, I felt there was advantage in that system because, by the time we graduated after two years of a diploma course, we were actually quite familiar with the film sets. We also knew directors and cinematographers and people we could call and be part of that industry.
But you didn't see your future there?
No. But I was extremely fortunate. Upon graduation, my first job was to be cast as a leading actress in a film and I was so excited. But when I read the script, I realised that it was such a small part even though it was for the leading actress. In those days in Hong Kong there was the boom of the kung-fu genre with Bruce Lee and other leads, The One-Armed? Swordsman, Enter the Dragon and films like that. Basically, there's no memorable parts for any female actors. Either you play the part of the love interest and you die young, so that the hero can go off to avenge you, or else you would be the dragon lady, the femme fatale, undermining the hero on his way to achieving his goals, that kind of thing.
I felt quite frustrated after a few years working there. I didn't feel that we were treated very well as actors. I wanted to have better control of my work so I went to UCLA and I studied Communications thinking I would go back to Hong Kong and, maybe, write or produce. But I felt an urge, a need, that I actually wanted to have a say in what kind of work I did, instead of waiting at home for the phone to call to play the same role over and over again.
But, instead, you migrated to Australia?
Yes. Shortly after I came back to Hong Kong, my family decided to migrate to Australia for a more stable life. In Hong Kong 1997 was looming over everyone's head, that it was going to become communist, and my parents had escaped Communism twice.
Your mother seems to have had a very hard life in moving from China to Vietnam to Hong Kong.
Yes, that's right. It's really something I feel strongly about, that only when I was an adult did I realise that she was like a refugee - her whole life was a refugee's life, going from China to Hong Kong because of the Japanese invasion, then from Hong Kong being occupied by the Japanese and that she had to escape down south to Hanoi and, then, when it became communist, leaving again to South Vietnam. Then, when the South became communist, because my father was a businessman, he was thrown into jail and charged as a capitalist. So we had to go to Hong Kong. But my mum wasn't going to be hanging around for 1997 because - it's not anything against communism, because I'm quite leftist myself - it's basically the uncertainty of the political future, where as a family, as an individual, you cannot plan and you don't feel safe. The human rights issue in China is a huge issue and it's about your rights as an individual and that you feel threatened. Australia promised to offer us the kind of security and freedom that my parents spent all their lives looking for.
But it didn't offer you enough in the early '80s in terms of acting?
No, it didn't. I spent the first couple of years learning in Australia, even with a diploma and a degree, that I couldn't get a job. Even offering to work for nothing as a volunteer was not an easy task. It took me two years to actually be accepted to work for nothing. People kept telling me that I should go back to where I came from if I was serious about my work. And I had a really difficult time and struggle with myself - you know, every six months I would look at the state of the war and say, maybe people are right, I should go back to where I came from if I want to have a career at all - or, of course, I could go and sell shoes or something like that.
But the struggle was that family unity is extremely important to us, that if my family is here - my brother and sisters are here, my mum's here - it would be too painful for me, in pursuit of my own career, to go back to Hong Kong. I may have done better. I don't know. It might have been more profitable or productive living in Hong Kong in my job, but I would have to break the ties of my family and that wasn't something I was willing to do.
The roles you were offered in Australia don't seem to be all that much different from those in Hong Kong.
No. That was the ironic part. I think there are plenty of exciting, wonderful roles for Australian actresses, but not for someone with my physique or for an Asian actor. All the roles I've managed to get are similar to what the Hong Kong system was offering in the '70s, which was you're either the love interest that died of TB, a refugee, a peasant that could hardly speak English. You know, I've been to casting or audition situations where a director says, "Oh, you speak English too well. Could you speak with a stronger accent?" I do have an accent, but the roles are usually ignorant peasants or else they are tyrants who usually die in the film as well. So either way, you die many times over.
One of your best roles was in Paradise Road.
Yes, I enjoyed working on Paradise Road, even though I was a bit of a peasant and I die as well, but I was rewarded by the experience of working with thrilling, excellent international actors, people like Glenn Close and Jennifer Ehle and, of course, the director, Bruce Beresford, is great to work with. So that was very enjoyable.
But your acting career has given you an empathy with actors in your own directing?
Yes. I think I probably took it for granted, when I was an actor wanting to make films, but I've now been working as a director for five or more years now, and I realise more and more that I have to rely sometimes on the techniques I have as an actor to communicate with actors. My approach to drama, a lot of it comes from the actor's background, where I relate to the characters emotionally instead of intellectually. And I guess when I see something not working for the actors, I usually can relate to it before they say to me that it's not working. I usually can help in that way.
You spent some time with Kennedy- Miller which also contributed to your development?
As I said, I got my first job as a volunteer and that was in documentary at Film Australia. Because it was documentary with lower budget and less resources, that was the only reason that I was able to get some volunteer's work. They couldn't afford to hire someone for the job. So that was my first break in Australia and I was really grateful for it. And I learned a lot because, if you're willing to learn, there are plenty of jobs people give you, once they know you and know they can trust you. So I did all sorts of things, from film researching to assisting director and production assistant and runner, everything to co-directing a documentary at Film Australia within a couple of years, so I was very busy and I learned a lot there.
