HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- One recent morning in a French-style cafe, former San Jose resident Thien Do worked his mobile phone and iPad as he prepared for another day of casting actors for a dark comedy he's directing.
Not far away, Dustin Nguyen, the co-star of the late 1980s TV crime drama "21 Jump Street," was getting ready to roll the cameras for his next film, "Once Upon a Time in Vietnam." And actor-writer-director Johnny Tri Nguyen from Orange County was in preproduction for his action film.
Nearly four decades after they fled the Communist takeover of South Vietnam, a small army of Californians -- armed with cameras and scripts -- have invaded the nation. Vietnamese-American filmmakers and actors, hoping to tap into a young population eager to be entertained by the big screen, have become a surprising artistic force in Vietnam's emerging film industry.
"Every time I go to one of these industry gatherings, I see new faces," Do said of the swarms of Viet Kieu, or "overseas Vietnamese," filmmakers scouting locations and writing screenplays here.
Viet Kieu are now involved with at least half of the commercial films made in Vietnam -- a stunning development considering that not long ago those who returned faced deep suspicion from the Communist government as well as opposition from staunch anti-Communists in San Jose and Orange County.
"If someone told me five years ago, 'You will move to Vietnam,' I would have said, 'No way,' " said actor Kathy Uyen, a former San Jose resident who is working on a romantic comedy based on a story she wrote with filmmaker Timothy Linh Bui, a former Sunnyvale resident who directed "Green Dragon," starring the late Patrick Swayze, Forest Whitaker and the late Duong Don. "I'm not the only one who said, 'I could come up with a story and develop it and produce it here.' Other Vietnamese-Americans are thinking the same thing."
This year about 16 local films -- from romantic comedies to action thrillers -- hit the movie theaters. The average cost to make a movie here is $400,000 to $500,000.
"It's a great place to make movies," said Johnny Tri Nguyen, who co-starred with Dustin Nguyen in "The Rebel," the 2007 epic martial arts picture set in 1920s French-occupied Vietnam directed by Johnny Tri Nguyen's brother Charlie Nguyen. "It's cheap. And the rich landscape is cinematically beautiful."
The success of "The Rebel" sparked interest from across the Pacific by dispelling fears the Vietnam government would greatly interfere in any film project involving overseas filmmakers, said Johnny Tri Nguyen, who returned in 2005. In the past two years, the number of returnees has dramatically picked up, said Nguyen, now one of Vietnam's biggest stars.
He and others from California bring filmmaking knowledge to the country, while Vietnam provides them with opportunities they can't find in Hollywood, said Lan Duong, an expert on Vietnamese-American cinema at UC Riverside.
"Hollywood is tough when you are a minority filmmaker making films about minority subjects," she said. The arrival of Viet Kieu filmmakers en masse here underscores how the decades-long bitterness from the war is receding on both sides of the Pacific, she said.
"It used to be people who had any relationship with Vietnam were branded a traitor" by some Vietnamese-Americans, Duong said. "That label doesn't stick anymore."
The Vietnamese government, meanwhile, has embraced economic and cultural reforms. In 2002, it opened up to privately owned film production companies and about two years later, officials let foreign films be shown.
Government officials "are sophisticated," said Brian Hall, CEO of MegaStar Cinemas, the country's largest theater chain. "They know you can't spoon-feed the population with propaganda films. (Vietnamese) want Western films and other Asian films. They also want a portion of their entertainment to be local films they identify with, that are culturally their own stories."
Vietnamese-American filmmakers, though, still must navigate government monitors. All filmmakers must get their movies approved by government censors, who keep an eye out for politically unacceptable subjects to the one-party system or unwanted social commentary. Government officials also object to what they view see as excessive violence and sex.
"It comes with the territory," said writer and director Do, who has been splitting his time between Vietnam and California for 10 years after initially coming here to produce TV commercials. "If you want to work here, you have to play by the rules. But things have opened up quite a bit."
As an overseas Vietnamese, Dustin Nguyen said he has been watched more closely than local filmmakers. "There is always going to be more scrutiny of Viet Kieus," he said. But he added he has found the censors accommodating to his artistic vision. For example, they were initially opposed to a scene in the 2010 movie he produced and starred in, "Fool for Love," in which two men kiss. He convinced them otherwise. "It was at first a flat no. But I explained why it needed to be there. For Vietnam, it was a big step."
A challenge for Vietnamese-American actors is not the government but mastering the local dialect after living abroad. But the growing opportunities in Vietnam's film industry make the challenges worthwhile. Box office revenues nationwide are doubling every year and should hit $50 million in 2012, Hall said.
Filmmaker Minh Nguyen-Vo said returning to Vietnam brought him full circle in his life. As a boy living in the coastal city of Vung Tau, the cinema was an escape as war raged around him.
"I was about 8 years old," he recalled. "My parents used to run a small movie theater during the war. I was really scared. So I usually ran into the theater and sometimes stayed there until late at night. It became an escape window to the outside world."
His first film, "Buffalo Boy," or "Mua Len Trau," was the official entry from Vietnam for Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2005 Academy Awards. He is in preproduction on his third movie in Vietnam.
Working as a filmmaker here "was the last thing I would have imagined," said Nguyen-Vo, who left Vietnam at age 18 in 1974. "This is an emotional journey."
Contact John Boudreau at 408-278-3496. Follow him at Twitter.com/svwriter.