Entertainment News: The Miss Saigon film adaptation Wish List

With the buzz surrounding Les Miserables and the anticipated release on Christmas Day… Musical and Film insiders have their sets on another Cameron Mackintosh production that has potential for the big screen: Miss Saigon.

When reading my RSS feed earlier, Playbill goes into detail of the various parties that have been rumored to be involved with the potential production.

Even Cameron Mackintosh tossed this little nugget to the feeders:

If Les Mis is a success then Miss Saigon will be made into a film. It isn’t confirmed at this point but there are many people sniffing around and offers coming in.

There were reports going on for the past few years that working on Miss Saigon was on “Precious” director Lee Daniels’ wish list. There were also rumors circulating that film producer Paula Wagner was working on a deal with Mackintosh for a spell.

According to Broadway.com recent American Idol contestant Jessica Sanchez has been floating around as a possible star.

Schönberg and Boublil collaborated with Richard Maltby, Jr. on the 1989 musical Miss Saigon, which took inspiration from the Puccini opera Madama Butterfly. Set during the fall of Vietnam, the musical centers on an American G.I. and a young Vietnamese prostitute who fall in love against the backdrop of the war. When Saigon falls and the Americans pull out, the young woman is left behind.

But… for someone like myself who is Vietnamese-American, I will be watching and scrutinizing every piece of news of this potential production with bated breath (ok… maybe not that extreme).

Why? Simple, because I want this to be done right, and not just via the eyes of the Americans (or other foreigners) but I would love to see this done right via the eyes of the Vietnamese that have actually lived through the war. This is afterall as much as Kim’s journey as it is Chris’ journey.

So as a Vietnamese-American I have a very specific wishlist of what I would love to see happen in any potential film production of Miss Saigon… ideas and wishes that I believe would not only enhance the film as a whole, but would bring the struggles of the Vietnamese to light. Afterall who better to describe what caused unease for the Vietnamese-Americans and the Vietnamese refugees when the production of Miss Saigon came to light?

1: Potential Actors / Actresses

We all know from The Making of Miss Saigon DVD, the production team of Miss Saigon conducted extensive casting searches for the role of Kim… but next to nothing for the other predominantly Asian roles in the cast.

From an acting standpoint and the particularities of the material and the time period… I hate to say it, but I would agree. However, now is the 21st century, the talent pool is far larger and there are a lot more minorities that have been in the mix, some for years… After the success of Memoirs of a Geisha which included an Asian mixing pot of nationalities (Chinese and Malaysian) for the Japanese roles which caused a hell storm of fury… but several quotes from the stars of the film make some sense.

Ken Watanabe was quoted as saying:

[…] talent is more important than nationality

Ziyi Zhang goes into more detail during an interview:

A director is only interested in casting someone he believes is appropriate for a role. For instance, my character had to go from age 15 to 35; she had to be able to dance, and she had to be able to act, so he needed someone who could do all that. I also think that regardless of whether someone is Japanese or Chinese or Korean, we all would have had to learn what it is to be a geisha, because almost nobody today knows what that means–not even the Japanese actors on the film.

So as long as the future production team of the Miss Saigon film takes a page from the Memoirs of a Geisha film production I would be very very happy. But what would make me happier? That they have a bit of a foreign accent in their voice. Although there is a lot of hype surrounding Jessica Sanchez and she has the blessing of Lea Salonga it will not work (for me and probably a fair majority of the Vietnamese community) if the characters that are suppose to be Vietnamese natives are speaking near-perfect English because that is just not normal…

The most appropriate? A Vietnamese American, perhaps someone along the lines of Jacqueline Nguyen the believed first Vietnamese-American to ever play the role of Kim in Miss Saigon. If a touring production was able to find Jacqueline Nguyen there must be someone comparable or better if the net was tossed wide enough.

