Beneath The Blooms: Victor Vu On SCARLET HILL

Why the popular Vietnamese-American filmmaker's first brush with episodic storytelling should be your next mystery binge.

By Nguyen Le · @nle318 · December 15, 2022, 5:30 PM EST

Yes, your latest reason to forgo the "Skip Intro" button is here: the fleeting and artfully macabre title sequence of the Vietnamese mystery thriller series Scarlet Hill (Trại Hoa Đỏ), originally from K+ and now on Netflix. The camera closes in on a field of red snapdragons amid the mist against the silhouette of an abandoned manor. As the frame becomes more inverted, the signs of decay grow more visible. The eerie—yet hummable—tune from Garrett Crosby crescendos and the petals break away to reveal a skull.

It's a detail inspired by a fact that prompted Victor Vũ, the director and co-writer for all of Scarlet Hill's eight hour-long episodes, to end his search for the titular "hoa đỏ" ("red flower"), a symbol of the deceiving beauty at the story's core. Much like the Di Li novel it's adapted from (which has enraptured readers and producers for its noir-drama-suspense blend since its debut as Yahoo! 360° blog posts in 2008), Scarlet Hill follows the family of Lưu (Quốc Huy), Vỹ (Trâm Anh), and Vỹ's young son Bảo (Phan Minh Anh) on a vacation gone awry. And how could it not, when the lush grounds are full of grim truths, restless histories and secretive locals (the watchful Mrs. Hồng (Merited Artist Hạnh Thuý), questionable witch doctor (Merited Artist Công Ninh) and abrasive housewife Vân (Cao Thái Hà) are some to take note of).

"When I did the research and looked at all the pictures [of flowers], I was like, 'This is horrific for me, it's like kinh dị [horror],'" Vũ said. "And if you go to Da Lat right after Tết, you'll see snapdragons everywhere, along the market. I didn't know about that until I was filming there."


New growth


If you are familiar with Vietnamese cinema, you'll know that Vũ and Da Lat are far from strangers: It was the setting of his hit feature Quả Tim Máu (Vengeful Heart), released in 2014. By revisiting the mountainous city for Scarlet Hill, the Vietnamese-American filmmaker revealed he sort of broke his rule to not film in the same location. Vũ and his family lived there for four and half months throughout the shoot, which also brought on past collaborators such as DP Dominic Pereira (Dreamy Eyes), production designer Ghia Fam (Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass), and writer Đức Nguyễn (Scandal 2).


"I feel like there are still a lot of interesting spots, and there's the atmosphere that is just hard to find anywhere else," he said. "I visit it a lot, like a few times a year, just because I love it. To make a movie there is even better because it's like you're on vacation at the same time!"


Making Scarlet Hill wasn't exactly hurdle-free. There was no issue in searching for the "trại," or the homestay of the principal family. Felix Blao Farm in the neighboring city of Bảo Lộc, with some added set dressing, satisfied the production's needs. Vũ revealed (in Vietnamese) in a featurette that production company HK Films managed to find an actual abandoned manor; all that was left was to bring in some safe-for-filming additions.


As for the biggest hurdle? Here's a hint: What is the first item that comes to mind when someone says "recent global event"? The answer isn't "World Cup."

"Right before shooting, COVID hit," Vũ said. "But that worked out for production because it pushed it later to the cold season, which was what we needed. The locations also just looked much better because all the vegetation grew out the way it should be."


For Vũ, the pandemic seemed to be less of a challenge than the adaptation process. Much like his previous feature, Dreamy Eyes, which also has novelistic origins, Vũ and Di Li's text didn't click right away. The page-to-screen jump required quite a lot of time and space before it could happen. But the hiatus ("six, seven months") turned out to be the coveted "missing link" for him and his company to gain a fresher and clearer perspective.


There was also the notion of making eight "mini-features." As in, within 60 or so minutes, the same story still in three act structure, plus one great hook designed to tempt. As a fan of The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, and most recently, The Sinner, Vũ said this was an interesting creative challenge to face after years of working on features.

"In a novel, you can get away with not wrapping up certain issues and elements, not explaining certain things," Vũ said. "But I think in a movie, people are gonna be dissatisfied if that happens. They'll be like, 'What? What the hell?'… [When co-writer Đức Nguyễn and I came back to Scarlet Hill], we unlocked something, and the writing was very fast. We wrote the outline and restructured the story. We redesigned the characters. The writing process was so much faster than the first time."


Making roots


Despite some Vietnam-centric elements, Vũ trusted Scarlet Hill could still grip audiences from all over. He opened the pilot with a dead body. Said cadaver also allowed the story to include a procedural aspect, represented through two investigators—the dashing novice Bách (Lê Xuân Tiền) and his no-nonsense mentor Mừng (Lê Quốc Nam).


"The second thing that I feel is universally appealing has to do with the relationships of the characters themselves," he said. "Also, there's a little bit of the horror element that we won't give away."

Speaking of universal, there's one thing about the show that, while not as high-profile, makes it a rather big deal—especially if you have been made aware of Vietnamese cinema's (still-limited!) availability to viewers and filmic institutions. The U.S., via Netflix, as it turns out, is one of the 177 markets where Scarlet Hill is available for viewing. Per local media, Vũ expressed this great reach will motivate him to tell more Vietnamese stories and show more of the Vietnamese culture without enduring apathy or faulty representation.


"Everybody knows Vietnam as tropical and sweaty, or hot and humid, so when they see something like Da Lat, they're like, 'Wow, that's not exactly how I imagine Vietnam!' he said. "That's one of the reasons I love it; you get transported to a different time and place, even though the history of Da Lat is quite dark, but we'll save that for another conversation."


U.S. Netflix is also home to two feature-length works from Vũ. The aforementioned drama-romance Dreamy Eyes, which was Vietnam's submission to the 2021 Oscars, and the supernatural-tinged thriller The Guardian (Thiên Thần Hộ Mệnh) set in the competitive world of V-pop.


Regarding theatrical films, specifically the idea of Vietnamese theatrical films casting a wide exhibition net, Vũ said things remain "tricky" due to the lack of marketing, or effective marketing—and from there the dearth of interest. He still expressed an optimistic outlook: "There are so many more opportunities, and things are just a little bit easier for filmmakers nowadays than it was back then. I think things will change over time."

At the moment, Vũ is finalizing the casting for his adaptation of a romance thriller set in the Nguyễn Dynasty, the last one in Vietnam. Production will happen in the northern region, at locations that "have never been filmed."

Scarlet Hill (Trại Hoa Đỏ) is currently streaming on Netflix.