• Festivals

Sundance 2023: Sing J. Lee and the Case of “The Accidental Getaway Driver”

Little did attendees of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival realize that events that were happening at the exact same time down in Orange County, California, would be recreated later for the audiences of the 2023 edition.

In January of 2016, Long Hoang Ma, a 74-year-old Vietnamese cab driver, reluctantly picked up a late-night call for passengers. He quickly found that his riders were escaped convicts from the Orange County jail, and the incident would set in motion a kidnapping of Long Ma that lasted for nearly a week and spanned over 400 miles.

Long Ma’s misadventure is now competing for recognition in the U.S Dramatic Competition section of Sundance in the form of the drama The Accidental Getaway Driver, directed and co-written by acclaimed commercial and music video director Sing J. Lee. Lee sat down with the HFPA to talk about his own drive to tell this story and the challenges of casting the lead protagonist.

Talk a little about your Sundance experience. What does it mean to bring a film to showcase here?

Sundance has such a great history and legacy and the foundation of what it is built on. This is my first time coming to Park City and Sundance and experiencing that as well, so I think that also gives it another layer of context to not just the great creation of films that they really invite and host but also the setting, it’s really a unique place to be. So, yeah, for me it’s just been a bit of a blur, but I think as the day progress, I think I will be able to process it a little more.

The film is based on a true story about a community that I believe many people don’t even know exists. How did you discover them and decide to tell this story?

Yes, so it’s interesting. A year prior to coming across this project, I was spending some time in Little Saigon researching for another personal project. As you say, it’s an enclave within Southern California that has its own tempo and richness, and texture of life that if you don’t go down, it’s easily missed. I was down there and I noticed a cafe called Chez Rose on Balsa Avenue and outside there were rows of tables and all these elderly Vietnamese men playing Chinese chess and it was a real tableau of daily life. I started to visit this cafe daily for the following weeks, and I would just order tea and just sit and watch the men play chess.  Eventually, one of the men invited me over to their table and he introduced himself and he started sharing stories about his past and life in Little Saigon and also the other people who were also playing chess around him. He mentioned something in passing that I don’t think he felt was as profound as how it resonated with me at the time. Still, he mentioned that a lot of the men that come down here and play chess – and you can imagine, it’s loud, they are joking and laughing and conversing with each other in such a familiar way – but he said, “A lot of us here, I don’t think we would call each other friends.  We come down here because we are lonely and we are isolated from our families, so the world, time is passing on around us, but we know that we will come down here daily and we find company, we are always here.” It’s like a ritual for them, and he said, “Really, I think the most we can call each other is companions.”


What did that comment mean to you?

That really stuck with me, the isolation and the loneliness, but also the coming together at these tables. Sadly, (the man) passed before we were able to come back down and start pre-production. But it always stayed in my mind, and I wanted to honor him and those men and build that into the texture of the film.  But it extends itself too and I think as you noticed, I never wanted to make it an obvious announcement of where this film takes place in the beginning and where these characters come from because I think there’s this feeling of if we did that, it would feel like we were on the outside looking in and we were interrupting the life that was there. I really wanted the film to start at the epicenter of this place and the tempo too, to highlight the beauty of ordinary life that exists within this place – and so we just start from the center of Little Saigon with our central character and allow the richness of this world to just present itself to us, the viewer. There are so many places like that in every city that can often get overlooked and I think that’s an extension of the characters, these sorts of characters get overlooked often in the moment of our daily life.

The impact of this powerful story rests so heavily on the shoulders of a 74-year-old man. How did you find the actor to play Long?

Yeah, it’s an unconventional role that we don’t often see so much, especially in a story like this. The challenge of this, specifically for a Vietnamese-American story, is that the network of actors and artists that you can turn to is not as extensive as it might be for another story. The search immediately expanded just beyond America or California itself. The casting director, Christine Bustamente, who did an incredible job during this search, worked closely with Jess, our co-producer, as well and we reached out to an international network of the Vietnamese diaspora.  And came across a short that Hiep (Tran Nghia, the actor who plays the role) had recently done called Malabar and we watched that short film and he was so engaging in it.  So naturally, it was so real that it sparked this immediate conversation and I spoke to him a few times and he auditioned for the role. Very early on it became clear that this was somebody who, like you said, could carry the burden of such a story.  But I wanted to mention too that, as I have mentioned before, this is a personal story, this whole film and these characters and – I keep using the word vessel, but it really is, because I feel like it’s filled with a reservoir of my own personal history of growing up and who I have observed and how I felt going in, but that extended to the work I did with all of the actors as well. Like I was fortunate to work with them for a whole year before pre-production and within the first months of engaging with the actors, Hiep, Dustin (Nguyen), Dali (Benssalah), and Phi (Vu).

What was your process with them?

I would spend the first few months talking and sharing and conversing with them about our own personal history, our own personal stories – not even about the script, because I wanted them to understand and have a North Star and anchor of what to draw from, especially for people like Hiep and Dustin, they have a lot of personal stories that, whilst they might not be in a direct parallel to what these characters might embody, still, with the emotions and the feelings and what they’ve observed themselves, they can draw from it and they see a familiarity with it.  So the North Star for this film or where these characters draw from is from deeply personal places.

A few years back, audiences weren’t as receptive to Asian stories. Now with Parasite, Squid Game and Drive My Car, we are seeing so many powerful stories told from the Asian perspective.

Yeah, I mean there’s a wealth of cinema of what we can perceive in our vicinity, and I think we get so caught up in the immediacy of our own lives that becomes the center of our universe in some way.  We forget that the gift of cinema is to just be a window into another time, another place, that can be more honest. I think it’s interesting, I guess as a collective viewer of cinema, we are looking for more than something that we see that is so tangible to us in our daily life, I think.  I think to have the platform to tell stories that aren’t just on the veneer of what might be an immigrant story, like the surface idea of that or just the presence of characters that aren’t white-centric.  But to have a story that takes place but it just so happens to have characters that aren’t white-centric, that’s where the wealth of engaging cinema comes from now, I think.