Vietnamese comedy wins uphill battle in ‘Six Inch Heels’

Kira Walker/Staff

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The 32nd annual Center for Asian American Media Festival kicks off its opening-night film with a Vietnamese romantic comedy, “How to Fight in Six Inch Heels.” A fashion comedy in the same vein as Western mainstream films such as “The Devil Wears Prada,” the film tells the story of Anne (Kathy Uyen), a fashion designer in the cutthroat New York City fashion industry. When her fiance Kiet (Petey Majik Nguyen) receives a promotion that forces him to work overseas in Vietnam, she suspects him of cheating after seeing a pair of red stilettos in the background of a video chat, almost mocking her as she plans her marriage.

Furious at her fiance, Anne decides to fly to Vietnam and discover who his secret lover is. After an interesting turn of events that involves her replacing another model, she becomes a runway model with the help of a short and feisty makeup designer Danny (Don Nguyen) and her improvisational skills. High-strung and meticulous with her craft, Anne discovers the models working with Kiet’s company and makes a carefully planned chart to find and expose one of them.

Kathy Uyen, a San Jose native, is striking and effective in her role as Anne. She is both charming and spontaneous as she stripteases for her fiance over the webcam and later, when she runs frantically through the streets of Saigon in her high heels. In order to access the Saigon fashion industry, Anne befriends several supermodels while Danny trains her for her runway show. As Anne becomes displaced from her tightly organized and regimented lifestyle in New York City, she starts to become cognizant of her own naivete and overbearing nature.

Director Ham Tran made his directorial debut in 2006 with “Journey From the Fall,” a critically successful independent film depicting the Vietnamese boat refugees during the fall of Saigon with gritty realism. “How to Fight in Six Inch Heels,” however, presents a younger and more modern portrait of Vietnam, with characters video chatting on their product-placed tablets and smartphones. This is the industrializing and metropolitan Vietnam that represents the growing middle class with increased adoption of Western styles, conventions and consumer culture.

The film, which was a box office success in Vietnam, points to a growing demand for domestic films that coincides with the development of films from Eastern and Western studios. Collectively, these films show the shifting impact of the globalization of filmmaking. Three years ago, CAAMFest (formerly known as the SFIAAFF) showed “Clash,” another Vietnamese box office hit heavily inspired by Hong Kong action flicks and brought to fruition by Vietnamese-American co-production.

This also resulted in the collaboration of Asian American filmmakers who traditionally have had trouble getting opportunities to tell their own stories in the Hollywood film industry, such as Dustin Nguyen in “Once Upon a Time in Vietnam” and Stephane Gauger in “Saigon Electric.” For Uyen, these projects present a great opportunity for bigger roles to showcase her abilities. Going to overseas markets has propelled some Asian American actors, such as Berkeley-native Daniel Wu, into stardom.

Adding Western movie tropes — from the effeminate black male assistant to the insufferable Chihuahua-carrying fashion boss — and having a few of the characters speaking a blend of Vietnamese and English, “How to Fight” blurs the lines between Eastern and Western identities. Anne is able to change, sometimes awkwardly, from a fashion designer in New York City to a runway model in Saigon, illustrating the shifting transnational roles she slips in and out of over the course of the film.

Anne, who can be frustratingly foolish and vain in her endeavors, is still endearing enough to advance the film. The cattiness among the characters and the slapstick humor in the scene involving Anne’s gassiness on the catwalk are amusing but also predictable and low-hanging fruit for audiences. Despite these flaws, “How to Fight in Six Inch Heels” succeeds in creating an enjoyable — albeit formulaic — romantic comedy.

Contact Fan Huang at [email protected].