2: Vietnamese Native Characters Should at Minimum have an accent (if not speak outright Vietnamese)
Before joining Dreamland, Kim, was a young seventeen year old girl from a small village. She even says so in the song “The Heat in on in Saigon”

I’m seventeen, and I’m new here today
The village I come from seems so far away
All of the girls know much more what to say
But I know
I have a heart like the sea
A million dreams are in me

Unless the village she is from was occupied by Americans and as thus were teaching her people English, her command of the language would still be very weak. For a stage production I can understand the need of having her speak in English… but for a film, take full advantage of putting up English translations while there is some Vietnamese speaking happening. It won’t hurt.

Even in the moment when Kim is crying out to Chris about the pains of her past when she says:

Do you want one more tale of a Vietnam girl?
Want to know I was bound to a man I don’t love?
Do you want to be told how my village was burned?
Want to hear how my family was blasted away?
How I ran from the rice field and saw them in flames?
How my parents were bodies whose faces were gone?
I have had my fill of pain
I will not look back again
I would rather die

No native Vietnamese would be screaming out in pain in English. Not by any stretch of the imagination. This must be done in Vietnamese and probably with a lot less words. There is no should, there is no cutting corners, there is simply no way to get around this… none whatsoever.

And by extension, Chris presumably has been in Vietnam before:

When I went home before
No one talked of the war
What they knew from TV
Didn’t have a thing to do with me
I went back and re-upped
Sure Saigon is corrupt
It felt better to be
Here driving for the embassy

Which to me, he must have picked up a few lines of Vietnamese here and there. So if Kim is speaking more Vietnamese and a lot less English then by extension Chris could talk in English and switch to very broken Vietnamese in an attempt to communicate.

There are ways to make this work while keeping the original lyrics, but for heaven sakes make it realistic enough so as not to discriminate and anger the Vietnamese.

3: Reworking the script
One of the major issues from various members of the Vietnamese community in regards to Miss Saigon was the portrayal of the Vietnamese. There are a lot of sexist and racist undertones that when written and created by foreigners (and I use that as a term to describe non-Vietnamese in this post), so I can’t really fault them… But now, a few decades later there are aspects that can be updated, refreshed, reworked, etc to reflect the growing number of Vietnamese and their families all over the world.

The story of Jacqueline Nguyen’s family (mentioned earlier in this post) has some parallels to that of Kim and Chris, but not all. This can easily be rectified by fleshing out the minor characters in the production… namely the callgirls.

More often than not, callgirls are there by circumstance and not by choice, so how did they come to Dreamland? What forced them there? Kim’s story is reminiscent of villagers that simply didn’t know any better when coming into the city during the years of the war, but I know a lot of Vietnamese whose stories are far different.

4: Kim’s journey from Vietnam to Thailand
This has all the potential of being the scene (or series of scenes) that most Vietnamese who either fled Saigon during the Fall or for the many years thereafter could relate to and would probably feel the most discomfort in seeing.

However, that particular journey would also be the scene or series of scenes that would help open the foreigner’s eyes to the plight of the Vietnamese right after the Fall of Saigon and the time thereafter for those that left after the Fall. More often than not on stage (and because this is on stage, it is understandable to see why this is not a part of the production) what the Engineer, Kim and Tam must have gone through during their flight from Saigon to Bangkok is just the three of them holding hands into the sunset. In a film production there is more flexibility to allow the audience to see, visually in all its glory exactly what the Vietnamese must have gone through in order to find a better life for themselves.

There are countless accounts, stories, reports spoken and unspoken out there of what happened and what the Vietnamese have been through that is not widely known and even though I could think of a million reasons why they should be left to memories… if this is going to be a film production that Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans could watch and relate to… then depict the Vietnamese in the production in ways so that the viewing audience isn’t being misled.

Afterall… if a Vietnamese-American like myself took this long to have any desire to watch or be a part of a production that involves the Vietnam War or Vietnamese in general because of the way that the writers and directors choose to depict them (and I consider myself to be fairly open minded) then there is something to be said by others that may feel the same way.

Not a rant, persay but a personal choice.

However… when it came to a recent production that I have participated in… well that’s a story for another post.

In any case… this is not a very long wish list, but it covers a lot of major points. There are some areas where corners could be cut… but above all, somehow it has to make sense. And right now if what is on the stage is translated onto the screen verbatim… I know I won’t be watching.