Vietnam: Fast Forward is a brief survey of contemporary Vietnamese industry mixed with travel journalism. Director Eladio Arvelo takes great care to shoot upbeat footage of the country, and the infectious positivity of the visuals are only outmatched by Luke Schiefelbein’s script. It’s not a particularly deep or educational film, swinging between broad cultural statements about the Vietnamese people — who are, in this telling, specifically more industrious due to the country’s political situation in the 1970s — and human interest stories about the way many modern citizens make their way in the country’s contemporary economy. That said, it’s a pleasant enough watch even if it feels financed as a project to draw more tourists or financial interests to Vietnam.
The film is roughly divided into segments, although they are not specifically demarcated, giving it a sort of one-thing-after-the-other feel. It starts in rural Vietnam, where host Shareef Haq learns about coffee and tea manufacturing. An in-depth discussion of how the two substances are grown is pretty interesting, as Vietnam is apparently the second-largest coffee exporter in the world.
Things don’t get really interesting, though, until Haq visits Ho Chi Mihn City and starts trying street food. For a few brief minutes, Vietnam: Fast Forward plays like a Food Network docu-show, with Haq trying various cuisines not normally found in western appetites. Haq doesn’t bother pretending to be excited to try a lot of the food but does so out of obligation and an open attitude, which makes the segment feel authentic.
Schiefelbein’s script makes a lot of room for voice-over narration about the power of entrepreneurs and celebrating people who overcame great hardship to find success. They talk to musicians, artists, chefs, farmers, tech figures and even freelance tour guides. The broad theme of the film is that, sure, Vietnam went through a lot of tumult, but it’s now a free society where those looking to forge their own path in a traditionally western way are the ones living their best lives. Despite big-picture statements made about the Vietnamese people’s supposedly inherent qualities, not much is done to explore customs culture on any substantial level. I wish there had been more time for that because it would have better grounded the other interesting topics that are pursued. Little bits are sprinkled into each person they interview, but I was still left wanting a little more.
Then again, Fast Forward isn’t a documentary about the past. It’s right there in the title: This is a project about the future, at least in the way tech-related entrepreneurs would define it. The film is an upbeat, positive survey, with a host who always seems game to try things and ask questions. Although it never becomes anything more than the equivalent of a basic-cable travelogue episode, sometimes, with enough enthusiasm and curiosity on the part of the filmmakers, that’s enough.