Chilling, captivating and utterly compelling — these are the only words to describe SBS’s new four-part drama Hungry Ghosts.
The series follows four families that find themselves haunted by ghosts from the past.
When a tomb in Vietnam is accidentally opened on the eve of the Hungry Ghost Festival, a vengeful spirit is unleashed, bringing the dead with him. As these spirits wreak havoc across the Vietnamese-Australian community in Melbourne, reclaiming lost loves and exacting revenge, young woman May Le (Catherine Văn-Davies) must rediscover her true heritage and accept her destiny to help bring balance to a community still traumatised by war.
Hungry Ghosts reflects the extraordinary lives and spiritual stories of the Vietnamese community and explores the inherent trauma passed down from one generation to the next, and how notions of displacement impact human identity — long after the events themselves.
At the helm of the series is actor Catherine Văn-Davies, a Vietnamese Australian who has a lot more in common with May Le than most actors cast in a role.
“My mum fled the war by boat and there are cast members themselves who fled by boat, so it was an honour and extremely personal content,” she said in an interview with The Latch.
Văn-Davies didn’t hear her mother’s story until she was in her thirties, visiting Vietnam just over four years ago. Her mother, who had fled war-torn Vietnam when she was 16, had not wanted to burden her children with the story.
“You want to understand their story but it’s a very difficult conversation to have because essentially you’re asking them to uncover their trauma which they so obviously tried to keep at bay,” she said of their conversation.
“It was really intense but you could feel the catharsis from her and something clicked for her at that moment, that telling the story wouldn’t weigh us down; it was actually letting something lift.”
Hungry Ghosts not only brings the festival to life, but it also has shone a light on the incredibly diverse Vietnamese Australian talent we have in this country. In fact, the series casts more than 30 Asian-Australian actors and 325 Asian-Australian extras.
For Văn-Davies, representation in the Australian media matters, and to her, the diversity problem is two-pronged.
“What it sends out to the everyday person that’s watching television is constant signals and affirmation of where you are in the world. Where your place is.
“There are two problems at hand: There’s the under-representation of groups, and there’s the over-representation of other groups,” she said before adding, “What we need is to show the other stories out there so that one person doesn’t become the sole representative for an entire, diverse, complex group of people.”
Here, Văn-Davies talks to The Latch about her experience growing up in Australia, the importance of folklore in storytelling, and what she sees for the future of Vietnamese-Australian narratives.
Anita Anabel: Hi Catherine, thank you so much for chatting with me today. What was so appealing about playing the role of May Le in Hungry Ghosts?
Catherine Van Davies: There were so many reasons I wanted to play this role. The first and obvious one is that it is so rare to have a Vietnamese female lead protagonist — it just doesn’t exist in Australian television or film.
To me, it was so exciting to just be so specific and then, of course, the story. It’s so close to home for myself and for many of the cast.
My mum fled the war by boat and there are cast members themselves who fled by boat, so it was an honour and extremely personal content.
AA: The plot really delves into intergenerational trauma. How do you relate on that level?
CVD: Vietnam has been through many wars and has a very rich cultural history.
I’ve spent a lot of my life considering intergenerational trauma and there’s this story that is kind of unformed and left to us that is inherited by us by our parents, by our grandparents and our ancestors beyond that.
AA: And to also be telling the story of the Hungry Ghost festival must add to that?
CVD: The Vietnam War is very much part of Australian history and so I was excited that they were approaching it from a cultural folklore perspective as well as a supernatural perspective because I think that when you go deep into those really big ideas of trauma and grief and loss, it goes beyond what we can capture in a standard conversation.
To have something that shows that it is far more encompassing and the ideas are much larger than we can capture with naturalism.
We wanted the story to still hold up, even if the ghosts weren’t physicalised there was still that emotional trauma and grief and journey that these characters go on. Of course, the Vietnamese culture tells us those ghosts are part of it. So it’s both literal and allegorical.
AA: You mentioned the cultural folklore. Why is it so important to tell the story this way to an Australian audience?
