As it turns out, aside from "fan" and "antifan," there's "fanti." A term believed to have been popularized by K-pop fandom, it refers to something that is genuine, even if expressed in trollish ways. Think of a Swiftie making a collage of all the times the singer has stumbled on stage and putting a beautiful filter over everything. Think of a Jason Statham fan who lays motivational music over their supercut every time he gets punched in the face.
Again, for emphasis, the basis for the action is love, and its tone is "cute."
It's easy to wonder how much truth there is to this or whether there is any at all. Based in Saigon, Andy Nguyen has edited local hits such as Sweet 20 and The Immortal. He felt this initial doubt when he first learned of the term, and his interpretation that Fanti-ism could simply be veiled permission to harass evolved into the idea for his directorial debut, Fanti. A debut that recently won the Outstanding First Feature Film Director award at the 23rd Vietnam Film Festival.
Nguyen, who co-writes the film with Luigi Campi, said: "But [even with the Fanti title], it still has this element of a person who loves you doing something they don't realize is actually harmful. When people interpret and see all of the actions at the end of the film, they'll see that it's not simply poking or prodding. It's a bit more sinister than that."
To evoke menace, the stalker in Fanti only uses emojis to communicate a tip or a threat to their target. The target in question is mainly the up-and-coming actress Ánh Dương (Nguyễn Lâm Thảo Tâm), along with Ánh Dương's overbearing mother who is a former actress herself, Hạnh (People's Artist Lê Khanh), her carefree lover Đức Thành (Võ Điền Gia Huy) and her competitor Kim Khánh (Hồ Thu Anh).
Prior to the film's summer theatrical release, visual artist Huytengmeng created a lyric video for the film's main song from tlinh, "mua thêm" (meaning "buy more"), that leaned into the concept — one that renders shapes, colors and faces into elements that can endanger or hurt.
Nguyen enjoyed the challenge of crafting these emoji-based "sentences." His aim for their design was always to be intriguing and concise so they could act as the film's other key mystery to solve, in addition to the identity of Ánh Dương's biggest "fanti."
"Our stalker doesn't physically appear in front of our characters that often, so what is the 'stamp' that they're going to leave?" he added, citing three main inspirations where threatening niceness is prevalent (The Game, Happy Death Day and Saw). "For me, that playfulness can make you feel even worse about yourself. Ánh Dương's not laughing, you know?"
Through Fanti, Nguyen explored long-held anxieties about the online world, specifically its ability to mold people without being truly present. The arrogance of anonymity and coded actions with material consequences. Ánh Dương's learning this throughout the film is, in a way, Nguyen's real world ("My Vietnamese name is An Di — Ánh Dương's name actually has the same initials as I do," he said).
On another level, Fanti also let Nguyen work with his in-industry family members, with some returning faces from his early student film days. His uncle, veteran cinematographer Trinh Hoan, is one of the producers. His younger sister-in-law, Thao Nguyen, is the line producer; one of her credits includes the hit Bố Già (Dad, I'm Sorry). His cousin, Nguyen Vinh Phuc, is the film's DP.
"They help me the most when they say, 'OK, you can try, but if you fail, come back home, and we'll make you some soup," Nguyen said.
Unfortunately, Fanti wasn't a hit when it came out, a fact made all the more notable when local theaters could not show Barbie after it was banned nor Oppenheimer as it was awaiting approval (and was later granted). Per local media, a representative for the ticket sales tracker Box Office Vietnam said the film struggled because Blackpink was in the area and another film still in theaters at the time was riding the wave of brand familiarity.
Until today, the film has only scored 1.82 billion VND. That's nearly $76,000.
"The film has a great idea, but the longer it goes the weaker the story becomes," writes Mai Nhật in his review of the film for VNExpress. Actor Võ Điền Gia Huy, who's in the film, said to VietNamNet in August that he felt "sad" about the film's cold reception, citing the freshness of the director, the vision and the topic as possible factors.
Although Nguyen loved the opportunity to work with a new generation of Vietnamese creatives here, he knew the numbers would ultimately be more significant. He added, "Since I'm saying that I'm a commercial filmmaker, my movies need to make money."
But perhaps what he is most fond of, is that Fanti is not a remake. On multiple occasions, and in good faith, the film references the fatigue of Korean remakes among local audiences. It features a side character who comes across a chance to be different from existing material.
Now, Nguyen said, carrying out a uniquely Vietnamese cinematic idea is a high-risk affair since a system to develop them has yet to be established or established enough. But that doesn't mean said idea isn't worth nourishing.
"We're lucky to have places like CJ and Lotte," he added, referencing the Korean corporations that operate most of the cinemas in Vietnam. "Their influence is clear. For me, there's always a Korean guy in the room, standing in the back, really well-dressed, relatively young and handsome, and is influencing what's being made. I just want to be as real to the times we live in as possible."
The Future of Fanti
Nguyen hopes that Fanti will find a second life soon, for he believes that theaters and the box office needn't be a film's be-all-end-all. One can find much truth in that: Many Vietnamese films and series are now on streaming services like Netflix and Prime Video, some in many more countries than ever thought possible. Granted, they are made available way later than they should be, but at least they are there.
Creatively, Nguyen plans to steer clear of the same old things.
"I still have no regrets about the decisions that we've made, to try something new," Nguyen said. "I think that will always have value, as once we become satisfied with what's safe, we become obsolete very quickly."
There's a fan of Fanti in Nguyen, alright. The day he sat down for this interview, after the film's release and after the news of its box-office numbers, his fingernails were still home to glued-on smiley faces.
From the viewer's perspective, the faces will appear upside down, much like the ones on the promotional materials.
Fanti is available in certain Netflix territories. No domestic availability just yet, but we hope that changes soon! The recent award win makes that a bit more promising.