Another movie about love and family.
Van, or Nau, has been living in the United States for several years, but is finally returning to Vietnam to visit his family. And he has brought along Ian, his…uh…his friend.
Auntie Ut, Auntie Ngoc, and Cousin Kim greet Nau at the airport with hugs. They did not expect him to bring a friend, nor were they expecting him to be going in the car with them. But it’s fine. They all go to the van where Uncle Toan drives them to see Nau’s mother and grandmother.
Oh, this house looks kind of nice.
While Van goes looking for his mother, Ian looks around the house. Suddenly, Mother Hanh runs up behind Ian and gives him a big hug. It is only when he turns around in surprise that she realizes that not only is he not her son, but she has no idea who he is. Oops. Luckily, Van shows up right afterwards to explain things.
With that bit of awkwardness out of the way, Van goes to see his grandmother…who is up in a tree…again. Cousin Khoi brings a ladder to help her down, but Grandma bats him away and climbs down herself.
Auntie Ut turns Grandma to Van, saying that he has finally returned. Grandma does not acknowledge Van as her grandson, calling him a surprise guest. But then she turns to Ian and…thinks that he is Van…well, this would not be the first time that this has happened to him this hour, but this is probably weirder than the other time. Her daughters try to correct her, even comparing Van to the picture of him that she carries around. All of that goes right over her. She is so happy that Van has returned…even though that is Ian.
Inside the house, Grandma falls asleep on Ian. Van comes over and touches his forehead to Ian’s. He says that he is the abandoned grandson. Grandma discreetly wakes up, pretending to remain asleep.
Van goes to his bedroom just as his mother brings in one of the suitcases. Oh, I guess that he had forgotten to do that himself, but she tells him that she is fine with it. He notes that she was breathing a little hard and says that she should not work herself so hard at her age. Well, now he is here, so Mother Hanh can relax. She tells Van that district officials have asked her to hand over the land lot. She consulted a monk and decided to do an exhumation before the anniversary of his father’s death and then properly host the ashes at home. Van needs not do much to help other than be there, since he is the first grandson.
Ian comes in and has a slightly more official introduction to Mother Hanh. He and Van try to look for something that they had brought for her, but she says that it can wait. Since Van had not told her about Ian, they have to come up with sleeping arrangements for him. It seems like Mother Hanh has another question, but decides to also leave it for later. Then she leaves. After she goes, Ian nervously asks Van if he told her. Van says that he told her everything. Ian quietly panics, but Van laughs, saying that he told her nothing.
Told her what?
Dinner time. Cousin Kim goes to sit next to Ian, totally not caring that her mother knows exactly what she is doing. Ian makes a comment about the food that suggests that he and Van lived together in America. Van turns it around, saying that his Vietnamese friends get together and cook Vietnamese food every so often.
Auntie Ut brings Grandma around and tries to sit her at the head of the table. She is not having it and sits next to Ian…erm…to Nau, making Kim sit next to her mother. With that settled, Cousin Khoi arrives. Well, more like he drunkenly crashes his motorcycle into the house and falls off. Auntie Ngoc goes to pick up her good-for-nothing son and bring him to the table, yelling at Uncle Toan to take care of the bike. Still thinking that he is Van, Grandma warns Ian against associating with those alcoholics, not acknowledging that those alcoholics are her own children.
Sleep time. Van asks Ian if he wants to be on top or bottom. Eh? Oh, the sleeping arrangements. The top is the Vietnamese bed and the bottom is the mattress on the floor. Van thinks that Ian is probably not used to the hard bed, and the mattress would actually be more comfortable for him. Ian taps his fist on the bed. It is hard indeed. Heh heh.
Auntie Ut comes in, saying that Grandma insists on sleeping with Nau. Which Nau? Ian, obviously. He considers trying to wriggle his way away, but Ut doesn’t allow for it. At least there is no question about him experiencing the authentic Vietnamese bed. Uh…why is Ut singing?
Meanwhile, the real Nau goes to sleep with Mother Hanh. That’s sweet. She tells him that she was a wife for a very short time, but a daughter-in-law for a long time. Having the family around made her feel less lonely. She tells him that Grandma and Auntie Ut bicker all the time, but they ultimately need each other. She asks him if he is tired of being lonely. He takes her arm, but says nothing.
The next day, Van and Mother Hanh go to pay respects to the ancestors. Oh, is that Van’s father?
