TENDER: The love of Văn (Lãnh Thanh - left) and Ian (Gia Huy - right) is portrayed in their most everyday light in the movie. Photos courtesy of Trịnh Đình Lê Minh
by Thu Vân
It is not often that a movie keeps you on the edge of your seat while reducing you repeatedly to tears.
This is what “Thưa mẹ con đi” (Goodbye, mother) did to me.
It was funny at first, and then it ran the gamut of human emotions – love, happiness, anger, disappointment – in a way that did not strive to be dramatic, but was naturally and authentically poignant.
This, for me, is this film’s greatest strength and its director’s greatest success.
“Thưa mẹ con đi” is a true indie film that carries a simplicity and directness that the Vietnamese film industry seems to lack these days. It is the debut of Trịnh Đình Lê Minh, who studied film direction at the University of Texas, US. He has done a few short films before, but this is his first full-length feature film.
The story and the plot are straightforward.
Văn (played by Lãnh Thanh) a family’s first grandson, and his boyfriend Ian (played by Võ Điền Gia Huy), return to Việt Nam from the US for a family reunion.
It helps the visuals a lot that the reunion takes place in the countryside of southwestern Việt Nam with its signature beautiful landscapes: bright green gardens, vast rice fields, long village roads and small bridges crossing rivers.
PEACEFUL: The story takes place in the countryside of southwestern Việt Nam with its signature beautiful landscapes.
A family of three generations stays in a big house in this sylvan setting, and here, Văn struggles to tell his family about his relationship with Ian.
In a country where traditional Confucian values still hold strong and demand social conformity, Văn’s mother, the main breadwinner of the family, hopes he would soon get married and bear her some grandchildren. And she makes no bones of her desire.
Faced with this barrage of expressly expressed wishes of his mother, Văn hesitates to tell her the truth.
Meanwhile, Ian, born and raised in the States, is not just sad, but also mad at Văn for his reluctance in coming out and being open about their love for each other, but outward normalcy is maintained.
Things change in the second half of the movie, when Văn’s mother finds out the truth accidentally.
As a typical Vietnamese woman living in the countryside, she is let down.
Played by veteran actress Hồng Đào, the mother’s role is actually the highlight of the film. The sensitive woman silently observes and feels the affection between her son and Ian. But as a Vietnamese woman who has grown up with traditions and traditional expectations, it weighs heavily on her, and she chooses to remain silent.
TOUCHING PORTRAYAL: Veteran actress Hồng Đào (first left) is the highlight of the movie.
She tries to persuade Văn to marry a girl living nearby. She forces Văn to tell everyone about his future plan as a “normal man” at a family party. But she is torn. She doesn’t talk much about her feelings in the film, but her eyes carry the burden of social conformity very eloquently.
CAPTIVATING CHARACTER: Văn's grandmother, played by actress Lê Thiện, puts a smile on everyone's face whenever she appears on screen.
Then, the director pushes things along.
Ian gets beaten by Văn’s cousin and his friends for being gay. That’s the couple’s first bitter taste of the injustice of stigma. It’s also an indication that even today, there’s not enough empathy and equality for the LGBT community in Việt Nam, despite the hugely progressive step of lifting a ban on same-sex marriages in 2015.
Văn, who’s been afraid to come out, and who is so gentle and loving in caring for the injured Ian, can totally become an enraged person when facing his cousin, the bully, and punches him.
And when the cousin’s mother rushes out and insults Văn by calling him “bê đê” (a pejorative term for gay men), it is Văn’s mother who steps in and stands by him.
It seems that when she recognises that Văn is able to competently handle a world that stigmatises homosexuality, she’s reassured and is even proud of his courage and resilience.
WORKING HARD: Director Trịnh Đình Lê Minh (third from left, sitting) directs a film shot.
Moved to tears
I cried many times during the movie: when Ian gets beaten, when Văn cleans Ian’s injuries, when Văn cries lying on his mother’s bed, touching her toes and begging for acceptance.
But at one point, my tears came even before the scene reached its climax.
Văn’s mother opens Ian’s gift for her before they return to the US. It’s a beautiful, white pearl necklace. The camera zooms to her face as the tears flow from her eyes, joining mine.
There was so much love, so much understanding, so much acceptance, so much humanity in that scene. It seems to me that the mother now truly understands how much Văn and Ian were in love, how much Ian cares for Văn, and how much she wants her child to be happy. For me, it was the most powerful, heartwarming, touching depiction of mother and son bonding, of how truly interconnected they are throughout the coming out process. For me, it was beautiful family love.
The movie also does a great job of showing LGBT in a normal light: there was nothing over-sexually visually, it felt honest, sweet and beautiful even in its sheer ordinariness. It’s not the most thrilling ride in the park, but it was this vanilla, sex-less yet deeply sensitive portrayal of gay relationships.
Without revealing more details and going into its shortcomings, which more qualified critics can enumerate, I can say confidently that this is a movie that is, ultimately, a reaffirming one.
On the face of it, there seems to be no need to reaffirm the strong bond between a mother and her child, or between two people who love each other, but there are times we do need the reaffirmation. — VNS