'Ru': Kim Thúy's famed refugee story is a triumph on screen with cinematic precision

"Everyone on that film felt so honoured to be working on it," Karine Vanasse said

In her novel "Ru," Kim Thúy pulled from aspects of her own life to tell the story of a woman who was forced to leave her home in Saigon during the Vietnam War, ending up at a refugee camp in Malaysia and eventually arriving in Quebec.

Now with her story adapted into a film, Thúy had great trust in director Charles-Olivier Michaud and the team behind the film Ru (now in theatres).

"I knew that they know better," Thúy told Yahoo Canada. "I don't know how to make a movie. So I just never impose on someone who is a specialist, an expert, an artists in this craft. No, I wouldn't want to intervene at all."

For Michaud, a particularly "striking" moment for him in understanding the responsibility of taking on Thúy's story, but the freedom to do so as well, came with one specific thing the author said to him.

"Kim very humbly said, 'I don't need a movie. I don't need you to make a movie. I wrote a book. I'm cool. That's it.'" Michaud said. "She was like, 'You have to make it something really personal to you, ... to everyone involved. Bring a lot of you in the movie.'"

But there are personal touches to be found in Ru, including the casting. Actor Karine Vanasse (who recently hosted The Traitors Canada) plays the role of Lisette, who's among sponsors for the family of a young girl name Tihn, played by Chloé Djandji.

Vanasse and Thúy were actually friends before this movie and she gave Thúy a notebook to encourage her to write her story.

"Everyone on that film felt so honoured to be working on it," Vanasse said. "There's something in the small details."

"When you read [the book] it feels light, although it's so rich. I think the film is also that. There's so much happening, but when you receive it there's something soft."

Chloé Djandji in Ru
Chloé Djandji in "Ru" (TIFF)

'She was an old soul'

An absolute highlight of Ru is Djandji's striking portrayal of Tihn. Even when saying very little, Djandji is able to say so much with just a look in her eyes that is absolutely captivating to watch.

As Michaud stressed, after seeing hundreds are girls who just weren't right for the character, Djandji stood out.

"When Chloé came, she was an old soul and she was just staring through my eyes like crazy, and she was very mature," Michaud said. "She's very different in real life than she is in the film. She's very bubbly, TikTok, talks all the time."

"Very early on she said, 'There's two people that I listen to in life, ... it's my mom and you.' And she listened to me and I was directing her kind of live in the scenes. Kind of telling her, 'Look left. Look right. Look down.' ... She was listening and incorporating."

Thúy also highlighted that Djandji had just arrived from Vietnam when she was working on Ru, which informed her performance as well.

"The Vietnamese, we don't verbalize so much our emotions," Thúy said. "Since she was still very Vietnamese, ... she knew how to express things without speaking. It was still in her. ... It was the perfect moment."

Vanasse stressed, having been a child actor herself, it's "difficult" as a kid to be "present" on a set for the significant length of time required

"After three days she came to us, Chloé, and she said, 'It's nothing like Emily in Paris,'" Michaud shared. "Especially a film in the winter, in Quebec, ... the first week was all outside."

Actor Chloé Djandji, author Kim Thúy and director Charles-Olivier Michaud pose for a portrait at a media availability for the film “Ru,
Actor Chloé Djandji, author Kim Thúy and director Charles-Olivier Michaud pose for a portrait at a media availability for the film “Ru," during the Toronto International Film Festival, in Toronto on Wednesday, September 13, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

'Precise' filmmaking with an impressive result

Michaud had a very interesting and particularly cinematic approach to Ru, crafted like a series of tableaus, with specifically crafted wider shots.

"Actors with no experience, one of the things that they fear a lot is that we'll do a wide shot, a medium, a close up, they'll have to repeat the performance exactly," Michaud explained. "Since we did not have any of that, they could just be themselves and make the performance more precise every take, because that's the only thing that would be in the scene."

Both Vanasse and Michaud also highlighted that those elements of the filmmaking, and the impact on the final result, are closely connected to Thúy's writing.

As Michaud explained, there was a literature professor in Quebec who described Thúy's writing as "writing of subtraction."

"The less words, the more precise," Michaud recalled. "That's when I realized, without knowing, that's what I was doing as well in the directing, because we did not have to have many shots ... to do a lot."

"There's no backup plan. There's nothing to fall on in case it doesn't work. ... We don't have what we need to fix it later."

Vanasse also stressed working that way was particularly "bold" for the filmmaker.

"[You had to be] very certain of your frame, very certain of [Michaud's] directions with us," she said. "When I saw the film, it's so cinematic because it's precise."

"But although it's precise, it's not rigid. It breaths so much within that precision. ... It's so bold."