Van and Ian spend the rest of the day biking around the countryside. When night comes, they have to work out where to sleep. I guess that they worked it out.
After a chicken-catching session, Van and Ian go to see Uncle Toan and his cement tile factory. He lets Ian make one, and says that the result is better than what Van has made.
Van and Ian make dinner. Uncle Toan is impressed that they can cook. Van explains that they have to learn to cook in America when they live on their own. Uh…sure…if throwing a bunch of ingredients in the pressure cooker counts as cooking. Auntie Ngoc is unsure if Grandma would be able to eat this “Western American” foods, but Grandma is gobbling it up. Cousin Kim very unsubtly asks Ian how to eat these…what do you call them? Noo Dalls? Ian says that they usually use forks, but he twirls the noodles around on his chopsticks and over his spoon. Auntie Ngo calls the noodles bland, but Cousin Kim says that they are very tasty and Ian is very talented. Jesus, kid.
Ian…as Nau…is giving Grandma her evening medicine. She tells him that she saw someone kissing him on the forehead the other night. Who was that? After a little stumble, Ian says that it was his friend Van. Friends kiss and hug each other openly in the United States. Uh huh. Well, that is enough to assure Grandma, who kisses his forehead. So, she accepts that Van is Van, but not that he is Nau? Okay. Anyways, she gives him some spending money. He says that he doesn’t need the money, but Grandma insists. Who doesn’t need money? She then tells Ian to get married and give her some great-grandchildren. Grandma says that, as her first grandson, he will inherit everything that she has left; all the land and gold. It is then that Auntie Ut arrives and tells Grandma to go to bed.
Ian is not-so-patiently waiting for Van to get out of the bathroom. He asks what Van would do if he had a lot of money. Van says that he would travel around the world until he found a place that he really loved and settle there. Ian is a little surprised; does he not like it in the United States? Or Vietnam? Van says that this is all just hypothetical anyways, but Ian says that there may be a lot of money coming his way once he gets married and has kids. Van is skeptical, but Ian says that he believed Grandma. He then asks when Van plans to tell his mother about them. When it feels right. Van tells Ian not to worry; Mother Hanh will understand. It is Ian’s turn to be skeptical.
Someone named Tam calls up Mother Hanh, needing the shipment expedited. Unfortunately, Uncle Toan just left with Cousin Kim and Cousin Khoi is out. Van offers to drive her. Ian tags along. They arrive at Tam’s place. While Van and Ian take the boxes out of the…van, Mother Hanh goes to talk with Tam. Mother Hanh gives Tam the price for this shipment and for the last one. Tam is indignant, insisting that Cousin Khoi had come the other day, saying that she needed the money. So, Tam gave him the payment. He shows Mother Hanh his records, which includes Cousin Khoi’s signature. That is all the proof that Mother Hanh needs to apologize and lower the price.
Van and Ian come in with the boxes. Van greets “Uncle” Tam and Tam asks if he has brought any lady with him to introduce to his mother. Mother Hanh says no lady, and that she can no longer be picky anymore. If he fancies anyone, then she will approve. Tam then greets Van’s…friend Ian. So…they are both in Vietnam to find wives, eh? To make grandchildren for Mother Hanh? Mother Hang says that what Van wants overrules what she wants, but Tam dismisses that. He points to his daughter Lien, who had been helping Van and Ian with the boxes. She’s single and looking for a husband, Tam says. Lien calls her father rude and stomps off. Tam and Mother Hanh laugh. Tam says that Lien actually likes it. Okay.
On the drive back, Mother Hanh asks Van what he thought about Lien. Van claims that he was not really paying attention. Mother Hanh says that she is lovely and hardworking, but Van counters that one needs to know a person first before considering marriage. Mother Hanh tells him that it is important that he has someone to share a life with when he gets old. Meanwhile, Ian sits quietly in the back.
Mother Hanh goes to confront Cousin Khoi about the money. Cousin Khoi plays coy, claiming that it happened two weeks ago and he forgot to tell her. Mother Hanh tells him that he didn’t record the payment. He doesn’t have an explanation for that. She tells him that he has until the end of the month to pay her back. Cousin Khoi accepts. Uncle Toan notes that it’s raining. Good contribution to the conversation, bro.
Ian goes to the bathroom to take a shower. Someone knocks on the door. Oh, it’s Van. Ian opens the door and Van rushes in for shower time.
