As her film gripped audiences in the international festival circuit, Brigid Mai Khanh Leahy stood at the edge of California.
Posing for pictures in her hometown of Dana Point earlier this month, the 31-year-old half Irish and Vietnamese filmmaker mulled over the ways her latest project, Good Chips – whose story of a Vietnamese family getting by in 1989 Dublin won best short film at Orange County’s Viet Film Fest, and showed to a rapturous audience at Newport’s – mirrored her own life’s dualities.
Leahy lives in Dublin but comes from South Orange County, trading a fast pace and sunshine for a place where time seems to move slower and neighbors seem closer together – leaving freeways and suburban isolation for walkability, or more reliable public transport.
“I have true, meaningful relationships with my neighbors and life doesn’t seem to revolve around consumerism as much,” she said. “Ireland is a small country with close-knit communities and, like any country, it does have its own problems, but I have settled well here.”
With just hours before a flight back east during an interview, Leahy stood at the edge of many things.
Where to go from here. What stories to tell next.
“Being a creative person of color, there’s the weight — a responsibility — of being a voice for your community. It’s always there, because we do need more stories about that. And I do feel that responsibility.”
But should it define your creative course?
A thick fog rolled over Dana Point Harbor as Leahy watched the typically sun-drenched waves knock on the bouldery jetty and, up north, eat away at OC’s vanishing sandy beaches.
She’s very much still a daughter of OC, a place from which things grew in fields until the 20th century – where celery, strawberries and citrus turned to high rise apartments and office parks, where small propeller planes at John Wayne Airport gave way to commercial airliners, where the local fairgrounds walks the line between a community gathering space and rollercoasters.
Like Leahy, one of the country’s densest metropolitan regions – also home to one of the largest Vietnamese populations outside of Vietnam – is still learning what it wants to embody.
A Continental Bridge
At the center of Good Chips is in some ways the same story – a Vietnamese family’s fight to keep their Chinese food takeaway truck afloat in a period of acclimation, as well as a burgeoning affection between the family’s oldest daughter, Tam, and a local Irish boy, Callum. Tam, just barely a teenager, sits at the window and takes orders.
The film, like Leahy, accepts the impermanence of one’s geography.
“It was surreal,” said Leahy of showcasing her film. “I moved to Ireland nine years ago, and now I’m coming back to where I grew up for a piece of work that I had made. It was a homecoming.”
The picture declares itself succinctly, lasting no longer than 15 minutes. It’s atmospheric; the shots jump between spacey and intimate, yet always land cinematic.
Good Chips is a sense of place, reshaping its setting around the ups and downs of ‘making it.’ Late working hours isolate scenes in dark streets. In the characters’ rare bouts of free time, a mother’s request — that the eldest help the youngest with her homework — happens in a warm kitchen, and over a plate of sliced oranges and kiwi. Later, news of damning changes to Ireland’s food safety laws come with a tray of hastily-cut and oxidizing apples.
It’s a film that doesn’t hit you over the head with its themes — nor does it forget to utilize its pacing in tandem with its scenery, taking the working class story outside the takeaway truck for smoke breaks, or leaving the hardest questions about the family’s future for bedtime.
But the film’s short time span wastes none in getting its diasporic ideas across. Difficult conversations are avoided, cutting off abruptly to the next scene. There is no unnecessary lingering. Just hard truths from one person to another. The magic of the film lies in the fact that it’s because of — not despite — this conscious restraint that the characters feel real within half of half an hour.
Similarities and Differences
Leahy wrote the script with Filipino-Irish screenwriter and filmmaker Nell Hensey, who directed the film. The two met in an artist collective for people of color called Weft Studio, run by the Dublin Fringe Festival. Good Chips found its financing after Leahy won a $30,000 filmmaking prize from Virgin Media, which aired the film in Ireland. As part of the award, Leahy received mentoring by Oscar-nominated director Lenny Abrahamson, who directed and executive produced the hit Hulu series, Normal People.
“Nell came across some archival footage of Vietnamese people arriving in Ireland and she was captivated by one of this Vietnamese girl who had a really thick Dublin accent, talking about her Irish boyfriends,” Leahy said. “And so she really wanted to create a story around that.”
