By Brad Kava
Mercury News

Jim Gensheimer / Mercury News

Ringo Le is the director of the movie “Saigon Love Story” which will be screening in San Jose on Saturday, November, 25.

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When the American movie “Love Story” was released in South Vietnam in 1970, the themes of the tragic-romantic film with Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw struck such a strong chord in the country that people cut school to see it, left work, and maybe even forgot about the war that was raging.

More than three decades later, Ringo Le, a 29-year-old Vietnamese-American from San Jose, is hoping his first film — “Saigon Love Story” — will have the same effect.

Critics who have seen Le’s movie at film festivals have praised the almost two-hour-long artfully shot musical for being one of the first movies to examine modern Vietnamese life without ever focusing on the war.

“My goal was to make a film that looked at Vietnamese people intimately in their daily lives, and was not about war,” says Le, who presents the movie to the public Saturday at the San Jose Center for Performing Arts, before taking it on a U.S. and world tour.

Like movie directors Pedro Almodóvar or Ingmar Bergman, “I wanted to look at the regular lives of people, not politics. Growing up, all we ever learned in school about Vietnam was the war. The rest of the country was like an afterthought.”

The original “Love Story,” with its class stratified lovers, and the tragic death of one, was a huge hit in Vietnam because it echoed strands of the country’s sentimental romantic literary tradition, according to Thu-huong Nguyen-vo, a professor at UCLA’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

“The origin of some of these things are colonial,” she said. “They come from 19th century Europe, where symbolism and romanticism were du jour.”

In South Vietnam, she added, which suffered the brunt of damage and death in the war, nihilism and pessimism linked with the romanticism — making a perfect setting for the tragic romance.

Since the government, over the past few years, opened the Vietnamese film industry to private investors, some from the West, there’s been a renaissance, with filmmakers tackling topics that weren’t allowed before.

Films such as Le Hoang’s 2003 “Bar Girls” represented a breakthrough, as one of the first Vietnamese films to look at the grim reality of young prostitutes. There is a new wave of directors making entertaining films about real life topics, as opposed to what Hoang described in an interview with World Press Review as government-approved films limited to “war memories and socialism building.”

Le sees himself as part of a new generation of filmmakers hoping to capitalize on Vietnam’s relaxed policy and make films for the sake of art and entertainment.

On Saturday, Le will link the public premiere of his movie with a night of variety show talent, featuring some of Vietnam’s most famous singers. It’s a novel approach for an audience he says isn’t used to dramatic films.

That’s the same reason he chose to make his first film a musical — in the tradition of “Cabaret” or “Chicago” — with seven songs sung by one of the most famous pop stars in Vietnam, Yen Vy. “This is like a Hollywood meets Bollywood musical,” Le said.

“We want this to help reinvigorate the Vietnamese film industry,” said Le, who had to wait three months while censors in the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture and Information reviewed his script and allowed him to shoot in Saigon. “Since they privatized the film industry in 2002, and with a population of 80 million people, there is tremendous room for growth.”

Le, who attended Santa Teresa High School in San Jose, San Francisco State University and California State University-Los Angeles, got local investors to support his effort, raising $1 million from his father and a business partner, and shooting in the communist country for two months at the beginning of 2005.

“Saigon Love Story” is about a lower-class man raised by a single mother who runs a cafe and falls in love with another lower-class woman, a singer.

But his mother, striving to better their condition, sets him up with the rich daughter of a factory owner.

The youth must decide between satisfying his mother’s wishes, or his heart.

“It’s a choice many second-generation immigrants must face,” Le said. “Whether we uphold tradition, or create our own set of values.”

It’s a question he’s faced throughout his life.

In Vietnam, he was treated as a Westerner by the cast and crew.

“My sensibility was too American for them,” he said.

But as he was growing up in San Jose, Le many times felt out of step with the culture around him.

“I liked Dostoyevsky and Siddhartha, but I felt like there was no relevance in the books we read in school to me. There were no characters who looked like me, nothing that pertained to my ethnicity.”

Yet, he learned in Vietnam that he was definitely American.

“I’m Buddhist, for crying out loud,” he said, “but I missed Christmas over there. I missed the smell of the pine trees at Christmas in the Park, the smell outside Marie Callendar’s, the smell of pumpkins, and after that you know it’s fall.”

Like the character in his movie, Le said, he has created a new set of values that combines both cultures.

“I can’t give up either or I destroy both.”

Le has spent the past weeks selling tickets, passing out handbills and showing the trailer for his film at a makeshift booth at the Grand Century Mall, a popular shopping center for the Vietnamese community at Story Road and McLaughlin Avenue — “truly grass-roots marketing,” he says.

It took time for Le’s father, David, to adapt to the thought that his first-born was pursuing the arts, and not law or medicine. But when he finally accepted it, “We asked him to make one movie for Vietnam, before he goes to Hollywood,” the elder Le said.

“At the Asian American Film Festival in Los Angeles, I saw a lady cry during the movie,” his father continued. “It made me feel that Ringo Le really touched everyone’s heart.”

Contact Brad Kava at or (408) 920-5040. Fax (408) 271-3786. Read his blog at