Downsizing, out December 22, can easily be divided into two distinct halves: Before and after Ngoc Lan Tram, the one-legged Vietnamese refugee played by Hong Chau, makes her first appearance and steals every single subsequent scene. It comes as no surprise that Chau has been nominated for a SAG Award and a Golden Globe for her work as Ngoc Lan.
In Downsizing, Ngoc Lan and Matt Damon’s character, Paul Safranek, both live in Leisureland Estates, a luxurious community for people who have undergone the process of “downsizing” and stand at only a few centimeters high. Paul was lured to Leisureland by the prospect of instant wealth and his very own mansion. Ngoc Lan, on the other hand, came to Leisureland involuntarily. After protesting the government in her native Vietnam, Ngoc Lan was sent to a prison and downsized against her will. She and other downsized prisoners tried to reach United States by stowing away in a TV box. Ngoc Lan was the only survivor of the harrowing journey. She was taken to Leisureland for medical care, and part of her leg was amputated.
So, when audiences — and Paul — first meet Ngoc Lan, she’s not an impassioned revolutionary, but a one-legged maid cleaning houses of the uber-wealthy Leisureland residents. She speaks in a heavy Vietnamese accent, and gives orders with assertiveness. You get the sense, watching Ngoc Lan run her housecleaning business and make the rounds handing out food to her neediest neighbors, that she’s a woman without time to waste.
Some reviewers of Downsizing didn’t know quite how to handle Ngoc Lan. They heard Ngoc Lan’s thick accent. They saw her uniform. They put two and two together, and concluded the performance was a stereotype. The Variety review reads, “She starts off as a borderline stereotype — a bitter refugee spitting venom in broken English.” A review in The Guardian was more to the point, and called Ngoc Lan "a strident ethnic stereotype."
“I think people had a knee-jerk reaction to the accent because people sort of thought, well, it was a regressive character. I thought no, actually not. We’ve never seen this character explored, ever. Let’s not skip over her because that type of character hasn’t been given their due in previous movies,” Hong Chau told Refinery29.
Chau doesn’t necessarily blame people for having an initially hesitant reaction when they first encounter Ngoc Lan. It’s rare, after all, that movies feature a character like Ngoc Lan in the center of the film. My colleague Sesali Bowen just wrote an entire article pointing out how few domestic workers are principal characters in film and TV.
Also, Chau points out, many other characters in Downsizing speak accented English, like the Serbian party boy Dusan (Christoph Waltz) and the Norwegian scientist (Rolf Lassgård) who invented downsizing. Just because a character has an accent doesn't make her an automatic stereotype. In every place in which Ngoc Lan’s portrayal could have been modeled off portrayals of immigrant domestic workers we’ve seen before, she defies classification. No part of the exuberant, assertive, earnest, genuine Ngoc Lan is based on a preconceived mold.
“I’ve heard some people describe her as saintly,” Chau said of her character, who divides her day up into how she can best serve her fellow immigrants to Leisureland. “I think all of her actions come out of her life experience because she has had such a difficult life prior to arriving to Leisureland. When she meets people who are in need of help or in need of comfort, she recognizes herself in these people. That’s really what motivates her and drives her to do all of the good work that she does.”
There’s some cosmic symmetry in Chau, of all people, playing Ngoc Lan. Chau’s parents are Vietnamese immigrants whose coming to America story didn’t involve being downsized and sneaking away in a television box, but was just as dramatic.
“You know how most parents only have three stories over and over again? For my parents one of them was the story of leaving Vietnam,” Chau said. “I heard it so many times growing up.”
Chau’s parents left Vietnam in ‘79, after the war ended. Chau’s mother was six months pregnant with her when she, her husband, and her five-year-old son fled for the boat that would take them to a refugee camp in Thailand. In the process of fleeing, her husband was shot by a guard.
“My poor mom is pregnant. Her husband is lying there bleeding on a boat for three days. My older brother is five. Finally they arrive at this refugee camp in Thailand, and that’s where I was born. My parents’ story is so crazy. And also, Ngoc Lan’s is kinda crazy in the way that she arrived to Leisureland. So there’s a lot of similarities there,” Chau said.
But for all the similarities that may exist between their story and Ngoc Lan’s, Chau’s parents still haven’t had a chance to see their daughter’s performance in Downsizing.
“I tried to invite them up to either New York or L.A. for our little premieres, and my parents — they have a bodega, and they even have a bodega cat — I asked my mom, and she said no, we’re working. They’re excited for me, but at the same time they don’t really know how the Hollywood sausage gets made,” Chau said, laughing.