Carol Nguyen is the kind of young filmmaker who turns heads, and wins hearts. She’s only nineteen—rounding off her second year as a film student at Concordia University in Montreal—and already her films have already screened at TIFF Jump Cuts, Toronto After Dark, and the Nashville Film Festival, among others. There’s no great secret to Nguyen’s early success. She simply has a knack for making captivating films that come straight from the heart.
Her most recent effort is the 2016 short Façade, a muted portrait of four housemates who each live in their own isolated and colour-coded bubble. She funded the film through a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $7000, twice her original goal.
In a video posted on the campaign page, Nguyen explains that Façade came about as she was reaching the end of high school, and realizing she had to leave behind the place that had become her home. “My high school is the only home that I know, and it scares me to think that it could be forgotten,” says Nguyen in the video. “Façade is my attempt to define home. This way, I could never forget.”
The definition of home that emerges from Façade is a complicated one. Although they live together under one roof, the four housemates have virtually nothing in common. In fact, they dwell separately in isolated cube-shaped rooms, each colour-coded to match their personality. In one, a stoic bureaucrat stamps files against a deep green background; in the clay-coloured room next door, a snazzily-dressed carpenter takes a sledgehammer to his piggy bank. They are all four mechanical in their strangeness—united only by their insistence upon being different.
And yet, when their alarm clocks ring out in unison, they converge in the dining room, and they eat together, each picking with forks from their own section of a single smoked fish. Why do they do this? Before we get an answer, a candle spills over, the table catches fire, and the housemates watch blankly as their only communal space gets swallowed up in flames. When they each return to their separate rooms, it seems to dawn on all of them simultaneously: they needed that table, and those candles, and that fish. In the absence of their communal space, the loneliness is overwhelming—and it unites them as a home.
Nguyen’s other Eye Myth Film Festival entry, This Home Is Not Empty (2015), also features a home set ablaze—though in this case, the flames and the house are carved out of white foam board, and the mood points toward tragedy, not redemption. Colourful snapshots of Nguyen’s childhood flicker on the screen before giving way to a dark house, chairs toppled, cupboards ransacked, cake half-eaten. “Home” has always been another word for “a place for family,” and if the home of Façade was a handful of oddballs coming together to establish exactly that, This Home Is Not Empty seems to document Nguyen’s place for family both before and after its collapse.
Here, the family has disappeared, and when a paper flame appears on the stovetop and this diorama of a home catches fire, no one is left to mourn the loss. Fire emerges as a theme: while Façade positioned the burning of the table as a symbolic renewal that brought the housemates together as a home, in This Home Is Not Empty fire has become a way of cutting oneself off from a painful past, destroying all evidence of a family driven apart.
For Nguyen, the details of this past are better left unspoken, told through the language of sharp cuts, shifts in focus, ambient sounds. It’s the language of film, and after only a few years as a director, Nguyen is already speaking it in her own unique way.