This is an astonishingly beautiful film. It is a classic tale of “Coming Out” to a family, for which the whole concept of gayness is either suppressed, ignored, or unthinkable.
It follows the story of Van (Nau) played by Lanh Thanh, returning to Vietnam because of family obligations. Being the oldest grandson, he must participate in the transference of the family lands, that his grandfather is leaving to him in his will. He now lives in the United States and has been there for some time. In addition, he brings (apparently unannounced) a ‘friend’, named Ian (Vo Dien Gia Huy). It is obvious in every sense of the word that Ian is way more than a friend. Unspoken of course but not unrecognized. The stunning center of this story is Van’s Grandma, played brilliantly by Nsut Le Thein. Allegedly, she is suffering from dementia. She knows way more of what is going on and is astute enough to assess what the real story is. From the very beginning, she mistakes Ian as her grandson and treats him as her grandson. She will not let him go and is constantly with Ian. But is she really that confused?
Ian and Grandma form a solid and unexpected relationship in a short period of time. Thinking she has dementia and will not remember what he has said, Ian confides to her that he is in love with Van. She asks how they met, and he explains to her how they did. Van was a pensive, withdrawn individual who related to Ian and before long they become more than friends and fell in love. While they must keep their love under wraps in Vietnam, he tells her that he is deeply and passionately in love with Van and Van with him. They are emotionally inseparable and for all intents and purposes are a couple. Grandma, knowing full well what the answer will be, asks him if he is the one that she saw him kissing when he put her to bed the day they arrived. He accepts that it was indeed him. It becomes obvious that Grandma has been protecting Ian from the beginning.
This story mostly revolves around Van’s persistent attempts to explain his relationship with Ian to his mother. Everyone is trying to get Van married off, as soon he will be a landowner. At a family get together, they introduce Van to the whole family and he is pressured to get married. Grandma in her own inimitable way grabs the microphone and says that he is in love with her ‘grandson’ (Ian) and this is all ridiculous. The family is incredulous and whisks her away and blames it on her rapid dementia. But this forces Van to tell his mother the truth. Shocked at first, but certainly not surprised, she slowly learns to accept the inevitable and love her son the way he is.
This is such a beautiful and stunning story of family acceptance in a society that is slow to change and even slower to approve. Cultural mindset clashes with reality. A reality that is a different form of love, which is not necessarily wrong. The story takes a painful path to acceptance, especially for Ian who is physically assaulted. It is torture for Van to talk to his mother. Several of his relatives don’t accept their relationship, when they figure out the connection (In addition to the usual squabbling of family members about money, power, and control). But through it all, Ian and Van remain steadfast in their relationship. If anything, this trip no doubt enhances their connection, even though they have to face numerous internal and external challenges to their relationship.
Nsut Le Thein as Van’s Grandma literally ‘steals’ the thunder completely. Playing the forgetful elderly lady is her manipulative way of keeping the family in line. Sure, she might indeed be having some memory issues, but they aren’t enough to incapacitate her. She is instantly and instinctually able to ‘read’ the situation with immense astuteness. When she is reintroduced to her real grandson on his arrival, she looks around and hesitates for a moment after looking at both young men and runs immediately to Ian to embrace him as the grandson. She was able to see, assess, and know the relationship between the two without reticence and therefore played it beautifully so that he becomes a part of the family. It was sheer brilliance, and her timing and Cheshire cat expressions were simply a joy to watch. She controlled the situation and the screen. Her prowess were perfect; she absorbed and understood the inner workings, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each family member. At the end, when Ian and Van hug her to say good-bye, her real grandson hugs her and she says to him, “Bye-bye, Nau (Van)” and looks at Ian and winks and smiles. She knew all along who her grandson was; this was her way of showing acceptance and approval and in a sense her protection of him as a new member of the family. It was one of the most beautiful scenes in any movie I have ever seen. This was so touching, charming and brilliantly portrayed. I smiled and allowed the tears to flow freely. I could not stop what I was feeling.
The one I felt most compassion for, was the mother, played by Hoang Dao. She is a resilient woman with the weight of the world on her shoulders. She not only had to deal with her family but also accept the alternate reality of her son being gay, never ‘marrying’ and never having children. Furthermore, she portrayed her character with a strong-willed, steadfast focus and you knew she was in control. Yet, you could sense a certain sadness in her eyes. But she did something at the end of this movie that made me cry immensely. As she is saying good-bye to them at the airport, the person she turns to hug first is Ian; not her son. This was such a turning point and a magnanimous sign of respect and acceptance for her son’s choice of a partner. It was done with such tenderness that it might have been missed, but it was profoundly moving. Honestly, I sobbed as I understood the meaning behind that gesture.
I found this series to be so deeply moving and full of family drama with dysfunctional members in it. But there is also a lot of love to go around and a slow journey of acceptance – primarily from Grandma and secondarily from the mother. While there is a certain fatalism about this series, it still makes me feel hopeful that Ian and Van will be happy living in the States, perhaps even get married, but know their acceptance is far from an assured thing with his family or the society in general.
Watch this for its beautiful “Coming Out” story that it is, for its solidification of a gay relationship, and for the acceptance and approval of one little old lady with an understanding of what life really is all about. And the unconditional love of a mother for her son. Love is everything yet painful when you must separate from it.
This is yet another gem from Vietnam that has gotten overlooked by the splashier BL series or movies from other countries. But the production value of this movie is equal to other countries and so is the overall acting. This is going to be on my Must-See list for 21. A remarkable movie.
Rating: 5 out of 5