(Photo by Universal Pictures, GagaOOLaLa and Breaking Glass Pictures, and Sony Pictures Entertainment)
“Know Your Critic” is a column in which we interview Tomatometer-approved critics about their screening and reviewing habits, pet peeves, and personal favorites.
Nguyên Lê speaks with equal excitement about Asian representation, Hollywood blockbusters he loved growing up, and the J-horror that thrills and terrifies him. He is honest, optimistic, and hungry to continue growing as a writer.
Lê became a critic in 2013. He’s written for the Houston Chronicle, FANGORIA, AwardsWatch, and /Film. Whether one seeks out his work, comes across him on Twitter, or speaks with him directly, Lê’s community-centric spirit shines.
In an interview with Rotten Tomatoes, Lê recalled that his family’s karaoke nights regularly featured movie soundtrack staples. “Both my mom and her sisters (I call them aunts) are music lovers, and it used to be a tradition that family karaoke sessions would always have Romeo and Juliet’s ‘A Time For Us,’ Titanic’s ‘My Heart Will Go On,’ and Beauty and the Beast’s titular song at the ready,” he shared. “’A Time For Us’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ actually have Vietnamese covers!”
“Listening to them often enough prompted me to find the sources, so inadvertently their obsessions were the building blocks for the film lover in me,” Lê said.
What is your favorite memory in a movie theater?
What is your biggest movie theater pet peeve?
Checking your phone in the screening, full blast, full brightness. I don’t know what could be more interesting! When you go to the theater, you go to a darkened environment, but then suddenly there’s a bit of a supernova event happened right there next to you. What’s up at that?
What’s your go-to screening snack?
Do you read other critics’ reviews before writing your own?
I try not to. However, sometimes I do break that rule – obviously not because I want to copy their ideas or anything, because that’s wrong. I just like to see how they express a point. It’s more like reading into the way that they form the sentences, the way that they play around with the words.
I think my biggest point of difference, which is also a personal caveat as well, is just that English is not my first language. I am a writer, but at the same time I’m also a learner. And sometimes I need to learn more before I write – I’ve had to breach my own rule in order to be better at this.
What’s the biggest misconception about critics?
I will answer this question from the perspective of someone of Asian descent. It’s that I am trying to replace the people who are there. I’m not – we’re not.
If we consider this field a giant roundtable, we are just hoping that we could pull up our very own seat in order to join the discussion.
(Photo by Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection)
What’s a Rotten thing that you love?
The remake of The Grudge, the 2004 version.
That movie terrifies me. I saw it as a teenager and to this day I am afraid of it. What do you love about the 2004 Grudge?
I think my answer is going to be same. It still scares the bejesus out of me until today!
Brief story time. My sister and I were just trying to test the waters in terms of watching horror. We made a deal: Let’s take horror level by level. We’re just going to start with maybe psychological or maybe emotional horror, and then we’re going to move up to something scary, something scarier, something scarier, something scarier. My sister and I we were doing just fine. And then we decided to, I don’t know, out of the blue, watch The Grudge. Only then did we realize that dang it, we skipped a whole bunch of levels.
You sure did!
I couldn’t sleep for three nights! It was too much, but I’m thankful that I was curious back then.
It actually made me go back and check out the original, after knowing it was actually a remake. That opened me up to this new realm: J-Horror. And then checking that it ballooned into, “let’s check out the entirety of Asian horror.” And it’s literally a whole new world.
It really made me appreciate the people behind the mask and the makeup. Really nice people who, whenever they appear on screen, have us frozen! Roberto Campanella, Javier Botet, Doug Jones, and, since we’re talking about The Grudge, Takako Fuji.
It’s also a good cushion knowing their names, like, okay, it’s just an actor, so that I can sleep easy. Kind of. Sort of.
What is the movie or show that you’ve watched more than any other?
Pulse from a Kiyoshi Kurosawa. It was one of those in my exploration of Asian horror – a J-Horror actually. Back then, it was just a “what if” – as in like, “what if whenever you make a connection, you are actually connecting to the other side?” Ooh, spooky. However, when you grow up, you actually realize that whenever you make a virtual connection, you are actually being in touch with isolation and loneliness. It’s an existential horror film that I really like. And, on the most superficial level, it has scares that no other film I think has been able to replicate so far.
You are brave…
Well, I do have a policy that when it’s sun down, no horror, but if it’s sun up, whatever. I just try to squeeze in as many as I can.
What is the hardest review you have ever written?
It’s the next one that I haven’t written, if that makes sense.
It’s always going to be the next one because, again, I have to kind of like let the learner inside me – to give him some lead, because he has to know how to verbalize certain things. And then once he’s okay, then he can signal the writing me in order to, “Okay, let’s catch up and let’s hold our hands and walk down this path together and complete this write up.”
I need to first be able to climb over my apprehension, my hesitation of English not being my first language, in order to write a whole review full in English.
I do write down notes in the screenings sometimes. Usually I write them down in English, just so that I can have the words in order to write later on. However, sometimes things get too complex, or it’s just that the idea that I had in my head first came to me in Vietnamese, so I have to write them down in Vietnamese and then translate later on. I have to translate it so that I can tick two boxes at the same time. First one being, I got my point across. And the second is that it has to be artful enough that the time you would spend to read it is worthwhile.
There’s a whole lot of psychological quantum physics going on before I get to go for the next one.
