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Tears and Asian pride flowed onstage after the Sundance premiere of The Accidental Getaway Driver, the feature debut of longtime commercial and music video director Sing J. Lee.
Based on true events in which a Vietnamese driver was kidnapped by three convicts and made to ferry them in their escape, the story seemed ready-made for an “action-thriller” adaptation. But Lee had other plans when he first read the 2017 GQ article on which his film is based.
“It seemed like it could be a certain kind of film,” said Lee at the movie’s post-screening Q&A. “But I immediately saw four human beings in this story that could embody so many parts of my own family and life experiences or [be] seen in the life of my parents. I saw something so tender and fragile that I haven’t seen so much in the West. And I just felt this drive to create something with this story because I feared what the other version of this story might be.”
Instead of a Collateral, the Michael Mann movie starring Jamie Foxx as a cab driver held prisoner by a hitman played by Tom Cruise, Lee’s film is a meditation on loneliness and the meaning of family, all steeped in Vietnamese culture. With most of the dialogue being in Vietnamese, the story sees an elderly driver-for-hire pick up three passengers who turn out to be dangerous escaped convicts. One of the men, fluent in Vietnamese, develops a bond with the driver and finds himself caught between his dark makeshift family of on-the-run prisoners and the light of possible redemption offered by a man old enough to be his father.
“Just being surrounded by Vietnamese Americans, telling stories about Vietnamese Americans that are not related to the (Vietnam War), and such universal themes that connect everybody together, it’s been a privilege,” said Dustin Nguyen, who plays Tây, the conflicted prisoner.
Nguyen was just about the only actor onstage to not shed a tear in talking about the work and the importance of the movie. Hiep Tran Nghia, the 81-year-old actor from France who found himself in his first leading film role, cried as he, with the help of an interpreter, acknowledged the support of his wife as well as the second day of the Chinese Lunar New Year, wishing that everyone could live a life as blessed as his.
Gabrielle Chan, who plays the driver’s ex-wife, fought back tears as she said many her age are a lost generation, coming from war and losing family members, before calling those with her onstage a family.
But perhaps the most touching moment came from Phi Vu, who plays a convict torn between following the violent leader of the group and embracing his own heritage and path. Vu recounted how he tried hard to convince his father-in-law, a shrimper in Louisiana, to take him out on the boat so he could understand the man’s life. The father-in-law finally relented and said yes, but then Vu got the callback for the movie … while they were offshore.
“I told my father-in-law, I said, ‘Hey, I gotta go. My wife said, ‘You can’t leave him!’ I’m not trying to leave him!” Vu recounted.
Then, in a moment of tenderness, he took a confessional tone, about what this movie meant: “I really had a long journey of recovery from an absence of love, and I think I’m still searching for it. And this, I think is my first step,” he said, breaking down in tears.
Director Lee also talked about his methodical directing style and his particular demands of composition, his close relationship with his director of photography, the 21-day shoot and the challenges of night shoots.
“The challenges we faced were a lack of time,” he said. “The sun coming up or the sun coming down.”
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival