A Quiet Observer: An Interview with Jakeb Anhvu

Jakeb Anhvu’s A Hundred Years of Happiness is a gentle, intimate film that builds into a powerful portrait of a woman at a crossroads. His documentary centres around Tram, a young Vietnamese woman tentatively engaged to South Korean businessman, Soo — a union regarded by the more cynical in her community as a marriage of convenience. As the wedding — and Tram’s eventual move to South Korea — approaches, Anvhu’s camera follows Tram and her family in long, unobtrusive takes, focusing on the intimate details of routine in the quiet days before the life they’ve known is irrevocably changed, and Tram moves to an unfamiliar nation where not even her husband shares the same language. 

Ahead of the film’s premiere at the Sydney Film Festival, James Walsh chats with director Jakeb Anhvu to discuss his elegant portrayal of Tram’s internal conflict in his thought-provoking documentary.

James Walsh: This is the second feature and fourth documentary you have made in Vietnam. What continues to draw you back to the country as a Vietnamese-Australian?

Jakeb Anhvu: The theme of identity is what drives me. I want to make films that have in-depth Vietnamese characters and feature long conversations, [rather than] short sound-bites. I guess I wanted to avoid the [usual] topics of war and refugees and instead focus on others.

JW: Do you operate with a crew or by yourself?

JA: For my first feature, it was just me; I went [to Vietnam] alone. It took four months just to find a character [to film]. This time around I had a producer with me, who’s also Australian. It was great hearing his point of view, because he couldn’t understand Vietnamese, and understood what the groom went through. It’s just me on camera and sound, which helps with an observational documentary. You just have to blend in, and it takes a while to be accepted. Once you blend in, then everyone kind of reacts in a more natural and sincere way. I think that’s the only way to get complex, in-depth characters and an insight into the community you are trying to capture.

JW: Do you have a process of making your subjects feel comfortable with a camera in the room?

JA: Sometimes you’re there and nothing happens, and it takes five hours for someone to speak. I don’t really ask any questions, and I don’t prompt them along. It’s just time and acting busy so that no one bothers you.

JW: Apart from a few small moments where Tram discusses her thoughts over voiceover, the film is mostly observational. Is there a reason you avoid the talking-head style of documentary filmmaking?

JA: I think it’s the best way to capture things. Filming it this way also allows Tram to have a point of view. I didn’t want my point of view to overlap hers, and I hope that they exist together. These points of view are influenced by Late Spring (1949), a film by Ozu Yasujiro. Setsuko Hara has a quote in there which is “happiness isn’t something you wait around for, it’s something you create yourself”. Other people might see Tram as someone who is only doing this for money, but she’s creating her own life and taking charge.

JW: This is a very intimate film between Tram and her family. Did you observe any outside forces — extended family or other members of the community — that commented on the documentary as it was unfolding? Were they comfortable with your presence there?

JA: When making my first film Blush of Fruit (2012), I had quite a large shoulder-mounted camera and it was hard to be invisible. Now, with social media and everyone having a mobile phone that’s able to record everything, it was so different this time around. Everyone was really comfortable. You could go anywhere — even into the country — and see people taking selfies. I guess that openness that the internet has created has relaxed everyone’s point of view.

With regards to the wider community: in order to be accepted by them, Tram’s family spoke

about us to them and notified them that we would be there. It was quite a process just to meet everyone. Lots of coffees, and things like that. It wasn’t an easy in/out process, there was a lot of trust involved.

JW: Have you kept in contact with Tram and her family?

JA: We tried to keep in contact with her, but the expectations of her new family had really changed. Initially, her parents had agreed for us to go over to South Korea with her. I guess it was kind of a safety thing, too, since they knew about us. But I don’t think her South Korean family wanted external guys hanging around her while she was trying to start a new life. We understood that, and that was the last we heard of her.

A Hundred Years of Happiness screens as part of Sydney Film Festival’s Virtual Edition and Awards from June 10–21 2020. More info here.

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James Walsh is a Screenwriting student from Melbourne and is self appointed as Bong Joon-Ho’s biggest fan.

James Walsh