The Owl and the Sparrow, which opens tonight in San Jose and on February 13th in San Francisco, tells a simple story: Thuy, an orphaned 10-year-old girl, runs away from her overbearing uncle in the countryside and tries to make a new life for herself in Saigon. While selling postcards and flowers, she meets and befriends a zookeeper whose fiance has left him, and a beautiful flight attendant who is about to break off her affair with a married pilot. Eventually she gets the idea of bringing these two lonely hearts together, creating a makeshift family of her own, which will soon collide with the authorities and with her uncle, who has been searching the city for her.
It sounds like a recipe for unbearable sentimentality, but the film has a gritty element: what with the handheld cameras, the naturalistic performances, and the street scenes, the sweetness was offset just enough that hard-boiled cynics like me could enjoy it too. “For me, Saigon is the fourth character in the film,” director Stephane Gauger said, in a joint interview with his executive producer, Timothy Linh Bui, in San Francisco on Monday. “You feel the city, but at the core, it’s really about the kindness of strangers and humanity,” Gauger said. “And I hope that’s the message that a lot of people come away with.”
Bui and Gauger (pronounced GOW-ger) have known one another for many years now, ever since Gauger’s student days at Cal State Fullerton. Since then they’ve worked together on five feature films, but The Owl and the Sparrow is Gauger’s first stint as director. This weekend marks its first theatrical release in the United States, but on the festival circuit it has won about ten awards — including the award for Best Narrative Feature at last year’s International Asian American Film Festival — and it has had a few screenings overseas as well, including in Vietnam. I asked how it played there.
“They liked it,” Gauger said, “but there, it’s more for an art house crowd. The public tends to like things a little more broad, a little glossier, and this one is a little more real. A little more slice of life.”
“It wasn’t escapism for them,” Bui interjected. “Here, you’re transported in a way to a foreign land.”
“You have elephants and third-world street kids in this,” Gauger added, “so it has a little bit of exotic appeal to it.”
There are a lot of kids in Saigon just like Thuy, who are selling things just to survive. Most of them have family in the countryside, often rice farmers, who don’t make much money. It’s common for kids to stay with relatives in the city, and while they sometimes go to school during the day, they always work at night, selling jewelry beads or postcards or flowers, and then send a little money back home when they can, to try and help out.
Of course, a lot of these kids, never end up getting to school. Bui said that it’s not so much that they fall through the cracks as that “school becomes a lot less important when you’re just trying to eat.” He elaborated: “It’s a sad situation. They should be in school, if they’re not, they should be in bed by 9 PM, but you see them at 2 in the morning when you’re at a club. But they have to survive.”
Thuy is played by Pham Thi Han (pictured above at center), who was one of only ten girls that Gauger auditioned. Gauger compared this to his experience with Bui on Three Seasons, where they auditioned about 500 children. “Normally,” Gauger said, “you cast a wide net, but I kind of streamlined everything to meet our guerilla schedule.”
Guerrilla is just the right word to describe it. Gauger only had fifteen days to shoot in thirty locations, and he had five days to do the casting — casting which included an elephant and an orangutan. Gauger said that originally, he had envisioned a tiger instead of an elephant. I asked him whether he made the change because the tiger was too dangerous to work with. Actually, it was just the opposite. The problem with tigers, Gauger said, is that a tiger is really a big cat, “so they just sleep all day. It’s so uncinematic — they’re just laying there. But with elephants, there is a lot of interaction with the zookeepers.” Out of five, they chose the youngest and the tamest. It seems that elephants are very easy to direct: “If you want the elephant to get closer to the camera,” Gauger said, “just wave sugar cane at it. t comes right over!”
Orangutans, on the other hand, are not so simple to work with. “We had three scenes in the script with the monkey, but we shot the first scene and then he didn’t stay still.” That was a problem because of continuity concerns. “If the orangutan is here in one shot, and there in another shot, it’s just a lot harder to get good continuity. You can’t really tell an orangutan to stay out of your shot. So we did one scene and had to let it go.”
The production was guerrilla in other ways, too. With a self-financed budget of $50,000, a minimal crew, and a small cast, they were able to stay mobile and easily move from location to location. There was no need for large vans: all they had to do was grab a couple taxis, load up the gear, and go. And with such a tight shooting schedule, there was never any downtime. “It was liberating,” Gauger said. “The actors have fun, they feel the energy, because they’re never waiting around. They’re always on, always in character. Sometimes we’d just do four takes and move right on to rehearsing the next scene.”
The only actor who was not auditioned at the time was Cat Ly, who plays the flight attendant. Cat Ly is American-Vietnamese, and she’s actually a known singer in the community. Bui said that she acted in his first student film, 15 years ago, and then he lost track of her for ten years until she appeared in Journey from the Fall. “I was a gaffer on that film,” Gauger said, “and we hung out. I liked her acting style in that film.” So, back in Orange County, he asked her out to grab some pho, and he described his project to her: fast, with no time to rehearse, and he couldn’t pay her much, but it would be an adventure. Why did she say yes? Gauger thinks that it was the opportunity to do a “nice role” and work with “somebody who is a little bit not the norm, who’s not going to play it safe,” offering her a chance to express herself. “It’s a good challenge,” he said.
Many of the people who appear in the film were non-pros or first-time actors. Some of them were just people who had noticed that they were shooting a film and joked that Gauger should put them in a film someday. So in many cases, he went ahead and did just that: “a lot of the background, bit-part people were just girls who worked at hotels or restaurants. They would just be hanging out, greeting guests all day, so they’d have time to slip over for an hour and do a scene.” I asked what was it like working with non-pros. “It’s nice, because sometimes you get a little more of a naturalistic performance. They don’t overthink it too much.” He also found that when he placed a non-pro in the frame with a trained actor, “they’d meet in the middle. The pro is more grounded in reality, and the non-pros have to up their game a little.”
Gauger and Bui intend to collaborate on another film once they have finished with The Owl and the Sparrow. It’ll be a film about the Vietnamese national soccer team and their English coach. “Storytelling-wise it will be emotionally in the same line as this, but bigger,” Bui said. By way of explanation, Gauger added that “we’ve got a couple of soccer matches in it, so we’re going to have to fill up a stadium.”
In the meantime, enjoy the Owl and the Sparrow, which opens tonight at the Camera 3 in San Jose, and on February 13th at the Sundance Kabuki.