But then I had a chance to work as a film researcher and director's assistant for Kennedy-Miller? on a series, a ten-hour mini-series, Vietnam. I played quite a few roles within the series and it took me eighteen months to two years to do it. I was the researcher, I was the director's assistant, I was technical adviser, I also played one of the lead roles in the series. And I had the great fortune to work with Chris Noonan and John Duigan. They gave me quite a bit of room to stretch out, to try things out, and they allowed me to workshop with actors, because it was such a big show that they couldn't be there every minute, so they would rehearse and workshop the major things and they gave me minor things to do.
That's when I realised that, actually, that's what I wanted to do, that's what I was most interested in, drama. I'm still interested in documentary - I would like to do some in the future - but I think drama is something that gets me really excited. You can be much more creative in the sense that there's no limit to your imagination. Everything is fiction and you don't have any kind of ethics to worry about in story-telling.
Between Kennedy- Miller and Traps?
So then I applied to the Film School, and most people I knew at that stage, people from Kennedy Miller, including John Duigan, said, "Don't go to the Film School because what you are doing now is what graduates from the Film School wish to do." And, in some ways, that's probably right. I was earning a good living and I had people that I really liked working with and I thought, yes, that's true, if I graduate from the Film School, I'll be applying for the same job as I've got now. But what I really wanted was to be able to tell stories from my own view. When you're supporting someone else, that's a different role, as enjoyable and satisfying as it was for me at that stage. But I really wanted to tell some stories, maybe from my own background, something that says that I can express my feeling.
And you did?
So I went and applied to the Film School and was accepted, doing double majors, film directing and film editing. It's a three-year course but when you do double majors, you've got to take some time off to fulfil the requirements. But I deferred because I made a short film, but it was a bigger and more ambitious project than the school curriculum allowed and I was forced to take the time off.
What was the film?
That was The Space Vision. I had quite a bit of criticism from my teaching heads at the time saying that it didn't work and I should shelve it and move on with my studies. But I just wouldn't let go and I finished it. About six months later it was accepted to for Cannes and so it paid off, the persistence. It was also nominated for five AFI awards for my fellow students who participated in the project. I had felt that maybe it was wrong for me to be ambitious, to mount something that was bigger than a five-minute piece as I was expected to do. What I did was, I combined the effort with four other students, five minutes for each of us. The story was 25 minutes long. I felt that I'd worked in the industry for a few years so I wasn't satisfied making a five-minute piece. I also thought that surely my colleagues would like to stretch themselves to make something bigger as well. And it paid off for them because they won awards as well.
What was its theme?
The theme was alienation, I guess. It's about a man who was so afraid of the outside world that he isolated himself bit by bit by disconnecting from the relationships he had, but deep down he's really needing to have the contact and the connections. But he was frightened to be hurt.
Were there other short films before Traps?
There were other short films but they were like documentaries. Then I made another film called Hang Up, which is also about the relationship that people chose when a situation forced them to alienate themselves from other people, other relationships. It's a journey in search of the relationship. Then I made my graduation film called Dusty Hearts which is, again, about someone who is in search of a relationship with the outside world.
I guess there's something there, probably through those years with my own isolation. I felt isolated for being in the Australian community. I spent the first couple of years making phone calls and trying to make contact with the industry or with the community, but I didn't know where to go, and that sort of feeling is still quite strong for me. I think I'll always be looked at as an outsider, no matter how long I've lived here.
Those themes are there in Traps as well. It's interesting that you took an Australian novel set in Europe and transferred it to Vietnam and made it work.
Yes. Kate Grenville says that we took the accents of the story and changed the form. She was really gracious and generous and said that the film is not the book, so we have to go with the vision. I could see that and I felt you could do that in your first piece of work. You've got so much you want to say in where you come from and what you yourself are about. It's that the outsider feeling I felt so strongly about. I felt for the western woman going to Tuscany, it's not such an alienation for her. If she went somewhere where she couldn't even speak the language and she would feel more pressured by the strangeness of the society and the people and that would make her re-examine herself, her beliefs and her values. And that's what the story is in Kate's book, why did they go to Tuscany? So I thought, let's make a bigger leap and take her to Vietnam. I also wanted to have another layer of political undercurrent within the story, because I like layers in my work. That woman who is the Saskia Reeves character in the film is looking for her own voice as a woman, just as Vietnam was looking for its own voice as a nation from the French domination. So I thought that would work quite well.
You changed the setting to the early 50s. Is the novel set at that time?
No, the novel was in the present. The novel was three months by the lake, the English couple going to Tuscany and writing - he was writing his thesis, I think, and she was helping him there as his typist. They encounter the strange Italian host and his family, his children. And for everyone some kind of strange sexual affair was happening. There's a lot sexual tension within the story. But I thought, well, Italy and England, even though they're different countries, different languages, it's still the same European region. So for her to go somewhere even further away with the pressure from without makes for a reflection between the couples coming from within.
