"I'm the luckiest human alive," exclaims Portland filmmaker Vu Pham. "The opportunity to be creative is a privilege." This Thursday, NW Film Center is screening Memory's Lonely Breath: Films by Vu Pham, a collection of his new work. But even with the opportunity to be artistic, Pham's luck is a contentious assertion.
His life is overflowing with plot lines that belong at Sundance, mostly spurred by his parents. Or lack thereof. When Pham was 7, a year after immigrating from Vietnam, his mother was murdered by her boyfriend. Twelve years later, when Pham's ex-convict father finally joined him in Portland, their relationship quickly turned toxic and dissolved.
"My mother's death was the birth of tragedy for me," says Pham. "My dad, a political prisoner, tried to reinvigorate our familial ties, but he was looking for this trope of a long lost son. He didn't find that in me because I wasn't receptive."
With the arrival of Pham's father came his new half-brother, who photobombed his already unstable family picture. He eventually became homeless, and would hound Pham for money and cigarettes in the streets. Pham hasn't seen him in three years and isn't sure if he's still alive.
Pham's half-brother is a recurring character, having inspired roles in four of Pham's films. He was the central muse for My Brother (2014), which magnifies the disconnectedness between a man and his mentally ill sibling. He is resurrected in The Cutting Shadow (2016), which will open Memory's Lonely Breath. Following it is a new trilogy of short films titled Love Is Strong. "Love Is Strong includes three sustained meditations," says Pham. "Their pacing is a bit slower, and they're tied together by a deep interest in passion and the extremes of our devotion, love and sense of loyalty."
Playing out like a book with three chapters, Love Is Strong introduces notably foreign narrators. The first, Where the Flowers Fell, follows a detached actress and her director husband. Second is The True Color of Hunger, which zooms in on the dissolution of a cult by its leader. And lastly, there's Pham's personal favorite of the three: Sudden Stars in the Night Zoo, a thesis against American masculinity.
"[Sudden Stars] deals with a subject that's really near and dear to my heart: the existential impasse of the American male," says Pham. "We're part of a culture where the bridge to success comes with this great sense of enterprise and industriousness, but what if you don't get that? We're thrown on the freight train of life, and we're told that we should have a sense of history and ourselves and the future. In this film, I ask what it means to not know what your purpose is."
Sudden Stars is largely centered on a choice Pham made soon after high school. His girlfriend at the time had become pregnant, and Pham decided to marry her so that their son could have a father. Without love to anchor the relationship, Pham ended up floundering existentially. He is now estranged from both his ex-wife and his son, a story that sounds familiar.
"My current situation with my son mirrors my relationship with my father," says Pham. "Perhaps he's not particularly receptive to me as I wasn't really a father to him."
Though personal blows have afflicted Pham with periods of detachment, they've also encouraged his creative juices. His work has found a fan in Stephen Nemeth, producer of the Hunter S. Thompson freakout biopic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. As an actor, Pham was a principal in the 2013 movie C.O.G. alongside Jonathan Groff and Denis O'Hare, based on an essay by David Sedaris about a man who ditches the real world to work on an apple farm.
Despite his tumultuous life, Pham maintains a sense of humor. He recorded himself eating dirt a couple years ago to protest sour earnings from a Kickstarter campaign. "Sometimes men want to be destructive," laughs Pham. "It was a punchy piece of humor, and I brought together all these very physically revolting things to ingest in order to create organic involuntary physical reactions, almost in a Jackass type of way."
Pham's filmography has undoubtedly doubled as therapy. His works allow him to investigate his own emotional catharses. People from his childhood become characters who, unlike their real-life counterparts, console him through constructive dialogue. In Pham's case, leaving the past behind wouldn't do him—or his audience—any favors.
SEE IT: Memory's Lonely Breath: Films by Vu Pham screens at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, 7 pm, Thursday, Jan. 26.