Leahy was an actor first, collecting credits on films and television shows for Disney, Hallmark, and HBO. Not to mention video games — Leahy voiced a character for 2022’s Xenoblade Chronicles 3.
For Good Chips, Leahy said Hensey approached her with a role behind the camera. “She asked me if I wanted to write this with her. And so that’s where the journey began.”
Leahy’s father’s side of the family is from Ireland. “They came to the United States I think around 1860, and they would have originally been from a county in Ireland called Cork.”
That meant her father’s family left in the wake of a potato famine, and settled in Ohio. “I’m part of a long, long Irish American lineage, and that side of the family always married Irish Catholic.” Then her father met her mother in California and broke the chain. “Vietnamese Catholics.”
The subject owes itself to Leahy’s pursuit of a Master’s Degree in Public History and Cultural Heritage at Trinity College, where she studied the arrival of the Vietnamese Boat People in Ireland in the late 1970s.
“Ireland took in 212 refugees in 1979, which is like an itty bitty group, compared to what other countries took in. And so they have their own unique struggles,” Leahy said. “And I was really fascinated by that. And fascinated by how they would have navigated being in a new country versus how my mom and how the Vietnamese navigated coming to the United States. And there are so many similarities and differences as well.”
Where Leahy felt “spoiled” by the ubiquity of Vietnamese culture growing up in Orange County, Ireland was “eye-opening” in that “I didn’t have access to all that stuff anymore. And it made me really miss it.”
“I do feel that responsibility,” said Leahy of her community’s role in her art.
It’s a push-and-pull that other artists in Orange County can relate to – not only between your artistic subjects, but in your art against the rest of your life.
“It reminds me of Sylvia Plath’s quote about the Fig Tree. As you get older, less options are given to you. I guess it’s kind of true in a way,” said Sandra De Anda, a poet and community organizer in Santa Ana who you might find – in between readings and writer workshops – rallying neighborhoods, or performing stand up comedy to raise money for undocumented residents fighting deportation.
“I was talking to this retired professor from UCI who edits some of my stuff — he’ll say, ‘You have all these short stories, you already have enough to write a whole book. I’m like, ‘Yes, but I’m also very dedicated to helping my community fight removal cases, and that work is so intense that I’m left with a little bit of energy to pursue my writing.’”
As writers, De Anda said, “we ask ourselves what we want to represent and why certain stories matter … Sometimes the personal narrative doesn’t do the job of expressing a sentiment or shard of one’s experience or has to be explored through different genres. Sometimes, I think about going to Sci-fi writing and it wouldn’t necessarily be a story about, say, Santa Ana … but something where I carry something from Santa Ana.”
Before Good Chips — before she moved to Ireland — Leahy graduated from Aliso Niguel High School and studied history at UCLA.
At school, about ten years ago now, Leahy won the Mary Ritter Beard Writing Award for an essay she wrote on women in Ancient Egypt, where in the recorded language, “People can’t find any mention of the concept of virginity.”
“A lot of people think of antiquity as backwards. And that, you know, we as a society have moved forward. But history has shown us that we’ve moved back in terms of rights. So there’s this tug of progress throughout history. You’re walking back or moving forward. And I’ve always been really fascinated by that.”
What’s next for Leahy: She said her next project is a play – “a dystopian dark comedy about women’s bodies being used as political tools and aims to question the current socio-economic status quo.”
She calls it a “totally different direction” and a “social commentary,” the result of an idea that occurred to her while watching Jurassic Park during the 2016 election. For this project, she said she’ll be working under the mentorship of playwright Carys D. Coburn.
“Moving forward, in terms of my artistic voice, I’m very interested in female-centered, underrepresented stories,” Leahy said. “I’d love to explore more stories along those lines.”
As far as Good Chips, Leahy said she got her intended message across.
The film has played for festivals in Paris, Ireland, the United Kingdom and the U.S.
At OC’s Viet Film Festival earlier this month, Good Chips won the top honors for short films — a Grand Jury Trống Đồng Award. The actor who plays Tam, Elly Murray, also became the first child actor to win the festival’s Best Actress Award. The film also played at the Newport Beach Film Festival, which frequently shows and recognizes Irish filmmaking.
Thus, Leahy said, different parts of the film landed for the festivals’ Vietnamese and Irish audiences.
The reception, she noted, was the same.