The slim gentleman in the hotel lobby with the salt-and-pepper hair, warm handshake and smile goes by the name Minh. An award-winning script writer and director, Professor Minh Nguyen-Vo has reason to be relaxed and happy: he has returned to Busan to discuss his second, long-awaited film. Entitled 2030 outside his native Vietnam, this movie of style, ideas, and the near-term future deftly balances passion and desire with the issues of climate change and genetic modification.
Having won the Tribeca Sloan Filmmaker Award for the inclusion of scientific content, earlier this year 2030 opened one section of the Berlin International Film Festival. Set in the near future after the catastrophic effects of climate change have viciously flooded south Vietnam, the film balances a murder mystery with the very human challenges of life, love, and death for people struggling within a ruined climate. Indeed, the story asks questions about the role of genetically modified organisms in a world without enough land to grow food, and not a single other movie in this year’s PIFF appears to even acknowledge the huge issue that is climate change. Perhaps this is because few movies are written and directed by someone with both a Ph.D. in science, and a flair for making deep and meaningful movies rooted in harsh reality.
After writing the script and waiting the six long months for the green light on production, Minh’s next achievement towards his film was finding the leading lady capable of the range of emotions the story demands. Seated across from the beach with a view of Gwangan bridge he explains with relief how he auditioned over 200 actresses until the early-twenties actress and star hip-hop dancer Quynh Hoa finally walked in with her mother and one feature film already to her credit. Her experience and range showed immediately in her screen test; less obvious was she could not swim, which, given the scenes spent diving around underwater, soon led to one month of lessons, and another day on set getting used to diving and acting beneath the waves.
In an effort to up skill for the shoot director Minh, himself a proficient and regular swimmer but dealing with a tight budget, took a three-day scuba diving course so he could shoot all underwater scenes himself.
Above the waves, filming was the domain of award-winning producer/ cinematographer Bao Nguyen, about whom Minh also smiles and speaks enthusiastically. “Filming with water in most scenes was the biggest headache; Bao was amazing. He managed with so little; he even managed with very little electricity for lighting. He sometimes incorporated setting lights into the scenes, and even though we did have a generator we only used about 10% of the fuel provided. We had a very small carbon footprint overall for a full-length feature, and the production company was surprised when we returned the generator with most of the diesel still there!”
Despite the praise for the talent of his cinematographer, the vision behind this movie clearly comes from Minh, including such overarching detail as a narrowing of focus throughout the film from initial wide-angle scenes incorporating the horizon line in earlier scenes to gradually more claustrophobia-inducing images of being trapped inside small unstable floating craft. While director Minh utilizes the horizon line to symbolize the central character Soa’s initial state of mind of freedom, openness, and limitless possibility, it also reflects his field of research as a physicist and his fascination with optical illusions.
Our conversation is briefly side-tracked as he excitedly describes how horizon lines appear flat and straight but of course actually follow the natural curvature of the earth. I wonder whether this symbolizes Soa’s illusion of opportunity in a world where global warming tipping points have been passed and options are drastically narrowed, thereby restricting freedom of choice – including her and her husband’s ability to procreate – but we skip on to his freedom to add his own interpretation into the script.
Professor Minh was given free reign to see through his own vision by both the Sloan Foundation and the original author of the short story upon which the movie was based. The Sloan Foundation, originally established by the president and CEO of General Motors in 1934, is now a huge, nation-wide funding institution throughout the USA. One branch funds movies, and the award which helped fund the post-production work for 2030 was for raising an awareness for science and related issues. He describes meeting the board in New York, and how the image of science in the US these days is very much along the lines of Frankenstein.
This makes me wonder briefly whether he is a an apologist for the GMO set, but the movie itself speaks for his views, and over a bowl of pasta the writer/ director/ scientist describes the lack of labelling laws in the US, stating: “Who knows the effects of GMO? Europeans are more aware of the risks, and Canadian scientists were the first to raise the issue. Monsanto think they own DNA patents because they’ve changed in 20 years what’s taken natural processes thousands of years to adapt and develop naturally, but can the human body adapt and cope fast enough with these new changes?”
Minh continues by bringing a sense of balance to the discussion by decrying efforts to label foods effectively anyway, citing the recent example demonstrated by a consumer group which showed that 80% of milk labeled as organic was actually not, and how food labeled as tuna is also notoriously difficult for the average US consumer to verify when “Most Americans don’t even know what [tuna fish flesh] looks like anymore.” He continues, adding, “Some species of fish very abundant when I was a boy in Vietnam are now very rare and cannot be found; fishing boats have to go much further out to sea.”
I wonder at how the Sloan Foundation feels about a representation of science akin to a modern Frankenstein story in 2030 when working against that image is supposedly their goal. To this Minh answers: “I’m not a spokesperson for science or industry. That’s just how I understand it. I didn’t feel any restriction. They read the script. I think the Sloan Foundation takes a very neutral position; they are not trying to influence anyone, but just raise awareness of science.”
When I ask Minh about the involvement of the original writer, the early thirty-something and already famous Vietnamese novelist Nguyen Ngoc Tu, he explains his script was based loosely on her short story about a couple unable to have a child and who thereafter resort to unconventional methods in effort to reproduce, even including eating different foods. She was happy for him to take her story and adapt it in any way he saw fit, remaining completely aloof from the process.
Minh even changed the title of the film to reflect his change of setting of the short story to the future, flooded south Vietnam. The Vietnamese title of the movie is “Nuoc,” which means water. He says there is a 50% likelihood that south Vietnam will be catastrophically flooded by the date of the name of the film. He adds, “To me, water is the most important symbol. Many cultures see water as a symbol of purification; in Vietnam water is a metaphor for life and purification, but in the film the husband is buried in the water, and so it becomes a mixed metaphor. It is a character in the movie, representing both life and death.” Sitting so close to the waterline on Gwangali beach which will probably also be flooded by 2030, and being so soon after the floods in northern Busan which saw four people killed, it is very easy to agree with him.
But still, the sun is shining with a cheerful autumnal warmth, and before the interview can end Minh interrupts with an obviously characteristic warm energy and asks what I thought of the conclusion of the film. I mumble something about appreciating its openness to interpretation, but on further reflection feel even more strongly that a sense of openness is an appropriate ending. The future does look pretty bad, but as the camera draws away from destruction in the final scene it recovers a perspective including a view of a peaceful, quiet new morning, clear, all the way out to Minh’s horizon.
Postscript: In a scene almost straight out of the movie, life imitates art in this article dated months after the release of Water: 2030.
Julian Warmington is an associate professor at the Busan University of Foreign Studies.
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