The couple with the midas touch

June 13, 2006

Inner Sanctum


One of Viet Nam’s most famous couples recently collaborated on Pao’s Story, a film about a Mong girl that won the Golden Kite for best feature film for its moving performances and technical achievements. Bach Lien speaks to the couple about love, life, and film.

Four years after the great success in the role of Phuong in the internationally acclaimed hit The Quiet American, directed by Australian Philip Noyce, actress Hai Yen returned to the set to star in Chuyen Cua Pao (Pao’s Story) under the direction of her husband, Ngo Quang Hai. In the film, she impresses audiences as a naive and enigmatic young Mong girl named Pao.

With her outstanding performance, the dancer-actress won best actress for her role in Pao’s Story. Beside the Golden Kite for best feature film, Pao’s Story also won other awards, including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Cameraman.

Inner Sanctum: The roles of Phuong in the Quiet American and Pao in Pao’s Story have brought you fame. Do you prefer one over the other?

Hai Yen: I put all my mind and energy into playing both roles, so it’s difficult to say I prefer one over the other. To play Phuong, I spent two years learning English – I had to be at the studio from early morning to late evening. And for Pao, I had to go to mountainous regions and live with ethic minority people, carry heavy loads of firewood and was bitten around my body by many dog fleas. I even had to go to sell wood in the market… so many difficulties, but through my roles, I can gather many life experiences to do the job better.

Inner Sanctum: How did you have to adapt in Pao’s Story to be able to play the role of a Mong girl in a convincing way?

Hai Yen: Playing the role of a Mong girl is a new discovery, a new life for me. I was really very moved when seeing for the first time the life of inhabitants there. Their life is very special. I had to live and work like true local inhabitants and when I play the role in the film, I share their way of thinking as well. I think a good actor should let the character transfer emotion in the actor then the actor will transfer the emotion to audiences. Appearance is important but the content is decisive; I like this role.

Inner Sanctum: Do you have anything in common with Pao’s character?

Hai Yen: In the film, I always believed I was her. Hai told me that only when actors believe in the characters’ actions will they succeed in making audiences believe in their characters. I think that being discreet is a good characteristic, but I’m not always like that. There are times I can be very open.

Inner Sanctum: The music for the film will probably be used in the musical programme for the upcoming APEC meeting. What are your impressions?

Quang Hai: I am very proud. The music was composed by Nguyen Thien Dao, a very famous musician. Besides Dao, my collaborators in the film are all very good. What pleased me the most were the people I got to work with; my colleagues were full of enthusiasm and always had a passion to make a difference in the cinema.

Inner Sanctum: Why did you chose a foreigner to be your cinematographer?

Quang Hai: The idea of inviting a foreign cameraman came to mind three or four years ago.

I was looking for a new person whom I had never met to share my ideas with at ease. At the airport she even asked me why I invited her, and I told her that I needed her to see this beautiful region through the eyes of a young girl, and we would then discover the place together.

Inner Sanctum: What do you like the most about your wife?

Quang Hai: Yen can stand hardships very well, maybe because she was born in Bac Ninh Province and had a difficult life since she was a child. She lived away from home at a young age – that builds a lot of character in a woman.

Yen has had to sacrifice many things and we’ve experienced many hardships together. To make films, we even sold our house and I had to work many jobs, including hired labour.

Inner Sanctum: How is life on the other side of the camera?

Quang Hai: We are living in a house that we rent from Pham Ky Nam, one of the first film director of Vietnamese cinema. We spend four or five hours on the internet every day writing to friends and exchanging news. I also spend my time writing and watching films. Films I love I see again and again. For me, some hours are very precious.

Hai Yen: Sometimes, we go out to buy books and disks. Hai has a strong personality, and if he wants to do something, he tries his best to do it. He likes products of high technology, old motorbikes and driving at high speed. But he is often very inattentive while driving, making me very scared. In general, our characteristics and tastes are different from each other, but we find joy in our work.

Inner Sanctum: Since acting, this is your first movie as a director. Any unusual pressures for you?

Quang Hai: When making films, pressures are inevitable. I think the best way to handle them is to accept it and not complain. You find you can get a lot more done that way.

I know that no amount of books or cinema schools will give me the experience I need to make good films. I have to keep learning continuously in a stressful environment that pushes me to my limits.

Inner Sanctum: Do you ever wish you weren’t so busy?

Quang Hai: Hai Yen and I put our whole life into our passion. I think that each person has a job and they should do it well before anything else. This of course means we’re busy all the time, but we love our work.

Sometimes, I feel that there aren’t enough hours in the day to work. I can say that I am happy even though I sleep very little. I always know how to balance my schedule.

Inner Sanctum: Can you tell me about your next film?

Quang Hai: We will begin to shoot the film Kien in the beginning of July. The main character of the film is Kien, a childhood friend of mine who died. The film is about our friendship. Yen plays a small role in the film which is completely different than her previous roles.

I am confident that audiences will enjoy Kien. I like this project very much,


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