FILM REVIEW: “Saigon Metalhood” – A Documentary About Vietnam’s Underground Metal Scene

A couple of years back, while scrolling through YouTube on the hunt for new music documentaries, I stumbled upon a trailer called Saigon Metalhood. This film promised to give the viewer a glimpse into the underground metal scene in Saigon. I made a mental note of the release and then went about my business (Saigon Metalhood wasn’t slated for release until 2020). I’d almost forgotten about the documentary until earlier this month while backpacking in Vietnam. After a quick online search for metal bands in Asia, I rediscovered the Saigon Metalhood trailer. The stars aligned and it just so happened that the premiere of this film would take place on January 8th in Saigon, my last day in Vietnam. I couldn’t think of a better way to end my stay in that beautiful country than attending the premiere event.

The premier was held at The Hive Villa, a co-working space for artists, performers, and business leaders in Saigon. As I walked up to the building I could hear extreme metal blasting from inside and I knew I was at the right place. I was greeted by a friendly staff as well as Will Snyder, one of the producers and directors of the film. This was an outdoor event at the pool deck of Hive. A projector was set up facing a blank wall, chairs lined the pool, a small bar was open to purchase beverages, and clouds rolled past the almost full-moon situated high in the sky. The setting for the screening was superb. A nice crowd of metalheads gathered around the pool before the film got underway. At 8:30, Will kicked the night off with a short introduction and explained what to expect from the film. The pool lights dimmed and all eyes were fixed to the wall, the Saigon Metalhood premier was underway.

The film is broken up into three parts, each section representing an individual, or group, who has played an integral role in the metal scene in Saigon. Kicking things off was Trung Thành from Sagometal, one of the oldest metal bands in Vietnam. Saigon Metalhood dives directly into the history of metal in southern Vietnam. Thrung explains how American soldiers influenced the Vietnamese metal communities before and during the war, which ended in 1975. Thrung also discusses the obstacles and hardships of being able to perform in a communist country where playing rock music had been deemed illegal after the war. The film then transitions to another Saigon metal pioneer, Trung “Loki.”

Chapter Two opens with a lighthearted interview with Loki cracking jokes and telling stories as he chain-smokes cigarettes. However, as the chapter unfolds, and subsequent interviews are conducted, the mood takes a drastic turn. There are multiple long, drawn-out interview scenes where it becomes clear that Loki struggles with addiction. Loki elaborates on how abandonment, struggle, and loss have impacted himself, his bands, and the metal community over the years. The film puts an emphasis on Loki’s personal thoughts of the metal community and the hardships involved in playing metal music. Saigon Metalhood follows a few of Loki’s numerous projects, specifically his yearly jaunt to Pleiku for the annual Pleiku Metalhood concert. Loki’s story somewhat fizzles out, but you do get a quick update at the end of the film.

As the page turns to the final chapter, Saigon Metalhood jumps into the lives of those at Legacy, a broadcasting and media production company in Saigon. Legacy helped local artists with production and assisted in hosting some of Saigon’s first international metal performances, which included Defeated Sanity and Whitechapel. Vu Nguyen was one of the masterminds behind the scenes at Legacy, and was also the guitarist for Hysterical Buffalo. Saigon Metalhood follows Vu’s heartfelt passion to push the Saigon metal scene to new heights. From the highest highs to the lowest lows, Vu and his colleagues demonstrated that what the metal community in Saigon lacks in numbers, they make up for in heart.

“Saigon Metalhood” director Will Snyder answering questions at the film premiere Q&A. Photo by Corey Smith.

At the conclusion of the film I was left with a lot of questions. There was a huge gap with little to no information about what has happened to the Saigon scene in the past year to year and a half. What they do say is that Loki disappeared before a gig over a year ago, Legacy folded as a company in late 2017, and Vu Nguyen tragically passed away at the end of 2019 (a truly heartbreaking moment in the film). A lot can change in a year with bands, communities, and cities. For me the documentary failed to be time sensitive and left a lot of unanswered questions for those in attendance. The night ended with a short Q&A with Will Snyder who answered a few of those questions from the crowd, but I still wanted more. Overall, the event was a success with a nice turnout, but the film itself could have delivered more up to date information on the current metal scene in Saigon.

– Corey Smith

Saigon Metalhood soundtrack is available via Bandcamp. The soundtrack is the first-ever compilation of the most talented bands to come out of the Southeast Asian country’s biggest city.

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