“Hanh Phuc Xa Bay/ Happiness Flies Far Away” Series Review (Ep.1 to 8)

This is a BL series that defies description. To say that it is phenomenal would be an understatement.

To call it a classic is still not doing it justice. To baptize it as superb would be an understatement. It is a visually breathtaking series. Yet again, another outstanding BL series from Vietnam that is in a league of its own. Simply, this is a story of a tragic life sprinkled with human warmth and love, speckled on you like the salt and pepper on your food. I have never seen a series that captures human emotions, tragedy, love, and death with such deep intensity, like it is a part of the human fabric of living. I haven’t been as moved, challenged, and spiritually touched by any other series, as this one!It is the story of Nhut Phi, played brilliantly by Pham Anh Tuan. His life starts out simple, with his entire world existing of his family and his poor country life. His younger brother, sister, mother, father, and grandmother are his world. There is no greater happiness than this. But life has a way of becoming cruel and forcing you to grow up. Tragically, his parents die, leaving his old grandmother to raise the children. She simply cannot cope, her health fails, and she also dies; leaving Phi the sole supporter for his brother and sister. He is forced to quit school and seek out an existence for them. But the foundation of who he is and how he treats people have been lovingly established in him by his parents and grandmother. The actors and actresses playing the parents and the grandmother, brought a complete sense of family to this setting and a longing for a simpler life surrounded by people who love each other. Perhaps all this was a giant metaphor of our imagined human story, but they made it real. Each of them personified the ideal parent and grandparent.

Eventually, however, Phi is forced to move his family to Saigon, so he can find odd jobs to support his siblings’ schooling. One of the first persons he meets is a rather enigmatic teacher named Hung, played by Khac Bao. He seems to take an interest in Phi as a friend and protector; but his feelings seem to be deeper than that for Phi. But it is never acted upon and throughout the series there is this sense of sadness about him and an aura of loneliness. One of Phi’s first jobs is a waiter at a restaurant operated by a disgusting person called Boss, played by Gia Bao. He is a perverted individual who misuses his status to take advantage of young guys working for him. Phi can only take it for a while before the sexual harassment is just too much to bear. He quits and Hung, the ever-helpful friend, lines him up for a management position at a local hotel.

There is an incredibly poignant scene where one of his workers has an ill mother and he works her shift on his ‘off’ day so that she could spend some time with her ill mother. The tie-in to his upbringing is just a thing of beauty to watch. Because of this happenstance, he gets to meet a rich guy who is there to spend a few days to contemplate his life decisions. His name is Lui Koi, played by Duong Duong Tien. He orders a bottle of wine and Phi brings it up to the room as Lui Koi is coming out of the bathroom naked. There is an instant attraction. You can see in Phi’s face that this is the trigger for awakening his carnal desires; which frankly I do not think he even thought about before. Lui Koi, however seemed more comfortable in this encounter and enjoyed the subtle but obvious attention he received from Phi. Lui Koi is also drawn to him and begins to inquire who he is, to formulate a scheme to force Phi up to his room again. So, Lui Koi feigns outrage that his bed was made improperly and insists that the bed be remade. Since he knows that Phi is ‘on duty’ as the maid, he understands Phi will need to attend to it himself. As he is trying to fix the bed with Lui Koi watching his every move grousing, Phi turns around suddenly, catching Lui off guard and both fall on the bed where they accidentally end kissing, lingering perhaps a bit too long. The look of shock that then turns to enjoyment is one of the best ‘accidental’ kissing scenes I have ever witnessed. It was flawless and incredibly believable. Their entire demeanor changes.

Thus, begins the odyssey of their love story. It is as if in that brief instance their souls were touched, and connected forever. From that point onwards, they became inseparable which deepens their love for each other. However, Lui is hiding an insurmountable problem that he does not share with Phi. He is to be married in a few days to his childhood ‘sweetheart’ which has been arranged by his family. He does not want to, as he does not love her and has made that clear. In a cruel twist of fate, Phi provides assistance to both Lui’s mother and his fiancée. Neither knowing who he is, but both sense his humanity and helpfulness. Yet again in a cruel coincidence, Lui’s fiancé, Diep Ha, played by Rita Thanh Hoa, confronts them while they are holding hands and Lui is forced to admit the truth about his upcoming nuptials. Phi is devastated and wants nothing more to do with him. Lui comes over to Phi’s residence and screams for one last night together. It is a scene of profound sorrow as Lui repeatedly cries and begs Phi to see him again. Phi, hysterical himself, does not. That scene touched me so deeply that I sank my head into my hands and cried. I felt and understood their pain. Phi realizes his mistake when he watches Lui’s forced marriage. He tries to run after them in the car to say goodbye, but it is too late. Phi is inconsolable. And so was I.

