Tribeca 2024 Review: NEW WAVE, More Than Vietnamese-American Music

Elizabeth Ai's documentary peers deeply into the music, yes, but also the cultural and generational divides that produced it in the 1980s.

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas, US (@peteramartin)
Tribeca 2024 Review: NEW WAVE, More Than Vietnamese-American Music

Like waves that come crashing on the seashore, except they keep crashing.

New Wave
The film enjoys its world premiere at the Tribeca Festival.

During the late 1970s and early 80s, New Wave music that I heard in Los Angeles swept me into its post-punk, synth-heavy currents.

As explained in director Elizabeth Ai's documentary New Wave, though, it was much more meaningful for the Vietnamese-American community than a passing musical fad. The younger generation, brought to or born in the U.S., considered their New Wave music, featuring cover songs of popular tunes translated into and sung in Vietnamese, as a genuine cultural phenomenon, helping them to deal with their transforming identity and the lasting repercussions of the war that made them (or their parents) refugees, forced to flee from their homeland.

Beginning on a personal note, director Ai talks about her family's heritage as refugees from the Vietnam War who came to the U.S. in 1975. Her mother quickly found herself without a supportive husband, though she was still expected to carry the burden, financial and otherwise, to help make it possible for other members of her large family to come to America and get established.

As a consequence, young Elizabeth drew close to her aunt Myra and increasingly distant from her always-absent mother. Thus, it's with Myra that the adult Elizabeth begins her investigation of the New Wave, starting with the music, often termed "Eurodisco" at the time, and then spiraling into the hairstyles and fashions of the day, filling the screen with a rich assemblage of photographs and video clips, as well as extensive recreations that fill in the blanks with younger, dramatic versions of people who are interviewed in their later years.

Dramatized recreations in documentaries might be a 'hot button' issue for some, but here it's used as connective tissue that keeps the narrative engine steadily perking. By interviewing her principals in the modern day, director Ai fixes them as anchors and returns to them throughout the film in order to tell the story progressively, while continually peeking backward as previously unexplored motivations are revealed.

Entertaining as it is to see and hear notable singer Lynda Trang Đài and Ian "DJ BPM" Nguyen talk about their music and the culture that birthed it, their interviews are only a starting point, allowing a toehold into the broader story that director Ai ends up telling in a compelling fashion that becomes more and more fascinating to contemplate.

The story is not just about a type of popular music that a relatively small number of people loved, decades in the past. New Wave puts its ear right next next to the bass drum, as it were, and discerns, not just the rhythm, but the culture and the people who made it possible.

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Elizabeth AiNew WaveTribeca 2024Tribeca Film FestivalVietnamVietnamese American

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