A Brave New Old World: An Interview with SeaShorts Winner Ostin Fam

Ostin Fam (centre) in action, well behind the action

Binh the short film is named after the brother of the film's director Ostin Fam, whose Vietnamese name is Dũng and has a little story to tell behind the naming of the film. His brother was born with the same name originally and Dũng means bravery in Vietnamese. However, due to timing and changing circumstances in his family, his brother had a harder time growing than him. Eventually the words of a fortune teller convinced his mother to change his name to An Bình, which means being protected. So the new name brought a sense of hope to his brother and the family. And in the same but rather ironic tune, Ostin's short film Binh follows an alien in the guise of a young Vietnamese boy who lands right in the middle of a Vietnamese suburb where a colossal temple construction is in progress. From the boy's point of view, the project is overwhelming and disorientating in its scale and ambition. To the audience, it is bewildering and mildly laughable. And suddenly, something as commonplace as a temple construction seems foreign to the (Asian) audience. 

This film about alienation and navigating an unfamiliar world clinched the top prize at the recently concluded SeaShorts Film Festival. Check our review of this short film here. Ostin won himself 10,000 MYR in cash, some cool equipment (Aputure 120D II Light, Aputure Light Dome II, Zoom H8 Recorder, and a Deity S-MIC 2 Shotgun Microphone) and perhaps some new found confidence in his voice as a filmmaker. We wanted to hear this voice so we spoke to him following the win. 

Jeremy (J): Congratulations on winning Best Film at SeaShorts Film Festival! So, tell us a bit more about yourself. 

Ostin (O): When I was five-years old, my family brought me to the local medical centre to get a health check and I found out that I was colour blind. I could not tell what was red and green. My mum is a secondary school teacher. She had me when she was very young - 21 year-old. When she found out I was colour-blind, she wanted me to study science so I studied a lot of science growing up. 

Then I got into high school, the Hanoi-Amsterdam High School for the Gifted. Each student would be put into a specialised stream and I got into the physics stream as I was always branded a physics student. Then, in high school, I found out about this filmmaking school that was funded by the Ford Foundation, under the guidance of the Vietnam Cinema Association. So I started making documentaries and my first film was about my mum. She was divorced when I was eight and after that she had a very adventurous love life. It was a film in which I wanted to show that she was an unconventional mum and in the film there were even people criticising her. With that film, I showed to her that I could actually make a film. I shot it with an iPod Touch, in a cinema verité style. And from that experience, I realised that I liked film. 

Then I applied to go to universities in the States and in particular I applied to go to Wesleyan University. I studied Film studies and East Asian Studies. It was a different programme from film school in that you watch more than you make films. In your third year, you make a film with 16mm film. I remember I was counting every single frame on where to cut. It was very precise. This influenced my style of filmmaking later on as well, although now I am also learning to be more flexible. It is especially not so good when you have a budget haha. 

J: So you came back to Vietnam and obviously you felt some culture shock when you were back. I understand part of the films draws from this experience. Can you talk about this? 

O: Where I grew up in Hanoi, it was considered the outskirt of the city, but when I came back, it became the centre of the city! I grew up biking around the fields. Now it is buildings. So visually that hit me first and socially and economically, it hit me later as people around me talked about money and how to climb the ladder in life. The moment I disembarked from the plane, sitting in my uncle’s car, he gave me a long lecture about how to get ahead in life. I felt a lot of pressure from the family. They have this mentality that since I returned from America, I should be making a lot of money. Now they will still ask me about my salary. 

There is also something about my brother that I have not mentioned in many interviews. My brother has autism. My parents divorced before she gave birth to my brother. I actually had a better childhood than my brother. My dad was, though not rich, but pretty well-off. I lived a good life. But later on, he actually lost everything in gambling. He was studying to be a vet and for some reason he got a job in construction supervision. Suddenly, he earned so much money and he didn’t know how to manage it. So he lost it in the end. In a way the short film mirrors this in a way, making a reference to how countries suddenly awash with cash may not know how to manage money well. 

My brother was actually given the name Dũng when he was born, which means bravery. And I actually had the same name. But then, my mum met a fortune teller through her friend’s recommendation who advised that my brother changed his name. The name Dũng was not good for him, because sharing the same name, I got all the luck from him, that’s why he suffered so much. So she changed his name out of desperation. An Bình was the name she changed to, which means peace. So I named the film on this premise that it represented hope for him, and in the context of my film, it was about having hope for the larger environment, the country. We can be smarter about how we navigate in this world. 

J: You are like the Yang and he is like the Ying haha. (pause) I would like hear from you about the cinematographic style. Sometimes it is voyeuristic and tight and sometimes, it is very wide and observational. It is quite a mix. 

O: I wanted to showcase both the temple and nature as I wanted there to be a conversation between that and nature. I also have to mention that those arose from shooting the documentary first, process-wise. And when I was in the documenting phase before I had this narrative, I knew I wanted to capture this relationship between the temple and nature and which was more dominant. Sometimes, nature was the larger character and sometimes, it was the temple. 

In terms of camera movement, it sometimes follows the character very closely but sometimes, it leaves the character. I wanted to create a sense of unease in that you follow the character sometimes and other times, you are distanced from the character. It is a parallel to the idea of the environment in the film. At times, you are familiar with it and suddenly, you feel alienated from it. So I was trying to experiment with this unease. I hope it was not too jarring. 

J: Can you comment on your directing style? 

O: I am very interested in Japanese New Wave films. My previous short film was featured in Singapore and I think it could be considered as expressive, but also very precise. My favourite film is Kwaidan by Masaki Kobayashi and Tokyo Drifter by Seijun Suzuki. They also experimented a lot with folklore and I wanted to experiment this in my film too. So similarly, Binh, even though it is a science fiction, there was a lot of folklore going into it. 

J: The temple really stands out like another character in your film. It reminded me of another mega-temple featured in Pham Ngoc Lam’s film The Unseen River and he is your producer for Binh. Any comments on that? 

O: First of all they are two different temples. Mine is in the north, his is in the south. I actually shot mine before even though he already had in mind to shoot a temple of the ‘dramatic’ style in his film. His looks like a theme park whereas mine is just huge. 

On thematics, featuring the temple was my way of commenting on this trend of big temples and big money going into the construction of these temples. When I first came back in 2018, there were lots of news about temples and giant statues coming up in many different provinces. The one in Danang with the two gigantic hands is another example. Several decades ago, religion wasn’t so popular as it was in conflict with the values of communism so many religious activities were banned. But when Vietnam started opening to the world, the prohibitions around religious activities were reduced. So suddenly, religion regained popularity and returned in a big way. 

Also, something about the temple that I have not told you. It was actually a political prison named Ba Sao prison. The temple’s location is so secluded that it was really an ideal place for a prison. So today, it had been demolished to make way for this temple. So in effect, you have human artifacts overwriting nature and also human artifacts writing over itself too. I was actually informed of this by the people who owned the temple.

Binh has travelled to several film festivals worldwide and continues its tour of the festival circuit.
Check out the trailer here.

Interview by Jeremy Sing
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