Back in the United States, Lui spirals into a deep depression and wants nothing to do with Diep Ha and doesn’t touch her. He tries to explain to her, and his parents that he is not in love with her and will never be. His heart and soul belong to Phi. But they do not listen to him. In fact, they do not take him seriously nor want to hear what he is saying. He bids goodbye to Phi, with Phi being helpless to change the outcome. In a heartbreaking scene at the end, Diep Ha brings his ashes to Phi, while she tries to convey her sorrow and deep sadness over the pain she caused both of them. Something she will have to live with for the rest of her life. Phi’s eyes reveal what his heart and voice could not. Standing there holding Lui’s ashes is all that needs to be said.

I cannot begin to explain the impact this series had on me. I was inconsolable watching this drama and had to take time to compose myself to even begin to write this review. These actors made me feel everything. I felt their pain, sorrow, anger, hurt, and the absolute profound loss. I even understood the intense hopelessness that Lui felt when no one was listening to him. Having spent some years working in the field of mental health, I saw many times what the “Coming Out Phase” means and have felt the same powerlessness to change its outcome. I had seen all too often how deeply despair will drag someone into a snake pit of depression. How hopeless life seems. To feel powerless, as Phi felt, is a heavy burden to carry for the rest of his life. Yet, unlike Lui, he is grounded and knows that he is still responsible for his siblings, and he must persevere. My own sense is that he will never truly know true happiness, as his life and destiny has been and must be to help others at the cost of his own delectation. It is a burden that he is willing to bear. But for a fleeting moment, he knew happiness. Perhaps that will be enough to sustain him.

What made me so upset is that Lui’s family and his wife knew that Lui was unhappy with their choices. They turned a blind eye to his depression and sense of hopelessness because they just did not want to deal with his perspective, and they wanted his life to be ‘normal’. They were all trying to live their lives through him, never asking, seeing, or encouraging him to be himself.This series is profoundly sad and indeed melancholic. It shows the different paths that families can teach their children to follow. One path is love like Phi’s; that instilled in them with the feeling that they are unique, valued, and are special. The glue that bonded this family was unconditional love. Sometimes, in that support, you might have to defer your desires for the greater good, but it would be done out of a sense of love. Lui’s family is just the opposite. Their path was one of disdain- to give up your desires for a sense of duty, not love; even if that duty was against every fiber of your being. Even if that duty caused you to hurt not only yourself but others, it does not matter. Lui never really saw the value of love until someone showed him. It was unconditional. Given freely. Lui had no compass. So, he did what in his mind was his only option. For the person that you loved, you are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice because you were never taught the value of love and how diverse it can be. It is not logical, rational, or ironic. All it created was a house of pain.

Without exception, all these actors/actors were superb, no matter what their part was. It was like watching a labor of love. The main actors were just outstanding and to say that they made an adorable couple would not do them justice. They were real, humane individuals who became relatable and gave these characters flesh and bones. They were able to display such deep raw, emotions that it moved me to uncontrollable crying at times. I felt Phi’s pain and when he held the urn it was as if he was really holding Lui for the last time. There was just emptiness in his eyes – not even sadness. But the person for me who quite literally established the foundation of this story was the grandmother, played by Anh Hoa. Here was a woman who has spent her life sacrificing for each of her family members. She understood the need to sacrifice, with the reward being the continuation of her family. When she is in a position where she is forced to become the head of the household, she tries with all her might to be just that. But the frailty of her body gives out, but not before she is able to convey to her grandchildren the need to love each other and to be there for each other. If she had not instilled that message, Phi would never have known love. She was such a beautiful character who softly yet effectively displays what true love is. She conveyed a quiet dignity and grace but also willing to sacrifice her own life to try and maintain the family. Likewise, she was the glue that kept the family together. And was Phi’s foundation for his acts of kindness and love.

This is such a beautiful series that will leave you questioning all the other BL series out there in terms of storytelling and acting. There is nothing pretentious, contrived, or artificial about this series. It is real, brutally honest, but filled with human foibles. It will make you weep over its outcome and feeling the personal loss in your own heart. This is the only series that I did not feel positive about an overall outcome. Phi seems lost yet, he knows he must move on. He also knows that the person he truly loved is gone and his ‘Jar of Love’’ (referenced in the series) has been broken, perhaps forever. Happiness for him might be elusive. His soulmate is no more; but he must still move on.Yet, again, this is another superb Vietnamese series that tells a full and complete story. It gives us life and death situation. It makes us value what we have and forces us to see what mental illness and social pressures can do to relationships, especially gay ones. I could write volumes about this series, but it might become too much of a stream of consciousness and make no sense to anyone. I was immensely moved. This is one of the best out there. This will without question be on my Top 10 of 21 List.

Rating: 5+ out of 5

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