Oscar-nominated short: Vietnamese couple falls in love again on LA dance floor

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A scene from “Walk Run Cha Cha.” Courtesy of Laura Nix.

Millie and Paul Cao met at a dance party in Vietnam nearly 50 years ago and fell in love. But they were separated by the Vietnam War that soon broke out. They reunited six years later in Los Angeles and took cha-cha dance lessons to reconnect.

Their story is told in the Oscar-nominated documentary short, “Walk Run Cha Cha.”

Film director Laura Nix tells Press Play that she accidentally stumbled upon Lai Lai Ballroom & Studio in Alhambra, where about 50 Asian people were dancing the tango in the middle of the day. “And I thought, ‘What is this beautiful world?’ ” she says. 

It was where Asian people in suburban LA were learning dance from Eastern European professional ballroom teachers.

“I thought, ‘This is my favorite version of America.’ … It’s a room of unbelievable stories. And also visually, it was so beautiful to see mostly middle aged and senior people dedicating themselves to ballroom dancing so seriously and so passionately. … And then it became this question for me that really drove the whole film, which is why is everybody dancing so seriously?” Nix says.

Nix took classes at the studio for a year. Paul and Millie were in her class. The couple worked full-time jobs, danced four to five nights per week, and spent weekends at competitions, recitals, and more practices.  

“They started doing this when they were in their early 60s. And not everybody there has that level of commitment, but they really did. And that was very fascinating to me,” Nix says. 

Paul and Millie’s timeline

Nix says the couple had a whirlwind romance of six months when Millie they were about 19-20 years old.  

“They used to go on dates, where they strolled in the Saigon Zoo, and they fell in love. … And then he had the opportunity to flee Vietnam. And at that time, it was very, very difficult to get out. … I think he left in 1977-1978, and he wasn't able to bring her. … That was after the Americans left. But the conflict was still going on, and the Việt Cộng was coming over, and had it basically taken over Da Nang, where he is from. And at that point, they'd also taken Saigon.” 

Paul’s family put together a plan to flee. As the eldest son of his family, Paul’s main responsibility was to ensure that his parents and siblings could get on the boat and get out. He couldn’t take Millie along. 

“It was just devastating for both of them because they were so connected, and they had just started this romance, and they were so full of hope,” says Nix.  

Apart for six years, the couple didn’t know what their future would be. 

But eventually, Paul secured a visa for Millie. She boarded a plane for the first time and flew to Los Angeles to be with him. 

“There's a moment in the film when she talks about that they got off the plane, and they did not run across the airport into each other's arms,” Nix says. “They kind of looked at each other and were like, ‘You. I don't know about that. Maybe.’ And they were super uncomfortable, and they weren't sure if it was going to work.”

But they decided to try. “He said to her, ‘Let's start over.’ ” Nix says. 

At this point, they were in their mid 20s. “He had had his American life, and she'd been in Saigon. They were in very different places when they reconnected. So I was really impressed by the fact that they were able to stick it out and make it work,” says Nix. 

She points out, “But it wasn't a time of romance. It was a time of landing in America and reinventing yourself and rebuilding your life. And that's a very difficult thing to do. ... There wasn't time to go have fun. I think that's the real reason that in their early 60s -- 40 years later -- they saw this opportunity to do something that they really love that they didn't get to do when they were young. And that was dancing.”

What the dance itself says

“You see all these elements of their story visually represented in the dance. You see the separation. You see the reunion. You see the love. You see the longing. And you see this passion. ... I wanted to make sure that there's enough time to really see that movement expressed, and also show how hard it is to be able to do that,” says Nix.

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Alex Tryggvadottir