CVD: I think what is beautiful about Hungry Ghosts is that it paints a portrait of a community. There’s my character May Le and she leads the audience through four episodes, but then there are other major characters all dealing with one particular event and I think so often when we talk about Vietnam — any Vietnamese Australian experience — we look at soldiers of war. We don’t often look at the Vietnamese people who were affected by it.
We’ve gone from being in the backdrop into the forefront which is really exciting. You get to see it from different perspectives that there’s not one homogenised view of that experience.
I also think that that moment in history itself is very important in the Australian story. Australia, like many other countries, has a complex history that we are very much in the process of reckoning with.
Looking at cultural stories that deal with complex histories is part of us reconciling what our history is here on this land.
AA: This has really opened the door for other stories to be told.
CVD: Absolutely. I would love if every story to come after this doesn’t just focus on the war as our one defining feature. I mean, that would be the kind of brilliant next step.
I do think it’s it’s so important as well to recognise that that grief is a universal story as well.
AA: I read in an interview that you didn’t learn about your mum fleeing Vietnam on a boat until you were in your 30s. What was it like learning about that?
CVD: My brother and I went to Vietnam almost five years ago and it’s a tricky thing when your parent has gone through such a huge experience and they have PTSD. Those are the things you become more and more aware of as you become an adult.
You want to understand their story but it’s a very difficult conversation to have because essentially you’re asking them to uncover their trauma which they so obviously tried to keep at bay.
We went to Vietnam and my family are in Saigon over there. My mum is originally from Huế and I didn’t know that she had never been back there. That’s actually where she lived until she was 16. It was the fall of Huế that pushed them down to Saigon and then eventually fleeing the country.
My brother and I were walking through this with her and the context of it encouraged her to share his story. What we got was this amazing portrait of our young mother as a Vietnamese woman in her home country and it’s a side of her that we just never would have been able to see otherwise.
It was really intense but you could feel the catharsis from her and something clicked for her at that moment, that telling the story wouldn’t weigh us down, it was actually letting something lift.
AA: What was it like growing up in Australia with a Vietnamese heritage?
CVD: Yeah, it was hard. I think that we never want to minimise that because the reality is, it was hard. I think it’s important for other people to be validated and acknowledged.
I grew up in Brisbane, during, the late 80s and early 90s and it was very conservative and white. The tricky thing is you’re taught that you’re different because there is an idea in Australia of what is normal or neutral.
It’s a really strange experience because you see yourself as the same from our early years growing up, and then all of a sudden, things start to really inform that and then especially being in the industry they spell it out quite clearly.
But, I really think there’s an incredible community that forms when people have felt “othered” and in kind of looking at the positives of that, you become incredibly aware of stories outside yourself.
A brilliant filmmaker that I have worked with spoke about this idea that women are more empathetic as being this innate trait. But what makes more sense is that women have always seen the world through the eyes of men and so we adapt very quickly this process of translation.
I think that if you add then a cultural variation to that, to what the norm is, or what the dominant cultural experiences as a Vietnamese woman, I’m constantly translating through the eyes, the gaze of a white male.
What that has given me, though, is incredible empathy and the ability to connect with people outside their own experience.
AA: Diversity on television in Australia is a conversation being had right now. As a Vietnamese Australian, why do you think representation in Australia matters?
I think it matters because it affects people who are not inside the media. It is frustrating working in a system that treats you as other or the exception, or that you have to work twice as hard.
What it sends out to the everyday person that’s watching television is constant signals and affirmation of where you are in the world… where your place is.
There are two problems at hand. There’s the under-representation of groups, and there’s the over-representation of other groups. People can get all defensive and say “oh, they’re not all white”.
There’s nothing wrong with being white, but there’s a lot of representation out there and what we need is to show the other stories so that one person doesn’t become the sole representative for an entire, diverse complex group of people.
I think we need to recognise how powerful we are and part of the reason why I want to be an actor is we’re incredibly powerful. We have a responsibility to not take advantage of that or to not treat that responsibility lightly.
Hungry Ghosts, a four-night special event airs on SBS from Monday August 24 – Thursday August 27, 2020.