Bụi Đời (Dust of Life): A Moving Portrait of Multifaceted Asian American Experience

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By Lee Ngo

Bụi Đời (Dust of Life) - RLe Van Kiet, dir.

drivebyLe Van Kiet’s first feature-length film is a tour-de-force that thousands within the diasporic ethnic Vietnamese communities around the globe have been waiting to see. Based on true events in Westminster, Garden Grove and other parts of Orange County, California that occurred in the mid-1990s, Le doesn’t shy away from creating a brutal yet honest portrait of adolescent life in the community that still persists today. The film tries to answer a very difficult and complex question: why do so many young Vietnamese Americans resort to a life of violence and crime? By offering some clarity in a world wrought with chaos, Le and his cast and crew explore a confluence of factors, the most important of which lies in the particular historical trajectory of the Vietnamese refugee.

As a filmmaker, Le’s writing and directorial method demonstrates both his rigorous training at UCLA Film school as well as his desire to maintain the utmost authenticity toward his subject matter. Instead of casting familiar faces from the established local media and performance industry, Le recruited mostly non-professional actors to play most of roles in the film. Devon Duy Nguyen, Thu-Mai Tran, and England Du Van, who play the protagonist Johnny, his love interest Mai, and his fellow gang associate Rascal, respectively, never acted in anything prior to Dust of Life, and yet they vividly emanate the repressed anger and confused sense of morality of their generation. I cannot begin to conceptualize how difficult it must have been for these teenagers to draw from their own experiences and expose themselves to the world in such a raw and vulnerable manner. Well done.

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Although Dust of Life is unarguably a tragic story, the film contains several moments of comic relief that highlight some of the peculiarities of the Vietnamese immigrant experience. Even during some of the most intense scenes in the field, events unfold in such a way that reminds the audience that although a life of violence is no life for a teenager of any background, occasionally it does yield hilarious results. My deepest sympathies were directed towards the broken-English speaking, purple pants-wearing Hung, played by Nguyen Vu, whose character is too “f.o.b.” (fresh-off-the-boat) to even understand that his peers constantly make fun of him. Perhaps an even greater tragedy is the tendency for the unassimilated to get pushed to the periphery, forced to endure the ridicule of the majority and even their so-called ethnic kin.

One of the biggest challenges this film faces is that much it will be lost in translation, as the majority of the dialogue is in “Vietlish,” a creolization of Vietnamese, English, and, I argue with particular reference to this film, the occasional Ebonics. However, present the dialogue as such contributes to the bigger statement that Le wants to make, aside from its empirical validity: the plight of these kids is largely misunderstood by the general public, including their own Vietnamese-speaking parents. Therefore, the uncanny language they speak serves as an allegory to their cultural struggle.

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This film, however, does not focus exclusively on the experiences of teenagers. Gang violence in the community affects everyone at all registers, especially parents bewildered by their behavior and the prominent church communities that hope to provide a path for their salvation. In a very subtle yet specific way, Le appeals to the perspectives of each generation. During the powerful scenes by veteran actress Mai Khanh, Le lets the camera rest statically to accommodate Khanh’s theatrical talents as well as the visual tastes of the older generation. Conversely, while shooting the other scenes, Le and his cinematographer Jason Inouye employ a gritty, stylistic, MTV-style of filmmaking that appeals to the sensibilities of a younger crowd. This technique and many others amplify the plurality of the Vietnamese refugee experience and, in doing so, is capable of speaking to a broad audience.

Some may critique the film for the gratuitous use of violence or strong language, not to mention the occasional use of racial or homophobic slurs. I argue that omitting these words or censoring certain uneasy aspects of the film would do a great disservice to the film’s larger statement as well as the community it wants to represent as honestly as possible. Life for this and many other ethnic communities throughout America is not a fairy tale existence, and for some it is a violent, unending nightmare. This film debunks the Vietnamese as one of the “model minorities” of America, surviving the traumas of war and exile in order to establish themselves as hard-working, contributing citizens. Historically, that title must be earned, not inherited, as all ethnic groups seem to undergo an intense xenophobia and internal strife, but the title alone is already undermined by its racist connotations. When you remove “model” from “minority,” what, then, does the latter term really mean? Are minorities, by default, below the socioeconomic standards presumed by others, and when those standards are once met, then are declarations for their exclusion no longer applicable or necessary?

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This question strikes at the very heart of the current debate on immigration, but I will leave that question open for now. However, films like Dust of Life will certainly elevate the debate, but hopefully to a plane where we can begin to talk about it honestly and empirically in order to discover more productive ways to ease these tensions and heal these deep wounds across generations and ethnic groups.

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First published on Lee’s Ecolumn, http://myecolumn.blogspot.com/2009/10/bui-oi-dust-of-life-r-le-van-kiet-dir.html

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