Montreal filmmaker, stage director, and video designer Khoa Lê likes to transcend formal boundaries. According to his bio, the queer artist seeks to “create objects that blur the limits of the sacred, the banal, the real and the imaginary”.
“I always maintains humanity in the heart of my approach,” he declares.
Lê certainly accomplishes this in his stereotype-shattering full-length documentary, Má Sài Gòn (Mother Saigon). This captivating and sensitive examination of the Vietnamese LGBTQ community will be screened at 5:15 p.m. on Saturday (May 6) at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.
Filmed in Ho Chi Minh City, it opens with a seven-minute scene focusing on two transwomen underneath a large tree. The birds can be heard chirping nearby in the park. Meanwhile, the sounds of Ho Chi Minh City’s never-ending traffic rumble away at a distance.
One of the transwomen, who’s deaf and mute, helps the other try on jewellery.
“Do I look gorgeous?” the talkative one asks mischievously.
The other one fluffs up her short hair. It’s so utterly normal—and the antithesis of the freak-show lensing of Southeast Asian transwoman so routinely depicted on-screen.
In fact, Lê’s film is replete with commonplace scenes like this. In the process, he reveals how LGBTQ people in Vietnam’s largest city navigate love, friendship, and finding acceptance.
From the scene in the park, the film switches to a Vietnamese man alone in his apartment, smoking and watching TV in the dark. He phones someone. There’s no answer. It’s a painful moment.
Lê captures tapestry of Vietnamese life
Participants in the documentary routinely use the word “Saigon” to describe their city, just as Mumbai dwellers still refer to their hometown as “Bombay” decades after the government changed the name.
As the documentary unfolds, there are more scenes of joy, sadness, friendly banter, eating, and chatter about family from two dozen participants. In a country where filial piety remains a cornerstone, it’s inspiring to witness the deep love that some parents show for their adult LGBTQ children.
This is on display when Lê Vũ Dương’s parents take snapshots as he hams it up with his boyfriend outside at night. Another scene of utter normalcy unfolds on a breakwater. There, Khánh Vĩnh Hoàng declares to her partner on the edge of the sea that this is where she wants to marry her.
Meanwhile, others in the film share the suffering that comes with being treated like outcasts. Some create their own family of sorts under the watchful eye of their den mother.
And it wouldn’t be an authentic film about the LGBTQ community without some singing, nightclub action, and modelling, which director Lê provides with aplomb. But rather than cast his camera at the performer on-stage in one scene, he instead shows the joyful and loving reaction of the transwoman’s mother. Welcome to Vietnam!
Lê also captures the rhythms of Ho Chi Minh City, including the omnipresent scooters and motorcycles outside as well as quiet and contemplative times found indoors. He augments it with enough emotionally charged Vietnamese music to transport viewers’ hearts to Southeast Asia, especially in the final scene.
Watch the trailer for Má Sài Gòn (Mother Saigon).
Trans community shown in three dimensions
One of the most compelling figures in the film is trans model Nguyễn Tường Danh.
“Khoa came back to Saigon and wanted to learn about the LGBTQ community,” she states in the midst of the documentary. “There are a lot of people who have filmed the Asian LGBTQ community, but most of them don’t understand our reality and don’t get it right in their films.
“Only one female director made a great film, The Last Journey of Madam Phung,” Nguyễn continues. “That’s the only good movie about us. That’s all.”
Her friend replies that movies on transgender topics in Vietnam only exploit clichés. As an example, she cites the lottery drag queen troupes that tour the country.
“Yes, but it’s a part of our world,” Nguyễn responds. “The first time I met a trans person was when a lottery troupe came to my hometown to perform.”
Prior to that, she had never even seen a trans person on television.
“Anyways, I decided to work with Khoa,” she adds. “I mean, why not? We’re the new generation. Let’s show a new image. And we do a lot of fucking amazing things!”
Vietnam to introduce landmark new bill making it easier for trans people to change gender https://t.co/K7YqNfXYdH
— PinkNews (@PinkNews) April 10, 2023
That may be true. But they also engage in many normal activities. And in this film, they certainly succeed in showing the world a new image.
Moreover, the director of Vietnamese ancestry from Quebec, Khoa Lê, wasn’t kidding when he maintained that humanity centres his work. In Má Sài Gòn (Mother Saigon), he bids tạm biệt (goodbye) to typecasting and prejudices and a hearty hello to empathy.
In this age of trans-bashing, right-wing populist politicians, it couldn’t be more timely.
The DOXA Documentary Film Festival presents Má Sài Gòn (Mother Saigon) at 5:15 p.m. on Saturday (May 6) at The Cinematheque. For tickets, visit the DOXA website. The festival runs until May 14. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.