Talking Vietnamese Ghost Stories and Gothic Horror with The Housemaid Writer-Director Derek Nguyen
Source: Dread Central
Her arrival awakes the wrath of spirits.
Dread Central: First thing I would like to say is “Wow, what a movie!” I loved The Housemaid and found it to be a gorgeous Gothic horror film. Are you a big fan of the sub-genre?
Derek Nguyen: Thank you for your kind words about The Housemaid! And yes, I love Gothic horror films. But it all started for me when I read Gothic horror novels as a kid. My go-to reading list was Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde, Picture of Dorian Gray, and anything from Edgar Allan Poe. One of the highlights of my career was when I received an Edgar Allan Poe nomination for a play I wrote called Monster. Dream come true.
DC: What are some of your favorite Gothic horror films?
DN: I am a big Guillermo del Toro fan. I love his dark sense of humor, his ability to create memorable offbeat characters, and the dark storylines he gravitates to. Other than the classics like Bride of Frankenstein, I really liked Let the Right One In, The Orphanage, and The Witch.
DC: The film is set in 1953 during the First Indochinese War in Vietnam. How important was this particular period to you and the film?
DN: The time period was integral to the story of The Housemaid. It’s set in a very pivotal time in Vietnam’s history, where the French [were] just about to be defeated in the battle of Dien Bien Phu. And I wanted to talk about war, Colonialism, and their effects in Vietnam. I was interested in talking about the many years of oppression, particularly by the French rubber plantation landowners. And of course, I wanted to talk about these things while being entertaining!
DC: The film features some horrific acts by French overseers on the Vietnamese workers at the film’s rubber plantation. How much of this is based on real events?
DN: In my research when writing the film, I discovered all these horrific acts by French landowners on Vietnamese workers while on a trip to Vietnam. I had no idea that these things happened and was surprised that they weren’t in the history books. There are museums in Vietnam that tell the shocking tales of the plantation workers in detail. Thousands of Vietnamese men and women toiled at the French rubber plantations under debilitating and inhuman conditions. Dysentery, malaria, malnutrition, and back-breaking labor were rife. Merciless overseers systematically beat and tortured workers—many of them to death. I wanted to tell their stories and didn’t want to shy away from what really happened.
DC: In addition to directing the film, you also penned the screenplay. Can you tell us what your initial inspiration was to tell this particular tale?
DN: The film is inspired by my grandmother, who was once a servant in a grand estate in Vietnam and ended up falling in love with the landowner. As a child, she used to love to tell me ghost stories. One of the things that stuck with me was that she believed that spirits lived in trees. Then I learned about the atrocities that the Vietnamese rubber plantation workers experienced under the French landowners and I thought about how haunted the plantations must be. If you visit the rubber plantations in Vietnam, you’ll notice that the soil is red. Many Vietnamese believe that the soil is red because of all the spilled blood of the Vietnamese workers.
DC: What are some of the films that inspired The Housemaid?
DN: Jane Eyre, The Others, Rebecca, The Shining.
DC: The Housemaid is the third-highest-grossing horror film in Vietnam’s history; did you ever expect the film to resonate to that degree?
DN: Crazy, right? And it’s been sold to 19 different territories around the world. Unbelievable! You never know how people will react to your work. As a filmmaker, you just have to do your best and make sure that you’re being true to yourself. And hopefully, people like it!
DC: Nhung Kate received a Special Jury Prize for her portrayal of Linh at the 2017 LA Film Festival. What was it like crafting such a profound performance on set?
DN: Nhung Kate is a revelation! She’s bold, gutsy, vulnerable, and mysterious. (And she rides a kickass motorcycle!) It took months for us to find the right “Linh” and I think she embodies the character so perfectly that I can’t imagine I could have found a better actress to play the part. While on set, Kate and I worked a lot on the duality of the character: her internal feelings juxtaposing her sense of duty. In a lot of ways, she’s a character who struggles between her need for love and the burdens of responsibility.
DC: Oscar-winning screenwriter Geoffrey S. Fletcher (Precious) is currently penning the script for the American remake of The Housemaid. How do you feel about your film being remade?
DN: I feel great about the American remake because it was my idea! When I was doing research for the original script, I realized that there are so many parallels between Vietnamese plantation workers in Vietnam’s colonial period and African-American slaves in the American South. I pitched the idea to my producer Timothy Linh Bui, and he took it to CJ Entertainment, who financed the original film, and they greenlit the remake. My only condition was that I insisted that the screenwriter and director of the American version be African-American. I feel that there needs to be an authenticity to the experiences and that the new characters would be best served by filmmakers of the same cultural background. I will be executive producing the remake and will be working creatively with the American team.
DC: Awesome! Now, I always like to end with this question: What’s your favorite scary movie?
DN: Psycho. I was one of those strange ten-year-old kids who watched that film over and over and over again. Does that say something about me?
Thank you so much to The Housemaid writer-director Derek Nguyen for stopping by Dread Central and talking with us about the film.
A forbidden passion awakens vengeful spirits within a haunted mansion in this bloodcurdling, erotic tour-de-force. Vietnam, 1953: Linh (Nhung Kate), a poor, orphaned young woman, finds employment as a housemaid in a crumbling rubber plantation presided over by the emotionally fragile French officer Sebastien Laurent (Jean-Michel Richaud). Soon, a torrid love affair develops between the two – a taboo romance that rouses the ghost of Laurent’s dead wife, who won’t rest until blood flows. Submerged inmoody Gothic atmosphere, this stylish supernatural saga confronts the dark shadows of Vietnam’s colonial past while delivering heart-stopping scares.