When Vietnamese Canadian author Kim Thúy published her debut novel Ru, she had hoped it would keep the story of her family and other fellow Vietnamese refugees alive. “I was too young [when we immigrated to Canada]. There were things they couldn’t tell me,” she says. “So this is an attempt at archiving as much as possible.”
At age 10, Thúy and her family fled their home in Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon. The Thúy family, like many others leaving the country in 1975, were called “boat people” by the international press. After escaping Vietnam, the family spent a year in a refugee camp in Malaysia before being sponsored for immigration in Canada and eventually settling in Granby, Quebec. Thúy turned this harrowing journey into a best-selling and award winning novel in 2009, and its movie adaptation recently premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and hits theatres in Canada November 24. Directed by Charles-Oliver Michaud and produced by the author, Ru depicts the harsh realities of the Vietnamese refugee experience in Canada.
The film stars Chloé Djandji as Tinh, a young girl who flees Vietnam with her family. She’s quiet, observing the changes around her and it’s through Tinh’s eyes that the audience experiences the film. We see the peaceful and happy life the family had before they had to flee, including Tinh’s deep relationship with her beloved cousin Sao Mai, whose parents decide to stay behind instead of fleeing with Tinh’s family. And we also see the horrors the family endures and the barriers they face when arriving in Canada.
For Djandji, who grew up in Vietnam and Canada, doing Ru helped her get closer to her roots: “In Vietnam, we don’t talk about the war. I knew there was a war, because my grandparents lived through it,” she says. “My grandpa actually comes from the north and moved to the south because of the war, and married my grandma. He told me that people would look at them strangely because he was from the north, and that was heartbreaking.” And while that anecdote made Djandji curious, she felt she couldn’t ask him more because of how upset her grandfather got.
But when she got cast in Ru, Djandji got deep into researching the Vietnam war. She talked to her mom, looked up information online and talked to her other relatives. She even talked to her neighbour in Quebec, who is also a Vietnamese refugee. He told her about how his boat was robbed by pirates when he escaped Vietnam. With every new fact she learned, she was shocked. “[In Vietnam], you can’t talk about it. There are no books, no movies,” Djandji says. “Ru is written by a Vietnamese author and it’s not even translated into Vietnamese.”
Jean Bùi and Chantal Thuy also star in Ru as Tinh’s parents. For Thuy, a Montreal-based actor who was a big fan of the book, it was exciting to play a Vietnamese woman, something that she hadn’t had the opportunity to do before. She’s starred in shows and movies like Black Lightning on the CW, but she’s never been in a “specifically Vietnamese story,” she says, adding that she loved working on Ru because it brought her closer to her family and their story.
“There’s a scene where I’m working at a factory and the first time my mother ever told me that, when she first immigrated here, one of her first jobs here was also in a factory,” Thuy says. “She said working there was so hard and mentally draining, that it was the first time she cried [after moving to Canada].” Inspired by her mother’s experience, Thuy asked the director if she could bring some of that into her own performance. “Little moments like that, where we’re connected to our parents’ experience and putting ourselves in their shoes was very special.”
Like Thuy, Bùi says that being a part of the movie gave him permission to ask his parents tough questions about their past. “Growing up, they never talked about their past,” he says. “I couldn’t even ask questions and when I did, they didn’t even answer or give really short answers. But because I was doing the movie, and I was doing research, my parents opened up and we actually got closer throughout the process.”
Asking the previous generations the tough questions about their lived experiences is exactly the goal of the movie and book, says the author. She wanted the book—and now the movie—to spark conversation about the Vietnam war and experiences of Vietnamese refugees so that their stories can live on. “It’s important for the next generation, who have not been exposed to that story, to learn about it. Otherwise it will just disappear,” Thúy says. “My parents are older now, they will pass away. As soon as that happens, we will have no more direct witnesses to the event.”
Ru will be released on November 24th, 2023 in Quebec.