At the time, Vu, born and raised in North Hollywood, was fresh out of film school at Loyola Marymount University. But even then, he was always writing stories about Vietnam.

“I watched a lot of foreign films, from Kurusawa, to French and Italian films, and Zhang Yimou was really big at the time,” he says. “And I felt, what about Vietnam? There was a pride I felt that we had equally compelling stories and things to explore.”

His first attempt to shoot a film in Vietnam didn’t work out, because his script didn’t pass the censorship board, which at the time wasn’t so keen on ghost movies.

So he shot his second feature film, “Spirits,” in Fountain Valley, where he lived for a couple years in his 20s.

But soon, he decided to make the leap and move across the ocean to make movies.

“My parents thought I was nuts,” he says, of his desire to go back to a country they themselves hadn’t visited in years. “Because it was unknown territory.”

At the time, he says there wasn’t a large culture of movie-going in Vietnam and few cinemas. Now, he says, foreign companies are actively investing in theaters in Vietnam and audiences are finding them.

Vu is part of a movement of Vietnamese American filmmakers, many from Orange County’s Little Saigon, who have helped grow the local Vietnamese film entertainment industry in the last decade.

“The rate it’s developed is quite incredible,” he says. “We used to be lucky to have five Vietnamese features a year. Now, there’s one a week.”

In the last 16 years, Vu has made numerous box office hits, including the horror film “Vengeful Heart,” which, at the time, became the highest-grossing Vietnamese movie ever, as well as the nostalgic “Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass,” another blockbuster, which was also Vietnam’s submission to the Oscars for Best Foreign Language film that year.

Six of his films have played at Viet Film Fest, giving him opportunities to share his films with an immigrant and refugee community in Orange County that doesn’t always get to see mainstream Vietnamese movies on a big screen — or at all.

“The reality is that Vietnamese distributors don’t care too much about the overseas market because they feel like it’s not profitable,” says Vu. “That’s why having these film festivals is really important.”

Vu’s latest epic, “The Immortal,” which is the Viet Film Fest closing night film on Oct. 13 at the AMC in Orange, follows a three-centuries-long journey of a man (Quach Ngoc Ngoan) who dabbles in black magic to become immortal only to find himself in an eternity of misery — and a woman who believes he is the key to lifting an inexplicable curse that’s threatening her young daughter’s life.

A genre-defying mix of horror, action, romance and thriller, “The Immortal” is filmed among many vast, picturesque landscapes of Vietnam, as well as locations that had never ever been captured in film before.

Vu calls “The Immortal” his most technically-challenging film. He remembers when they were location scouting, he and his assistant director had to climb up a mountain and swim through a cave in pitch dark with a little light on their hats, in order to get to an oasis where they decided to shoot.

“It took an hour each time,” he says. “I lost 10 pounds. My assistant director lost 22 pounds from all that physical activity.”

They also shot complex and bloody action scenes on a moving truck in 112-degree weather.

“The original draft was even more brutal,” he says, “but the script went through some censorship, and we had to tone it down.”

After over a decade working abroad, Vu now calls Vietnam home. But as more and more Vietnamese Americans find success in Hollywood, sometimes he thinks about what it’d be like to come back to Los Angeles.

“I do have this urge to do something here,” he says, “but it’s just about finding the right story.”

By Ada Tseng - The Los Angeles Times - October 6, 2019