Complicating Gender Through Vietnamese Short Films

By Dan Tran

Last year, the festival witnessed the unpacking and subversion of gender norms in Ash Mayfair’s debut feature, The Third Wife. This wasn’t the first time a Vietnamese director has delved into the topic. Trần Anh Hùng, perhaps among the first few Vietnamese to be recognized by the film industry, also weaves the theme of gender roles into The Scent of Green Papaya (1993). Indeed, gender has been a perennial topic of interest for Vietnamese directors. It is therefore unsurprising that the various dimensions of gender can be gleaned from Vietnamese films featuring in the 2019 Southeast Asian Short Film Competition.

That men and women are traditionally defined in accordance to several binary oppositions informs their depiction on the silver screen. For one, women are depicted to inhabit the space of the home, while men seemingly reside outside it. Evidently, women of Sweet, Salty (dir. Dương Diệu Linh) populate the home. The only brief instance that the viewer sees men in it is when the son-in-law of the protagonist (Hà) comes to pick up his child. Phạm Thiên Ân’s Stay Awake, Be Ready rehashes this gender norm, seen in the patrons to the street stall being exclusively men. If this is not convincing enough, a clearer portrayal of how the two genders inhabit differing spaces can be found in Phan Đăng Di’s Bi, Don’t Be Afraid. The luxury of time of a feature film enables it to juxtapose this dichotomy, highlighting the absence of the father in the home.

Space configures social roles. Women are thus relegated to affairs at home. In Sweet, Salty, Hà overlooks all pragmatic aspects of the family, ranging from cooking to monitoring her daughter’s menstruation. Outside the home, women are still found looking after the family. This is evident in Stay Awake, Be Ready, where the victim of the traffic accident being a mother riding her child home. In contrast, the men of the film engage in abstract conversations about the human condition, issues that seemingly render familial concerns a matter of triviality. 
Men are thus valued in relation to their intellect. The dynamics between the three men by the street stall in Stay Awake, Be Ready attests to this. The man who talks about metaphysics is arguably the most respected in the group, as his opinions are readily agreed upon by the other two. Meanwhile, the guy who chases after the boy who stole his banknote is chided for acting on impulse. 

Conversely, women are judged by their appearance. The beer promoter in Stay Awake, Be Ready is strategically a young, pale-complexioned, long-haired female in suggestive clothes. This is to cater to the view of the male patrons with traditional Vietnamese standards of beauty. Women’s emphasis on vanity is also evident in Sweet, Salty. Ha prepares for the confrontation with her husband’s mistress not only by dressing up and wearing jewellery but also by visiting the beauty salon on the day before. Her motivation lies in wanting to look prettier than the mistress, in hopes of exerting her superiority.

Again, the time constraint disallows representing the entirety of the dichotomization of men and women along the intellect/appearance axis within a single short. The Scent of Green Papaya, unbounded by said delimitation, does exactly that. Women of the bourgeois families are almost always seen elaborately dressing up in áo dài, differentiating themselves from the servants in simple áo bà ba. Meanwhile, the elder brother of the family to which Mùi initially works for and his pianist friend engage in an intellectual pursuit of music writing and performance. 

Ultimately, women see themselves through the eyes of men. This is the premise of Sweet, Salty, where the protagonist’s overall intent is to seek validation from her husband. By plotting the confrontation between herself, her husband, and his mistress, she hopes that the husband would come to realize her superiority over the mistress, who will give birth to a baby girl rather than Ha’s baby boy. The validation also comes from other females inhabiting the society permeated by patriarchal values. Hà’s mother and the salon staff regard Hà with more worth, knowing that she is bearing a son. 

But the Vietnamese short films also disrupt these traditional and clinical representation of men and women. The ugly sides of men are exposed in Sweet, Salty: the infidelity of Ha’s husband, the irresponsibility of her son-in-law coming to pick up his child late, and inattention of the male construction worker to the correct phrasing of the Vietnamese proverb on the prediction of the sex of a child. Viewer can also find in Vo Anh Vu’s Gallery the foulness of men – the perverted gaze of a man at a damp dress, visualizing the owner in a state of undress; and the irresponsible drinking that led to a male character’s vomiting. 
Women, on the other hand, are presented with an attitude of incredulity and defiance towards social mores. The Graduation of Edison, directed by Phạm Hoàng Minh Thy, witnesses the sister’s resistance against the norm of chopping the tree from her head at her graduation. Unlike Hà of Sweet, Salty, she represents women as not merely acquiescent entities that unquestioningly obey duties and traditions. Instead, she exemplifies an autonomous female agent capable of thinking for herself. Of course, eventually she still cuts off the tree, but only after deliberation between her conflicting values of agency, tradition, and familial love.

Coming to terms with tradition in view of modern feminism is therefore a cornerstone of the identity of contemporary Vietnamese women. Many attempts at representing this double consciousness are present in the local film landscape, the most successful of which being films starred and produced by Ngô Thanh Vân. Her women-centric films are narrated by a female voice struggling to find autonomy in a society still pervaded by patriarchy. This can be seen in Furie – the first Vietnamese film available on Netflix. A patriarchal society that looks down on single mothers and women taking up violent jobs commonly associated with men sets the backdrop for the protagonist’s journey of rescuing her abducted daughter.

As much as women fight to be free of their traditional gender roles, men also seek to complicate their gender construction and the norm of masculinity. Gallery dismisses the representation of men as rational beings. By making the toilet and his own body a canvas for artistic expression, the artist in Gallery rejects the use of a toilet as a utilitarian space for washing. 

Furthermore, the sentimental side of men is unveiled. A man is seen to caress a polka-dotted tie belonging another man, conjuring up sensuous imageries about the owner of the garment. This homoerotic undercurrent can also be read as a critique of the stifling force of heteronormativity. The story of Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories by Phan Đăng Di also runs along these lines, but with homoeroticism lying at the heart of the film. 

Vũ, the protagonist, is torn between his attraction to his male flatmate and societal expectation of him to date and marry a woman.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Vietnamese short films, when seen together, offer a layered depiction of gender. The entrenched Confucian values perpetuate patriarchal mindsets, while the country’s postcolonial and globalized identity raises issues about gender norms and heteronormativity. These divided ideologies necessarily inform the intent and behaviours of contemporary Vietnamese, who would need to then seek reconciliation between tradition and the prevailing modern worldviews.

– Dan Tran