LGBTQ+ issues in Vietnam are complex. It is believed that same-sex…sex was never criminalized in Vietnam. Vietnam had legalized same sex marriage in 2015, though they are not legally recognized. I don’t…know. It is a bit of a mess. Culturally, the LGBTQ+ community may be more accepted in Vietnam than in, say China. I believe that even 2004’s Long-Legged Girls, the country’s first modern movie that was not government propaganda, included at least one gay character. But that doesn’t mean that it is all good. I mean, I don’t think that the character from LLG was portrayed positively, though I don’t particularly feel like checking. There have been other more positive portrayals and presentation of homosexuality in Vietnamese pop culture over the years, including during the years before this movie was made.
The movie does seem to posit a contrast between Vietnam and the United States when it comes to homosexuality. I am not sure if it is implied that homosexuality is treated much better in the United States, but at least Van and Ian were able to live their lives where they lived in the United States without fear. Is that realistic? I cannot say. In any case, there is fear and discomfort when Ian visits Van’s family. Not because they are not nice to him, but because he does not know what will happen if he is himself there.
Sidenote: Hong Dao, who plays Mother Hanh, moved from Vietnam to San Jose, California in the mid-1990s. So, her English may be better than Ian’s English in this movie and her experience in America may be quite a lot. Maybe not on LGBTQ+ issues, but I am just saying…anyways…
It might be that homosexuality is tolerated as a concept on a macro-level Vietnam, but it is a different thing when it comes to family dynamics. You are expected to get heterosexually married and have children for the sake of your parents and your ancestors. Not very surprising, I guess. The themes of this movie are not really unique to Vietnam, but it is both the state of Vietnamese pop culture that allows it to be made and the state of Vietnamese society that makes the story the way that it is.
That is the context in which Van returns home. He is in his mid-twenties and still not married. That is of course going to be an issue. His coming back to take care of family business is assumed to be an opportunity to find a wife. He is the first grandson. He must. The revelation that his is gay would ruin so much. Or maybe it won’t. But does he want to risk it? No.
If Ian is scared to come out, then why does he tag along on this journey? This trip was for family business, not just for funsies, after all. And there are several moments between Van and Ian that could be seen as obvious clues that they were a couple if one is not inclined to overlook them. Well, Ian and Van are in love, for one thing. Of course, Van would want him along. Ian had moved to the United States when he was 15 and does not seem to have come back often. But regardless of what Ian feels about Vietnam, he does not want to leave Van on his own. And perhaps Van needs Ian as an emotional support anchor when dealing with his family. Because his family can be a bit much at times.
There are other problems with Van’s family that Van marrying a woman would not solve. We see that Auntie Ut, who is unmarried, is almost as dependent on Grandma as Grandma is on Auntie Ut. Yet, is Auntie Ngoc any better off? We see clues regarding cracks in her family before other reveals…reveal themselves. Who would they be to judge how Van lives his life? Is the family even worth saving?
We do see that it is not simply obligation that brings Van back to Vietnam. He deeply loves his mother and wants the best for her. And she loves him too. It is also clear that she is going through some issue beyond her husband being gone, but she cannot open up either. Van also loves his grandmother, though it is difficult for him to show it when her reciprocation goes through Ian. He wants to do right by them and part of his crisis is that he can’t, not without suppressing who he is.
I…cannot exactly say why Grandma believes that Ian and not Van is Nau. It could have been just for comedic purposes. I am not sure if there was any real plot reason for it and I cannot really see a thematic reason. That said, perhaps Ian can open up to her in a way that her actual grandson cannot, despite him being just as afraid to come out to Van’s family. It is also an easy way to show that her state of mind is not completely on the level, and THAT becomes an issue later on. So, maybe that is why.
I feel that the story in this movie, though touching on universal (and perhaps well-trodden) themes, is particularly personal to writer Nhi Bui and director Trinh Dinh Le Minh. That may be why it is a rather gentle story. It can get dramatic, and it can get silly, but it is all treated low-key and understated. Certainly more than Long–Legged Girls. Yes, there is yelling and loudness and the occasional descent into chaos, but the real force comes in the small slow quiet moments. When Van is alone, when Van is with Ian, when Van is with his mother.
On the whole, this movie takes a fairly tried-and-true formula with some small twists and surprises. I really liked it.
WTF ASIA 251: First Love (Japan: 2019, approx. 108 minutes)
WTF ASIA 252: The Sword Identity (China: 2011, approx. 110 minutes)