With the French in Vietnam and the collapse, there's a sense of decadence which colours the sexual relationships as well: power, politics, decadence and the collapse of a culture, so it has many layers.
Yes, that's right. When the society is collapsing, you care less about the facade and you become more ruthless and your colour shows a bit more. Growing up in Vietnam, I have strong feeling about the French people there, even though they were our rulers. But I feel a certain amount of empathy towards them because I felt they were just trapped as the Vietnamese themselves were. Like the Frenchman and his daughter in Traps - he was born there and she was born there, and yet they were outsiders, not accepted by the Vietnamese, just because they were white. And no matter how long they stay there, they are still foreigners as far as everyone is concerned. But they didn't fit, either, in their own society any more. And I felt that about myself in some sense, that I couldn't go back and live in Hong Kong any more and I certainly couldn't live in Vietnam any more. But, at the same time, while I feel at home and comfortable in Australia, I still feel that people don't accept me as part of the society or the industry. I'm the tokenistic foreigner who works in Australia, the tokenistic Asian.
You brought the Australian and the English theme together in the character of the reporter. For the Australian audience there was the extra element which made us pay attention.
Yes, and I don't know if anyone picked it up, that everywhere he goes, people say, "Oh, you're English?" and he would say, "No, I'm Australian," and they just dismissed it. I felt that Australia, as a small country, has had that kind of identity problem on the world stage for many years until now. People still believe Australians are a certain type of larrikin when they go travelling abroad - the ones that are drunk or loud are Australians. But Australians are like everyone else, they're different forms and different types of people everywhere.
They were very naive, the English and the Australians, compared with the worldly wisdom of the French, and so easily seduced.
Yes, that's right.
What about the presentation of the Vietnamese, of the violence and the military skirmishes and the effect, especially on the two women?
For years I've watched so many American films about the Vietnam war, and Vietnamese characters have always been painted as these expressionless human beings in black pyjamas running through the woods, killing people at night. And they never have any feelings. It's as if they were like aliens - and I'm sure that Americans mean them to be like aliens. They are aliens to the Americans. But I just wanted for once to present them as ordinary folks. In Traps there was the opportunity where my co-writer and I had a sequence of the Vietnamese attacking the villa. They were peasants, they were uneducated, they were naive and they weren't these cold-blooded calculated killers like in The Killing Fields or other films. And they were not mad killers, either. They were just peasants and farmers and fishermen who wanted their own country back.
I pulled back the violence a great deal. I wanted to restrain the violence on the screen. Not one shot was fired in the whole attack sequence. There was a young boy who was strangled by the Frenchman and the Englishwoman for their own survival, and that was something really risky to do. My co-writer and myself debated for days and days. To have your heroine killing, strangling a young innocent boy is really against the convention of commercial films. But I really wanted to take that risk because I think that's what humanity is about. We all do horrible things when it's our own life on the line, and can we excuse ourselves or say we become part of that violence. In this case it was a really traumatic moment for the English woman and she says, "I can't take this any more." Basically she has to take a stand after the death of the boy and say, "I can no longer exist within this community, in this world." That was an important moment for us.
I think by having it before the American war, it made it more striming because as you say, we were used to American films. So this showed, I suppose as The Scent of the Green Papaya, going back into the '50s - it makes us look - the whole world audience, universal audience, look at the whole situation I suppose more realistically, with more sympathy.
Yes. There were some moments in that sequence of the Vietnamese, the communists overrunning the French villa. There were a couple of the guerrillas, fighters, picking up some French figurines and objets d'art and admiring them. One picked up a General's jacket with French decoration and the red coat, and he said, "Oh, this is beautiful. I like it." So what I'm trying to say is something about human nature. These are not well-trained fighting machines to kill capitalists. Basically they're naive - innocent, I guess - innocent people who get caught up in the war, and it is their country. They could still admire the French culture like I do, but still demand liberation from the French.
You've made a strong contribution to Australian cinema in dramatising aspects of Vietnamese history. You had a very good international cast.
Yes, they were good to work with. I was very fortunate for my first film to have such a big cast, such a calibre of actors to work with.
White Lies. What interested you in saying directing a telemovie?
A number of reasons. One is I knew that I could work with Mimi Rogers. Another reason was I really wanted the challenge of the technical side of film-making. It sounds a bit silly, but I think women film-makers are often typecast into doing relationship films, and this was something that I felt I would like try. Maybe I could do it, maybe I couldn't, but it was like a taboo that I wanted to test. I was challenged by the producers and distributors: what made me think that I could do the technical stuff of stunts and car-chases, gunfighting and that kind of thing. I felt that if I was a man, those questions would not be asked. And that was more reason for me to be more determined that I wanted to give it a crack. It sounds a bit childish.
It sounds like a healthy defiance. Did you enjoy making it?
Yes, I did. I learned quite a lot and I think the best thing that I got out of it was I'm no longer afraid of stunt work or the more male-dominated gunfighting themes, things like that.
But you still had your themes of relationships and alienation, even with the action and betrayal.
Yes, that's right.
I've been developing a couple of projects, a couple of feature films, and it is still about being an outsider, alienation.
Interview: 10th November 1998