How We Live Now, ‘Ghosts’

We are proud and excited to launch ‘How We Live Now’, a new series of short films that will explore the importance of music in the lives of everyday people.

‘Ghosts’ is the first film in the series, and in it, we follow Van Ngoc Dang as she reflects on the end of her most formative long term relationship. Her memories are framed through the lyrics of 5 songs that were especially meaningful to her during the breakup. The film was shot in Da Lat, a hauntingly beautiful town located in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, and the last place that Van (who is Vietnamese – Canadian) and her ex visited together as a couple.

You can watch ‘Ghosts’ directly below, and read on after the jump for our follow – up interview with Van.

When we were looking for a subject for the film, we asked you to pick a moment from your life that has special significance. Why did you pick this moment in particular?

Because it is the first time I experienced the guilt of breaking up with someone. I have done it before, but this time it hurt both ways.

Please remind us of the 5 songs that were most meaningful to you during your breakup.

“Old and Wise” by the Alan Parsons Project, “Between the Bars” by Elliott Smith, “Mistaken for Strangers” by The National, “Rubber Ring” by the Smiths, and “Last Dance” by The Cure.

Why these songs in particular?

Most of them are about regret. “Mistaken for Strangers” is about being estranged or alienated from your friends, and during my breakup I realised that I have traded, not necessarily friends because I don’t have that much anyway, but my social identity because it was more comfortable to cling to a person who adored you than to go out and make conversations. “Rubber Ring” sums up my feeling for music as a place of support.

For a while after the breakup, I stopped listening to music altogether because it evoked too many unwanted emotions, but I always came back to this song. The Elliott Smith song is there because of the line “the people you’ve been before that you don’t want around anymore, they push and shove and won’t bend to your will, I’ll keep them still.” I always love the “still” at the end. I’d like to think that “still” in this context means you quieten the people “before” so they have the chance to become the people “after”.

Now that you’ve had some distance from the breakup – just over a year now – do the songs still hold the same meaning?

Not really, it was a confusing time when the list was made, so these songs were not specifically about the breakup, they’re also in relation to what happened before and after that.

We shot the film in Da Lat, which is the last place you and he visited as a couple. How did it feel being back there for the first time without him?

I’d like to keep this for myself.

Okay, fair enough. If you could go back to the start of this whole process, would you pick different songs? If so, which ones? and why?

I would scrap everything and pick only one song. “Disintegration” by the Cure. Everything I felt summed up in 8 and a half minutes. Regret for leading people on. Fear that “it’s easier for me to get closer to heaven than ever feel whole again”. A need to be accepted, by just anyone.

If you could go back to that moment in your life, is there anything you’d do differently?

I know myself well enough to say that I’d do everything exactly the same.

You moved to Canada from Vietnam at the age of 13, and then basically grew up there, only returning to Vietnam in your 20’s. Do you feel any sort of connection to the music scene over there? And how about Vietnam, do you feel any sort of affinity for the scene here?

Actually, I had no connection the music scene in Canada. I was kind of a loner in terms of musical compatibility, especially since lots of my friends were a) immigrants like me and b) immigrant engineering students like me. Again, I watched a lot of music channels, and despite lots of shitty stuff being put out, there were some really good ones that were aired. Lots of instances where I discovered new music were by chance, like watching a movie and a song would come up (like Beck’s Lost Cause, from that movie with Michelle Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis [FYI – ‘The Story of Us’], and especially Elliott Smith’s Miss Misery of course, from Good Will Hunting) and I would end up reaching out for the album. And I watched A LOT of movies, so there were a lot of chances. I never belonged to any group that allowed me any kind of connection in Canada. Funny though, I met a lot of interesting people with compatible music taste after my return to Vietnam, who have become good friends.

One thing that anyone who knows you will attest to is your passion for music in general, not to mention your almost encyclopaedic knowledge of songs, bands and artists, mostly from the 80’s and 90’s. Do you think you could identify where that passion comes from?

The first time I was introduced to music was when my dad got me piano lessons. He’s also a guitar player, and he liked to play for us when he got drunk or when the electricity was out. Like anyone growing up in Vietnam before the embargo was lifted, I was a normal happy kid, because honestly, you’re 12-13, what’s there to be unhappy about? When I moved to Canada, it was a totally different world. You need a lot to be happy in a place like Montreal. I struggled to fit in and I think I was miserable at first. I was socially awkward because my French was terrible and I was the wearing-my-mom’s-clothes-to-school kind of kid. I ended up spending hours in front of the TV, mostly watching music channels because the sitcoms and programs offered at that time were not very appealing to me (mind you, this is Canada in the late 90’s).

One of my favorite things to do on a Friday night was to watch the weekly top 20’s. At that time, Napster was in its primitive form, so I would take long bus rides to different “audiotheques” – audio libraries, around the city to borrow cassettes and CDs. And then I’d record the songs I liked in CD compilations, and I would indulge in them and wear them out during these long train rides to school or work. So I guess music was a source of entertainment and distraction to my “adolescent morose”. Also, on more than one occasion, music has helped me to sort out my feelings and put them in context. It sounds grand but that’s what I credit music for. I was not interested in anything else, except for movies. So I guess that’s where it comes from, this passion.

What would you say is your go – to musical genre?

I’d say 80’s pop, 90’s alternative, and 00’s indie.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

The first time I rode the metro, I told myself that I have to take part in the making of the first subway in Vietnam. Later on in life I came to think that it’d be very cool to say “I am a cinematographer”, and so I wanted to become one, especially since I was at that time really getting into the work of Christopher Doyle. However, I didn’t do anything about it, and honestly, really didn’t own a camera until my ex gave me a film camera 4 years ago.

So what did you become?

An engineer by education and a projects controller by trade (I spend a lot of time reading and making contracts). I followed my Dad’s footsteps to study engineering because apparently, I was good at math. Also, it is difficult to go for your dreams in your late teens. I’ve run into a lot of people during my travels later on in life and lots of them are pushing back university enrolment, and I think that’s brilliant. We should not have to make life decisions when we’re not yet equipped with knowledge and experiences.

If I asked you to pick a song that describes how you’re feeling right now in relation to your breakup, what would it be?

“Natural Light” by Sun Kil Moon.

Van, thank you for giving us so much of your time, and for allowing us to tell your story.

. . .

Directed by Dillon M. Banda
Cinematography by Dillon M. Banda
Edited by Sean Cunningham
Words and Narration by Van Ngoc Dang
Score by Rhian Sheehan
Produced by Lekker.

Photo Credits: All photos by Dillon M. Banda

01.06.2017 / By Dillon M. Banda