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Viet and Nam

  • Film
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Viet and Nam
Photograph: Nicolas Graux/Cannes Film Festival

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Love, people trafficking and the ghosts of the past elide in this intimate yet panoramic Vietnamese drama

With his sublime slice of quite-slow-cinema, Vietnamese filmmaker Truong Minh Quy has reshaped his country’s anguished recent past into an emotional exploration of what it is to be young and queer in post-war Vietnam. 

We’re in 2001 and the title characters, Viet (Duy Bao Dinh Dao) and Nam (Thanh Hai Pham), are two twentysomething coal miners in love. The pair snatch tender moments 1000 metres below ground, secret lovers hiding their bond amid the dust-caked uniformity of their profession.

It’s tender and romantic – Quy’s contemplative camera frames the men holding each other on a twinkling pile of coal dust as if against a galaxy of stars, and shares gently explicit moments of intimacy (and at least one fairly gross one) – but like the detonations that sporadically shake the mine’s valley, something darker lingers below the surface of the film. 

Almost metaphysical in its deeper mysteries, Viet and Nam is a film where what lies beneath matters most. The subterranean nature of Viet and Nam’s work is a clever metaphor for their covert sexuality, but this isn’t a film that’s preoccupied with the risk of social ostracisation or the pain of homophobia. When Ba (Viet Tung Le), a wizened friend of Nam’s mum (Thi Nga Nguyen) asks when they’re getting married and one of them blurts: ‘What, to each other?’, it signals light relief rather than possible catastrophe.

The setting is important: Nam and Viet don’t live in a thriving, modern-day Vietnam, but a politically dogmatic country still nursing deep wounds from a two-decade-long conflict. Both of them, it’s implied, have lost their fathers in the war, and it’s Nam and his mum’s search for his dad’s body that shapes the second half of the film, with Viet tagging along as moral support. The trio – and Ba, an old Viet Cong comrade of Nam’s father – take a poignant trek into a forested Central Highlands (director Quy’s own home turf) still peppered with half-buried ordnance. 

Quy paints his nation’s war grief as a form of quasi-religion, fealty to which cannot be easily shaken off. Radio announcers intone the names of ‘martyrs’ whose bodies remain undiscovered; a spiritualist serves as a kind of divining rod to locate the fallen for their families. She gets reverential treatment, despite giving all the appearances of being a total huckster.

Those two forces – love and trauma – elide in Nam’s plan to escape the country via an illegal people trafficking operation. Viet begs him to stay but life in a country haunted by its past holds no promise for him. The two actors convey that deep unspoken sadness in scenes that linger like a lucid dream. 

Viet and Nam offers a fascinating insight into a nation’s psyche that bears a few striking thematic similarities to Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods – another emotional exhumation of the conflict told from the American side. Seen through Vietnamese eyes – if the film gets a release there, and it’s currently banned for its ‘negative view’ of the country – it must be difficult but deeply cathartic viewing. 

Viet and Nam premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Truong Minh Quy
  • Screenwriter:Truong Minh Quy
  • Cast:
    • Phạm Thanh Hải
    • Đào Duy Bảo Định
    • Nguyễn Thị Nga
    • Lê Viết Tụng
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