This article contains spoilers.
The emergence of “First-Wave Feminism” in the 19th and early 20th century marked a crucial turning point in the global view of gender normativity. Notably part of this period, gaining women’s suffrage in the United States was paramount in propelling women’s rights as a top priority of social movements, eventually culminating in the Women’s March in Washington D.C. earlier this year. Although the topic of women’s equality is highly visible in Western culture, we fail to see the continuity into Southeast Asian countries. Ho Thanh Thao’s film Ephemera, or Muộn, is a small acknowledgment to this movement through the breaking of gender stereotypes and protest to traditional femininity within the developing city of Hanoi, Vietnam.
From the beginning, the power dynamic is evident where she and her boyfriend are in disagreement over his blatant flirtation with another girl. The other couple at the table serve as a juxtaposition to our protagonist ‘s, embodying the traditional, aloof girlfriend who bows in obedience to her boyfriend. Where later in the film, she demands that the protagonist’s boyfriend should have “dragged her with [him]” instead of leaving her alone, as if she lacked competency and personal agency.
Muộn, translating to “late,” chronicles the seemingly immediate introduction into adulthood of a young girl following the discovery of her pregnancy. However, our protagonist appears to be anything but late in her friends’ table of childish antics. The protagonist’s silence and self-exclusion from her friends’ fake phallic fight over the table and annoyance, not dissimilar to that of a disapproving parent, over a can of spilled beer symbolize a distinction between maturities. Initially a metaphorical gesture, the phallic fight becomes a reality with the confrontation of testosterone and large egos as our protagonist involves a fifth player in the game – Mr. Thuy. Older, bigger, and stronger the disparity between the cheating boyfriend and newfound acquaintance is indisputable. However, this represents an act of gender role manipulation in a reticent form of feminine rebellion rather than the corroboration of gender stereotypes.
Our protagonist uses her own personal agency to manipulate her friends’ and society’s view of gender for her own use of intimidation. Mr. Thuy is never truly utilized for the traditional role of a gangster, fresh from a fight, as he never speaks and never touches anyone despite his obvious capabilities. The introduction of a hyper masculine character provides a platform for the protagonist to voice her opinions and demonstrate her renunciation of gender expectations. The choice to remain at the restaurant, leave her boyfriend, and reject him were dependent on Mr. Thuy to augment the confrontation between the couple. This contrasts with the earlier scene of the protagonist storming away from her boyfriend – an anticlimactic dispute. However, by using Mr. Thuy as a straw man, our protagonist obtains a position of intimidation and superiority, ultimately reinforcing her will for independence.
Ephemera is a nuanced approach to the role of traditional femininity and the expectations that it entails. While it is not a large-scale march or change in legislation, I believe that it is a small protest and tribute to a hopefully brighter future in feminism.