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May 24, 2017

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Vietnamese-American filmmakers return

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam--One recent morning in a French-style cafe, former San Jose, California, resident Thien Do worked his mobile phone and iPad as he prepared for another day of casting actors for a dark comedy he's directing.

Not far away, Dustin Nguyen, the co-star of the late 1980s TV crime drama "21 Jump Street," was getting ready to roll the cameras for his next film, "Once Upon a Time in Vietnam." And actor-writer-director Johnny Tri Nguyen from Orange County was in preproduction for his action film.

Nearly four decades after they fled the Communist takeover of South Vietnam, a small army of Californians — armed with cameras and scripts — have invaded the nation. Vietnamese-American filmmakers and actors, hoping to tap into a young population eager to be entertained by the big screen, have become a surprising artistic force in Vietnam's emerging film industry.

"Every time I go to one of these industry gatherings, I see new faces," Do said of the swarms of Viet Kieu, or "overseas Vietnamese," filmmakers scouting locations and writing screenplays here.

Viet Kieu are now involved with at least half of the commercial films made in Vietnam — a stunning development considering that not long ago those who returned faced deep suspicion from the Communist government as well as opposition from staunch anti-Communists in San Jose and Orange County.

"If someone told me five years ago, 'You will move to Vietnam,' I would have said, 'No way,'" said actor Kathy Uyen, a former San Jose resident who is working on a romantic comedy based on a story she wrote with filmmaker Timothy Linh Bui, a former Sunnyvale resident who directed "Green Dragon," starring the late Patrick Swayze, Forest Whitaker and the late Duong Don. "I'm not the only one who said, 'I could come up with a story and develop it and produce it here.' Other Vietnamese-Americans are thinking the same thing."

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