Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival presents ‘Painted Nails’

Engaging documentary still unpolished

The plot of the documentary film Painted Nails is simple and compelling: a Vietnamese immigrant and nail salon owner learns about the dangerous toxins in U.S. beauty products, including nail polishes and primers, and transforms into a salon safety super-advocate.

Salon owner Van Hoang. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival)

First, we meet the film's protagonist, New York Nail salon owner Van Hoang, and her customers. Van is hardworking and kindhearted. She’s a wife and a mother. We like Van, and we’re rooting for her as we anticipate her transformation from a self-described “shy” woman to empowered advocate.

Nailing it down

However, our anticipation is often put on hold by compelling but irrelevant interviews, including a montage of medium shots where customers, positioned in a similar way each time and looking directly at the camera, explain why they go to the salon. Spliced together, the compilation reveals an uncomfortable commonality that “getting nails done” equates to the “essence” of being a woman.

Creative? Yes. Evocative? Definitely. Setting the stage to show customer and community ignorance to toxins in nail care products? It could have worked, but the documentary never circles back to it. By the time we’re halfway through the film, we’re following Van’s journey to share her experiences at two legislative hearings.

As Van heads to Washington, DC, to become one of the first people in over 30 years to testify for safe cosmetics, the story takes another twist: Van is pregnant. She and her husband are excited, but also deeply concerned now that they better understand the potential adverse effects caused by chemicals in their working environment.

The more we learn about the embarrassingly lax health regulations around cosmetics, the more we worry about Van and her baby. Her testimonies reveal she suffers from headaches, memory loss, and has had trouble bringing past pregnancies to term. We worry more. Van concludes her testimony, in tears, with: “Please pass legislation so that all cosmetic products, including nail care products, are safe…so we no longer have to work in fear.” Her husband says that she later told him that in that moment she was thinking only of her unborn child.

At what price?

Ultimately, the film ends with an intimate and uplifting delivery room scene. But looking past the emotion, we are still left wanting. If the editors chose to incorporate a little more footage focused on health and wellness questions — “Do you feel there is any harm in using products on your body that contain toxins considered illegal in other countries?” or “If Van’s salon switches to organic options, would you be willing to pay a higher price for services?”— in place of footage on beauty and community, the film would’ve felt more whole, and its ending would have held more impact.

One of the most difficult aspects of filmmaking is what happens in the editing room. Figuring out which shots to keep and which to cut is tough but critical, especially for documentaries, which naturally accrue a surplus of footage as a result of investing so much time following a particular story. However, this film’s editors struggled to “kill their darlings,” resisting the long-trusted advice to nix favorite or self-indulgent individual components for the greater good of a piece.

Cosmetics is one of the fastest growing US industries, with over 80 percent of licensed U.S. manicurists who are Vietnamese. While we do learn more about the people on the working side of the table through Van’s personal story, and we do get a taste of the nomenclature behind safe beauty product policymaking, we’re ultimately left with a film that still feels unpolished.

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