Gay in Vietnam
“Goodbye Mother” opens with a young man gazing out of an airport window, contemplating returning to the United States and life far from his family and native Vietnam. His boyfriend comes and sits beside him, trying to comfort him. They have been on a turbulent trip back to Vietnam which has challenged their identities and the relationship between them.
Filmmaker Trinh Dinh Le Minh looks at the pain of living far from home and the difficulties of coming out as gay in a very traditional Vietnamese society. Nâu Vân (Lãnh Thanh) comes back to visit his family and attend his dead father’s memorial ceremony after living in America for a number of years. His mother (Hong Dao) has eagerly awaited his visit and the scene is set for a poignant homecoming. But when Nâu comes through the airport, things proceed differently. He is closely followed by his handsome ‘friend’ Ian (Võ Điền Gia Huy).
Nâu has returned to Vietnam to fulfil family duties but there is a danger that these duties, especially the idea that he will get married and have children and this will pull him away from Ian. He struggles to resist these unspoken expectations.
He avoids telling his mother the real nature of his relationship with his friend and it is left ambiguous as to whether she picks up on the signals that are so obvious. Much of the film focuses on the relationship between Nâu and his mother (who also has her own secrets).
The film also sensitively depicts the relationship between Nâu and Ian, showing how they feel for each other and the way they are forced to repress this in Vietnam’s still traditional society. They dance without touching at a music concert and continually casting each other furtive flirtatious glances. Each morning, they set an alarm so they can get into separate beds.
Nâu’s grandmother confuses her grandson with Ian, to considerable comic effect. She develops affection for Ian and surprisingly able to accept the gay relationship. We first meet sitting in a tree and refusing to come down. A short while later Nâu’s young cousin has a crash on his scooter after drinking beer but these attempts at comedy just seem out of place.
Despite making significant progress over the recent years, including the legalization of same-sex marriages in 2015, the conservative Vietnamese society is yet to be fully acceptable of homosexual couples and the movie explores that.
Nau’s mother Mrs. Hanh is the family’s main bread-earner for his his elder aunt and her family, his younger unmarried aunt, and his senile grandmother. Ian. Is American born but raised Vietnamese boy and the family instantly warms up to. They have no idea that the two have been in a relationship for years or that they have come together so that Nau Van can come out to his family. That seems easier said than done in a family and society where everyone is pressuring Nau Van, the eldest grandson of the family, to marry soon and have children of his own.
Trinh Dinh Le Minh’s treatment of the subject is fresh and new. The film is as much a comedy as it is an LGBTQ drama and the director finds the right balance between the two. While the first half is filled with laughter, the second half brings the drama as secrets are discovered and realization comes. The film has a lot to say about traditional Vietnamese society’s bias towards the LGBTQ community and the expectations of elders from their children, including a comment on how only the senile seem to be the only sane in today’s society. It feels very natural and organic.
The film is content to observe the quiet glances at the dinner table, the longing gaze they share at a local carnival dance, wanting to hold each other but aware of the crowd around them and the rare kiss exchanged inside the outdoor shower cabin. The chemistry between the lovers is beautiful to watch and feels genuine. Everything from their romantic scenes to their arguments and the tears feel genuine.
Huay Bing Law’s colorful cinematography uses the stunning southwestern Vietnamese countryside and captures the green gardens, winding village roads and picturesque rivers and bridges with beauty. as it does the interiors of the vast house the family lives in.
“Goodbye Mother” is a progressive step in a film industry that is still stuck in the tragic love stories and cliched camp characters when it comes to depicting homosexual characters in Vietnam.