If you ever want to see an expression of pure joy, watch a video on Twitter of director Laura Nix and the stars of her short documentary Walk Run Cha-Cha as they listen to the Oscar nominations announcement. On tenterhooks, they hear the nominees revealed one by one alphabetically—Life Overtakes Me…St. Louis Superman…The alphabet almost exhausted and the tension excruciating, they finally hear Walk Run Cha-Cha announced, triggering an explosion of emotion.
The video has been viewed tens of thousands of times.
“There was whooping and shouting,” Nix acknowledges. “I think people saw that we were like normal people who just found out that we were nominated for an Oscar and it struck a chord somehow, but it was really exciting.”
The documentary shares the story of Paul and Millie Cao, a middle-aged couple in suburban Los Angeles who spend most of their spare time pursuing a passion for ballroom dance. At least four nights a week, for hours on end, they practice at the Lai Lai Ballroom and Dance Studio, under the tutelage of expert instructors. Nix came across the Lai Lai by chance while researching a different film project.
“When I first came in, I noticed there were 50 people dancing the tango in the middle of the day,” Nix recalls. “There were middle-aged to senior Asian people and I just was blown away because it was literally like right in the middle of the day. And I thought, ‘What is this beautiful world? I have to find out more about it.’”
Nix decided to strap on dance shoes herself.
“I started taking dance classes at the studio so that I could be around it and learn more,” she comments. “And that’s when I realized that most of the studio is Eastern European teachers, teaching Latin dance to people from the Chinese community and in suburban Los Angeles. And to me, that’s the best version of America. That’s really when we get to celebrate our rich cultural diversity. And you see how this mix of cultures creates something new.”
Through the dance studio Nix would get to know the Caos, and discover their moving love story. Paul and Millie grew up in Vietnam in the midst of brutal war; as members of Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese minority they were particularly vulnerable.
“They met when they were around 19, 20 years old and they were meeting at a very unpredictable moment in Vietnam, during the war and the Viet Cong was advancing,” Nix explains. “It was even more dangerous to be Chinese-Vietnamese during that time [because] they were more targeted.”
After Vietnam fell under communist control, “the Viet Cong imposed morality codes and part of that morality code was not being able to dance,” the director notes. “It was not allowed to have like a dance party in someone’s house.”
“But we organized a party anyways,” Paul says in the film. Millie recalls, “He being a gentleman, stretched out [his] hand, ‘Shall we dance?’”
But their budding love would be interrupted just six months into their relationship, when Paul risked death to leave Vietnam with his family members.
“He’s the oldest son, he had to take care of his parents and his siblings,” Nix comments. “And he couldn’t bring Millie with him. So, even though they had met and fallen in love, he had to leave her behind.”
Paul and Millie exchanged love letters across the ocean, but six years passed before they were reunited on American shores. Like so many immigrants before them, they worked to make a life here—learning English, building careers and a family. Their daughter now grown, the Caos devote their time to dance, rekindling a love affair begun in arduous circumstances.
“I didn’t want to only define them through their trauma and through what happened to them when they first left Vietnam because there’s so much that happens since then that needs to be recognized and witnessed,” Nix observes. “They have so much resilience…They reinvented themselves once when they first came to the country and [now] in their early sixties they reinvented themselves again when they decided to not just be working people, but to become these flamboyant performers. And I really wanted to celebrate that.”
Walk Run Cha-Cha is part of the New York Times Op-Docs series. In a piece Nix wrote to accompany her film on the Times website, the director made it clear she sees the film as standing in opposition to anti-immigrant sentiment coming from the White House.
“I was incredibly daunted by writing the essay for the New York Times,” she admits, “but it was really important to me to get across the political nature of the film because it is a love story. It’s also a dance film. But the political viewpoint is at its foundation and I wanted to make sure that that was communicated because otherwise people might just think it’s a dance film and they might not see the political importance of that story now.”
Nix will be attending the Academy Awards with Paul and Millie, trading a dance floor for one of the world’s biggest stages.
“To be able to take Paul and Millie to the Oscars is like, it’s a dream come true and I can’t tell you how excited they are,” Nix tells Deadline. “I think I’m more excited about them going than me going. Because they’re two people who have just worked so incredibly hard in their lives and had to overcome so much hardship and they’re living their best life right now. They are just really creative, funny, imaginative, open and generous people and they deserve every single bit of this moment.”