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04.15.09

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Phaedra

HEAD OF THE TABLE: Chi Pham plays the title character in 'All About Dad.'

Family Firm

Mark Tran's Cinequest hit 'All About Dad' looks at the dynamics of an immigrant family

By Steve Palopoli


SOMETIMES, a filmmaker can be too right for his own good. When Mark Tran wrote the screenplay for All About Dad as a 19-year-old San Jose State University student, he drew on his experiences growing up in a large Vietnamese family in California. The central plot point was that the main character—loosely based on himself—wants to give up his boring biology classes and make movies, but his father comes from a generation unwilling to see filmmaking as anything but a frivolous distraction.

Tran didn't know back then that he would actually get to make his movie. But with the help of a SJSU professor who loved the script, he was able to get use of some equipment and enough financing to start planning a shoot. When he did, he quickly discovered that he had been all too correct: because Vietnamese immigrants of that generation really do consider film an unthinkable profession, Tran couldn't find anyone to play the father character.

"In that older generation, no one pursues acting, because it's all about survival," says Tran.

After four fruitless months of searching, he and his collaborators put up fliers around the South Bay advertising for the part and promising "no experience necessary."

"We were saying to ourselves, 'This is so stupid; we're not going to find anybody,'" recalls Tran. "But we thought we had to be able to say we tried everything. And the only person who replied was perfect for the role."

That was Chi Pham, who brings a quiet storm to the character of Dad. As the title character who drives the action in this Viet-American family comedy, Dad requires a performance that is not entirely sympathetic, but not unsympathetic, either. Pham plays the proud patriarch who requires that everything be all about Dad, without losing sight of the fact that for Dad, everything is about the well-being of his family. It is a remarkable performance, especially for a nonprofessional, first-time actor.

Tran is now 24, and after completing All About Dad last year, he finally got to see how a mass audience would respond to his film when it was selected for Cinequest this year. The response was overwhelming, and Tran was amazed to see all the screenings sell out.

"When I came to the theater, there was this huge long line," he says. "I was really surprised. And really nervous."

He needn't have been, as the premiere received a standing ovation, and All About Dad won the Audience Award for Best Feature. The film is now returning to San Jose, with a weeklong run, April 17–23, at Camera 3, which could be expanded if it's successful.  

What the audience is connecting to is obvious: while the film's focus on a Catholic Vietnamese family provides an interesting and unusual focal point for the film's themes, at least for mainstream American audiences (for instance, an engaged couple must keep secret the fact that one of them is a Buddhist), the truth is that in the end they are quite universal. Overbearing dads? Underappreciated moms? Sibling rivalries? These are Vietnamese variations on a series of themes, and they are likely to hit home no matter what culture one grew up in.

Tran has the directorial touch of a Wes Anderson with soul. Small, quirky details pop to the foreground and can take on an unexpected significance at any time: a tilting tree here, a bizarre action figure there and the occasional burst of fantasy. But there's a refreshing lack of twee—these characters are not wacky or off-puttingly odd. They do some very funny things, and some strange things, but they are serious in intent. The way they act and speak feels authentic, and so do their problems.

That is at least partially because Tran drew on the real communication problems he remembers from growing up. Both English and Vietnamese were spoken at home, but he spoke very little Vietnamese, and his parents weren't comfortable speaking English.

"I can say anything I want in English, but they can't understand," he says. "They can say anything they want in Vietnamese and I won't understand. We kind of talked like third-graders in our vocabulary."

The film is bilingual as well, although Tran was advised against subtitles at one point. "One of my producers said he hates films with subtitles, and that I should reconsider. But it didn't seem right," he says.

For Tran and his cast and crew, most decisions like that had to made on instinct. He shot for 25 days in 2007, a first-time director working with an inexperienced crew and mostly nonprofessional actors. The performances he was able to draw from the cast are extraordinary, all things considered—there isn't a weak link or a false note in the whole film. He admits it wasn't always easy.

"Everyone was pretty much green, and so we were discovering everything on our own," he says.

The Real Dad

Tran did base the character of Ty Do (played with infectious energy by David Huynh) on himself. He really was terrified to tell his family that he was planning to abandon his plans for a career in the parentally approved line of pharmacy to pursue filmmaking. But the biggest irony is that his own dad had a totally different perspective on his film career.

"My dad was actually very, very supportive," he says with a laugh.

Still, he was nervous for his father to see the film, afraid he might not understand that the character is just that: a fictionalized character based loosely on him. But again, Dad surprised him.

"I was very afraid my father would dislike it, but he loved it," says Tran. "He knows it's not completely him. He sees it as a generational thing. He's seen it twice, and he's going to see it again. He's very proud. And he wants all of his friends to see it."

The rest of his family is behind the film, as well. And they don't have any reason to worry about Tran's career—his work on All About Dad has earned him a job directing a Vietnamese gangster drama in Los Angeles with a sizable budget.

But perhaps all along they saw the same passion in him that his character Ty has when he gets his first real camera in the film. "That's the feeling I get when I working on films," he says. "I'm so excited, my blood is boiling."

 


Movie Times ALL ABOUT DAD, written and directed by Mark Tran, plays April 17–23 at Camera 3 in San Jose.


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