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
I’m still trying to work on the positive side of myself; I don’t know if there’s a moment where I ever feel like I’m really proud of what I’m doing. Sometimes there are moments where I get to realize that I’m actually really alone in this game… Writing is not exactly a field that’s admired in my community – it all boils down to whether I am happy with it or not.
If I have to pick one particular work that I’m proud of right now, it’s a deep dive into how one of the biggest film franchises on earth succeeded and then failed in bringing the Vietnamese presence onto the big screen. It’s an article that I wrote for /Film about how Star Wars failed Kelly Marie Tran, and why there’s still hope for Vietnamese representation. And I think I’m especially proud of that one because it took me two years in order to finally have the words to formulate the thoughts.
(Photo by RKO)
What’s your favorite classic film?
I would have to say Cat People. I came across the film back in school. And I only saw a snippet of it, but I think the instructor, he showed me, he said that this is the most interesting clip of that film. And I remember it. It’s sealed into my brain because it was very thrilling, but at the same time, I understand that it was a horror. It’s so memorable because I didn’t see what was horrifying our main character at all, but it still chilled me to the bone.
Was that the 1940s version or the 1980s version?
The 1942. And it was a swimming pool clip.
If you could interview anyone in the industry, living or dead, who would you want to speak with? And what would you ask them?
Gore Verbinski. Even though Pirates of the Caribbean was not my first exposure ever to what we in Vietnam called kind of “a big film,” a Hollywood production – that title belongs to Jurassic Park from Steven Spielberg – it’s the one that would constantly play in my head over and over and over and over. Back then, when I was thinking of going to film school and being a director, I actually told myself, “If I ever get to make a kind of a big film, a blockbuster production, I’m going to model it after the way that Gore Verbinski did it.” He’s just detailed and an immaculate director.
What makes a “good” movie?
Flow. I guess other critics would call it pacing, but I do like to define it as “flow,” because to me the pacing of the film, on purpose, it can be discombobulating. It can be erratic or asynchronous. But if you can make the flow of it work, then you always have a good film.
If you can make it in a way that ties everything up, whether through images or sound or anything – really any component of the film that you have – if you have the flow, then you create that visual entertainment factor that I so love.
What do you consider required viewing?
The first one is widely accessible: Jurassic Park. Because to me that is movie magic. Practical effects rule.
And I have to list this – it’s not really accessible, but people should really seek it out anyway. It’s a movie from Vietnam called Song Lang. I’m picking that film because it deals with a story that Vietnamese cinema rarely covers on screen because of a variety of reasons, one of the biggest reasons being the laws and censorship in the country. That film is sensitive, on the same level as Brokeback Mountain or Pariah.
Have you seen yourself on screen? If so, what were you watching and what did you relate to about that character or story?
I’m actually still waiting. And I don’t know, maybe it’s something that will happen after my lifetime. Maybe that’s just the pessimist in me speaking, because with additional exposure of and attention to Asian representation in media, maybe that will come soon. But I haven’t seen me on screen yet.
Even though, although I do notice – and I actually wrote an article about this for the online magazine JumpCut Online – how in 2020 there were a great number of films that make reference to Vietnam or Vietnamese characters. And in that entire year alone, that’s a whole lot more Vietnamese representation than I’ve never seen.
But in terms of waiting for a guy, an actor of Vietnamese descent, maybe briefly speaking my language and maybe wearing glasses like me – I guess I’m going to have to wait for a little bit. I haven’t seen myself yet.
(Photo by Walt Disney Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection)
Who are some fellow film and television critics whose work you admire?
Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film). His body of work for the LA Times is just, simply put, impressive. He is one of those writers where I would say that at a minimum, he will write something that is informative and entertaining to read, but at maximum, he will write something that at the same time opens your eyes to a whole different horizon. And that’s always just a thrill to come through articles that.
Harris Dang (@FilmMomatic). He’s in Australia. His work is very fun to read, and it’s also very eye-opening. He’s also of Vietnamese descent, so I can feel a little bit less lonely. Whenever my mind is wired in a way that’s like, You are the only person in this field… then I would say, No, Harry is out there! and then that negative thought just dissipates.
I look up to her so much because to find someone in the field of writing in journalism, who you can relate to, and just to know shares the same background as you– It’s a test for me, and naysayers in the field, to know that just because it’s a field that the culture doesn’t regard highly, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a successful person in that field. And if they ask, “Okay, so then who is your example?” I would show them: “Here, there’s Hoai-Tran Bui over at /Film.”
Is there someone in your life who’s not a critic whose opinion you admire?
My mom. Snooping on her watching wuxia and historical series into the early hours ignited me to expand my palette besides just phim Mỹ, or American films.
But when I told her this was one of the possible questions you’d ask, she said along the lines of the correct answer is me. Her reasoning was that, somehow I can do a live-dubbing while the film plays out, or translate the English subtitles into Vietnamese on the spot.
What is your favorite film from your childhood?
Spirited Away. And it still is.
I first became aware of the film thanks to — I actually forgot the name of the magazine already! I think it might have been called Purple Ink because that’s what students in Vietnam used to write with back then. When you mention “purple ink,” people actually will know that you’re talking about high school.
Once the film came out on DVD, my sister and I actually tracked it down in order to get a copy of it. Back then we were still learning English, so to say that we actually could understand the film then, I would say “no.”
Spirited Away is the kind of film where it grows up with you – as in, at eight years old you understand in one way, and then at 15 it means something else to you, and now me hitting 30, if I see it again, it would mean something else to me entirely.