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We talk about the transformation of Venice and downtown — where Chris, Jessie and Mike once lived together at the Brewery art complex. He understands where Mike is coming from but doesn’t have the same issues with the city’s way of life. “I love Los Angeles, warts and all. It’s my adopted home and part of my self-identity.?.?.?. In terms of our industry, the heart of it is in L.A. My goals are a little more selfish [than Mike’s]. I want to work with the best people and be the best in the most competitive marketplace. And, from galleries, magazine stands, clubs, museums, restaurants, comic-book stores to films, we have it good. Within a half-hour drive I can find pretty much everything I want.”
Implicit in his statement, of course, is the confidence that that wouldn’t be the case in a backwater like Vietnam. But the guy who spends his free time watching Ultimate Fighting Championships on pay-per-view or playing games on an Xbox 360 with his 3-year-old gives his brother credit for doing things the hard way, even if Chris doesn’t completely understand it. “Mike’s happiness has always come from nonmaterial things. The intangibles and quality-of-life are what motivate him,” he says.
Chris is pleased that his nomadic little brother has finally found stability and been able to develop something on his own terms. “He’s doing things in Vietnam that are going to be groundbreaking, and I think that’s very inspirational,” he says. “He’s showing a generation of Vietnamese designers a world they were not previously privy to, and he’s helping to build an emerging post-production market there.”
Nevertheless, the older Do sibling won’t be going back to his birthplace anytime soon. Having not seen his country since he was 3, Chris hopes to do so before his youngest son reaches that age. For now, he’s content with the occasional journey to Monterey Park for a $5 bowl of pho. In the meantime he’s got a new arm of his company to oversee. In October, Blind opened an office in New York, and Chris and Jessie have even talked about moving out there one day.
Finally, as rarely seems the case in L.A. or New York, the conversation turns from the coasts to New Orleans, where thousands of Vietnamese were among the masses affected by Hurricane Katrina. Chris retells an NPR story featuring a Vietnamese lady there who refused to leave her home despite rising floodwaters. “When the water came up, fish started coming in the house,” Chris says. “So of course she saw it as an opportunity rather than a dilemma.”
We share a knowing laugh, visualizing the woman crouching in knee-deep living-room water while trying to catch a fish with her bare hands and browbeating her husband to hurry up and figure out how to cook the rice without power. Both Chris and I have witnessed Vietnamese people on either side of the Pacific turn hardship to their advantage.
Back at Saigon’s Bambu Café, Mike details his plans for Art House, which opened in July. For now, it’s a commercial-production shop specializing in visual effects, but as it expands he plans to make movies there and eventually open a film school. That would be ambitious anywhere but is especially so in Vietnam, where the government exerts strict control over the industry, or what there is of one. Until recently, the Vietnamese film business was entirely state funded and still turns out mostly anachronistic, patriotic fare. But a new law now permits private companies to make films, provided their major partner is ethnically Vietnamese.
Toan Viet, the company that ditched Mike, is still in business, but without him leading the creative team, he says, it has resorted to producing exclusively low-budget TV commercials. When it comes to his new staff, many of whom he hired away from Toan Viet, Mike’s philosophical: “My people may not all have experience, but they have heart.” Unlike his brother, he’s not a natural leader and hates telling people what to do. For Mike, dissemination of knowledge is the key to developing not only his business but the fledgling film and TV production industry in Vietnam as well. His main competitors, Créa TV and Sud-Est, do high-end work and have years more experience in Asia. But because they have yet to truly invest in building the necessary infrastructure in-country, he says, they still farm out a lot of their jobs. Art House’s objective is to bring more high-budget commercial and film work to Vietnam, in a sense spreading the wealth.