As a member of the Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival’s marketing committee, I’ve been given the awesome opportunity of reviewing films from this year’s lineup leading up to the festival. It is also an honor to be a part of Reel Asian’s very special 15th year (November 9 – 19). Up next, SAIGON ELECTRIC.
Set in Saigon, the story begins with Mai, a traditional ribbon dancer who moves to the big city from the countryside with the goal of being accepted to the national dance academy. Unable to overcome her nerves, she fails her audition but befriends a street-smart hip-hop dancer, Kim, and the rest of her crew – Saigon Fresh.
The Fresh crew aims to compete internationally in South Korea but first they must defeat the reigning national champions at the Samsung Challenge, North Killaz from Hanoi, in order to represent Vietnam. Leading up to the challenge, Kim gets involved with a wealthy boy named Hai, and begins to distance herself from her friends. To make things worse, the youth centre they practice in is on the verge of being made into a hotel. With all these problems piling up, the outcome of the Samsung Challenge becomes more and more important.
In his sophomore feature, Stephane Gauger paints a vivid picture of youth dance culture in the bustling streets of Saigon. Although the narrative of the film may seem familiar, the characters in Saigon Electric highlight the class difference still existent in Vietnam, and in many other parts of Asia. Where Hanoi’s North Killaz “dance because they have nothing better to do”, Saigon Fresh dance because they have to. All three major characters of Mai, Kim and Do-Boy come from broken families, and they all seek refuge in dance and their youth centre. Gauger displays the growing phenomenon of hip-hop in Asia through a Vietnamese lens, showing how not only hip-hop, but also any art, should not be considered as a road to delinquency but a sanctuary for expression.