Elizabeth Ai’s ‘New Wave’ highlights the cool side of Vietnamese refugees

The documentarian tells a story of big intergenerational healing and bigger hair

Elizabeth Ai's documentary "New Wave" dives into Vietnamese New Wave music and its impact on a refugee community, as well as pop culture.

Still frame from "New Wave"

Words by Thuc Nguyen

Coming off of multiple sold-out showings and a Best New Documentary Director award at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival for Elizabeth Ai, New Wave is kicking ass, as it should be. Ai is a Southern California native who has produced short films, narrative features (like Ba, Saigon Electric, and Chinatown Squad) as well as documentaries about various subjects. Not until New Wave has she made such a personal film, turning the camera on herself, her daughter and her estranged Vietnamese refugee mother. We follow Ai as she looks back at how Vietnamese New Wave music shaped her own childhood and early memories with personal archival footage. We see the commonalities Ai’s family has with other refugee families that are subjects in the film.

The documentary fills a gap in the Vietnamese diaspora’s storytelling history and shows Vietnamese Americans as we have never been shown before in the mainstream media or by Hollywood. It’s a complete departure from the idea of “crazy rich Asians.” We see Asian Americans who are working class and who had to hustle to survive, while finding time to let off steam with Eurodisco music and teasing and coiffing our hair—a lifestyle never attributed to any Asians on film, the complete opposite of the “Asian nerd” shown in 1980s and ‘90s Hollywood movies. Most of the United States has had no idea how a group of people could be so cool—literally “fresh off the boat.”

The film focuses on two key players in the Vietnamese New Wave scene—Ian Nguyễn (DJ BPM) and singer/song cover artist Lynda Trang Đài—as it ends up going more and more into the director’s own vulnerability as a Vietnamese American woman by delving into her own  traumatic family saga and how this affects three generations of Vietnamese Americans, including Ai’s elementary school-aged daughter, Asa. When onscreen, Asa is often seen in a maroon shirt with the words “gia đình,” which means family—a great Easter egg for people who understand the Vietnamese language.

In the footage, Nguyễn’s mother talks about letting her son go on a boat with a “70 percent chance of death.” Nguyễn says, “We are the lucky ones,” and he’s right. We survived all kinds of things—a violent ocean, racism in a new land, each other—and we are still here. Despite the hardships of being refugees, New Wave shows Vietnamese Americans being purveyors of style and leaders of Asian cool and popular culture that held a worldwide influence in the diaspora. This was long before the time of the characters in a piece like Justin Lin’s narrative feature Better Luck Tomorrow, a seminal Asian American film that came out in 2002 depicting Asian Americans as conflicted badasses with swagger—a stark contrast to the idea of Asian nerds or goodie-goodies or “submissive Asian flowers” depicted by non-Asian diaspora filmmakers. Vietnamese American New Wavers were already spinning records and performing in nightclubs in risque outfits, driving fast cars, binge drinking alcohol and doing drugs, engaging in teen sexual activities and finding themselves along with defining their own identities in real life, in the 1980s.

New Wave as a study of Vietnamese refugees may be a canary in the coal mine when it comes to the subjects of mental health and subsequent waves of refugees from various other countries that have experienced displacement since the Vietnam War. New Wave shows us that refugees can find our footing and can do more than survive, decade after decade, morphing and defining what it is to be a diaspora, or to be Americans in this instance.

I recently caught up with Ai during her travels between film festivals, to talk about how she feels about the reception of the film and its place in the culture.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Thuc Nguyen: What has been the audience reaction at your screenings?
Elizabeth Ai: It’s been very emotional to finally be able to share and meet our audience! To be able to hear from the people and community we made it for is incredibly gratifying.

TN: Your mother’s younger sister, Myra, was a parental figure for you growing up, and who introduced you to Vietnamese New Wave music. Where do you think you would be if you didn’t have her?
EA: I’m not really sure, but we’d probably be a lot worse off. Those handful of years when my aunt stepped in were really tough. They were when my mom had to step up professionally by running nail salon businesses to take care of our family. Myra held space for me and my sister; she was and is so generous and selfless, and I know we’re better for it. We’re all still very close today.

