This November, Xfinity On Demand presents the new Cinema Asian America feature Touch, the award-winning feature debut film from Los Angeles-based director Minh Duc Nguyen. A nuanced drama set amidst the Vietnamese American working-class community of LA, Touch tells the story of Tam, a young manicurist, struggling to reconcile a fraught relationship with her father and her past and Brendan, a shy mechanic desperate to save his failing marriage. When their lives are brought together, and an unlikely bond is made, what results is something moving, powerful and unexpected. Nguyen sat down to answer several questions about his first feature film.
Touch in many ways is a film concerned about how one resolves deeply personal questions of intimacy, while carefully balancing this against crossing one’s own moral lines and convictions. Can you talk about the larger ideas you are dealing with in the film, and what interests you about them?
MN: Before I wrote the screenplay for Touch, I went to a Vietnamese-owned nail salon many times for research. At first it was very embarrassing since I was usually the only man in there. But one of the observations I made at the nail salon was that the manicurists had to touch strangers’ hands everyday. To us, touching someone’s hand is an intimate act, but the nail techs do it all the time. So that is the basis of my movie, the sense of touch, the touch between two strangers, between lovers, husband and wife, parents and their children. I wanted to make a movie about the different emotional aspects of touch, because sometimes words are not enough.
Tam (played by Porter Lynn) is a complex character that both defies and skirts around what we expect of her. A Vietnamese American nail salon worker, she is both demure and strong-willed and unafraid to use her sexuality. There is a self-awareness to her actions that doesn’t allow her character to fall into easy categorization. How did you develop and shape her character?
MN: As I was writing Tam’s character, I was trying to build a character who was conflicted between traditional duties and being an independent woman. Tam feels a deep obligation to take care of her father, but at the same time she wants to free herself from his passive grip. She longs to fill these emotional gaps that were left when her mother passed away, but the men that she meets can’t seem to provide that. As a result, she has these bizarre actions. Of course, Porter Lynn’s performance as Tam takes the role to a more complex level. This is Porter’s first lead role in a feature film. Out of nowhere she came to our audition and just blew us away. I think the audience will be pleasantly surprised by her quiet but powerful performance.
Touch is set in a working class environment, in heavily immigrant Los Angeles. Can you discuss the world you sought to create to set your story against?
MN: Touch is set primarily at a Vietnamese-owned nail salon in Los Angeles. The nail industry is very important to us Vietnamese immigrants since it provides so many jobs to our community. We all have a sister or a cousin working at a nail salon. I really love the atmosphere at a typical nail salon. It’s a vibrant place where the manicurists are like a family, they share stories as they work, they laugh, they argue, they curse… And the really good manicurists are not only great at doing nails but also great at listening to their customers’ problems. In a way, they’re like psychologists. Also, the nail salon setting gives me a perfect opportunity to craft a multicultural story, since their customers come from all walks of life.
This is your first feature film; what were your own expectations and intentions for this project after attending film school at USC and making primarily short works?
MN: Since this was my first feature, my goal was to complete the film as best as I could with the tiny budget that we had. It was a difficult production. We only had 18 days to shoot. Everyday we had to make compromises, but I tried to follow my vision as much as possible, so that the final product would have a distinctive look and feel. Overall, I’m very happy that I was able to make my first film because for a long time, I didn’t know if it was possible. It’s tough to be an indie filmmaker, to keep your passion alive when you don’t know if you’ll ever get to make a movie. I’m glad I got the first one out of the way.
What are you working on now?
MN: I’m developing several new projects, but for my second movie, I want to make a film about another sense – taste. I hope someone is crazy enough to give me the funding for this project. Do you know anyone?