TN: You grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, closer to Los Angeles. Do you remember anything about this New Wave scene happening in nearby Orange County, California, as a kid, outside of the cassette tapes your aunt and uncles had?
EA: I was just a kid back in the ‘80s, so I was really just tagging along for the ride. When there was time, our family would go to Little Saigon and hang at Phước Lộc Thọ (Asian Garden Mall on Bolsa Avenue in Westminster, California).

I remembered these pilgrimages were mainly for food, but there were also times when our family would use it to reconnect with extended members of our family and/or friends or show visitors or newcomers from Vietnam around. I didn’t quite understand it back then. And as I got older (tween years), I remember feeling like it was a big chore. Now looking back, I get it—it was one of the few places they could feel some semblance of home and community.

TN: It’s taken six years to make this feature documentary film. What are the best things you learned? What were your biggest challenges and triumphs?
EA: I’ve learned so much about my community but really, I couldn’t believe how much I learned about myself and my family. All the unspoken narratives that were never shared between us finally came to light in the process of filmmaking.

I’ll be processing these learnings and emotions for all of my life. Making this story with my team and sharing it finally is the biggest honor of my life. I feel free—free from the shame I carried around all my life because I thought perhaps, it was just my own experience with my dysfunctional family when really it was all of us.

This community has suffered so much from the violence and displacement. I know the effect of our community’s pain ripples through generations on such a personal level for everyone. I hope everyone gets a chance to revisit their past in this way.

TN: Have you heard of/seen any comparable music movements, refugee popular culture movements like this anywhere?
EA: In terms of comparable music movements, I’m fascinated by the music mixing, mashing, and reinventions of various diaspora groups. I was pleasantly surprised to learn through the process of making this film that there was a parallel thing that happened in the Persian community right here in SoCal too. I hope someone else is making that film!

TN: How is your daughter feeling after meeting her grandmother for the first time ever during the filming of New Wave, and having her own film festival (at Tribeca and at DC/Dox) experience at such a young age?
EA: You know, she's a pretty cool, calm, and collected kid. We have lots of family chats about our feelings after these big experiences and honestly, she expressed to us that she’d rather be on a playground. I don’t blame her, because really it’s work, and she knows it.

So, we ended up hanging out at a handful of playgrounds throughout the festival because that’s where she wanted to be and we wanna be right there with her!

TN: What’s the story of her little gia đình shirt?
EA: I’m so glad you asked. I got a couple of these shirts from this amazing friend I made during the New Wave filmmaking journey. Matthew Vu is an amazing human, DJ, designer, and creative in our community. Please check out his work here and cop a t-shirt while you’re at it.

TN: What are your feelings about the concept of gia đình after making this documentary?
EA: Humbled. Expansive. Constantly evolving but rooted more deeply than ever.

TN: How high have you ever gotten your hair? Do you own more hairspray and day-glo stuff now after six years in New Wave-land?
EA: I do own a couple bottles of Aqua Net from saving some props from our recreations/production days. I love the style and fashion of that era but let’s get real, I’m a full-time filmmaker and a full-time mom, I don’t have a lot of time to primp or think about how to style my hair these days.

Next up is the Austin Asian American Film Festival on June 26th— as the opening night feature film.

Published on June 27, 2024

Words by Thuc Nguyen

Thuc Doan Nguyen is a former child boat person refugee who was sponsored to the small town of Kinston, North Carolina. She grew up there, in Raleigh, NC and in rural Southern Maryland. She’s lived in Europe and has an Irish passport, as well as an American one. Thuc is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill. She's a writer and essayist for publications like Vogue, Esquire, The Daily Beast, VICE, Refinery29, Southern Living, PBS and now JoySauce, among others. She loves dogs and college basketball. You can find out more about her work at ConsiderateContent.com.