Film Review: Goodbye Mother | Thưa Mẹ Con Đi (2019)

Goodbye Mother is as bold as it is introspective in its exploration of homosexuality in contemporary Vietnam. As far as Southeast Asian debut features go, Trinh Dinh Le Minh’s attempt is among the more ambitious. It centres around Nau Van, a gay Vietnamese youth, as he attempts to come out to his family upon returning to his rural hometown. There, he faces the challenges of balancing duty and desire in a conservative milieu. It’s a heartfelt portrait of closeted sexuality, albeit muddled and melodramatic in parts.

After staying several years in the States, Van returns home to Saigon for the moving of his late father’s grave. Tagging along is his boyfriend, Ian, who arrives unannounced, masquerading as a friend on vacation. Ian is one of the many secrets Van has been keeping from his family.

Van comes off as emotionally detached, and somewhat despondent whenever his partner isn’t by his side. Even after travelling halfway across the world, Van still hasn’t closed the distance between he and his family. The only person able to close this gap is his beloved grandmother, a lively amnesiac who treats Van with great fondness. However, there is but one caveat: Van’s grandmother has mistaken Ian for Van. In an instant, Ian, the outsider, is made the insider. He quickly becomes a medium through which Van can reach his family.

While the film can often feel like a pastiche of other forbidden romance plots, this dynamic of mistaken identity gives Goodbye Mother an edge above the rest. Notably, the film’s most genuine and tender moments are shared between Ian and Van’s grandmother. She provides a listening ear for Ian’s qualms about his future with Van. Fittingly, she is the only one who is readily accepting of their sexuality.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Van’s domineering mother. Tension lingers in every scene he shares with her. Ian’s unexpected arrival, for one, invites unwelcome attention. Ian and Van’s teasing glances are constantly punctuated by her suspecting gaze. She plays a central role to Van’s conflict, becoming both a source of comfort and fear. It’s little wonder that he continues to shroud the true nature of his relationship with Ian in ambiguity.

She showers him with expectations: A wife, a home, children. It’s a mantra his family recites time and time again. As far as traditional households go, such expectations are the tip of the iceberg. The film’s most blatant illustration of these expectations occurs during a family gathering, during which Van’s Uncle drags him onstage to question him about when he’s getting married. Evidently, marriage is more a necessity than a desire. Gradually, his hope for his family to accept his homosexuality is reduced to a chimera.

Unfortunately, a lot of these cultural nuances can get lost in translation. At its worst, Goodbye Mother can be tonally messy. I found it odd how this film is described as a romantic comedy, because humour was hardly its strongest suit. Case in point, the mental acuity of Van’s grandmother fluctuates according to where and when the plot demands it. Often, her forgetfulness is played for humour, which can make for an erratic tone whenever the protagonists share a dramatic scene. The narrative also meanders whenever the story shifts to the rest of the family. Inter-family politics were hardly a source of interest. If anything, it distracted from the central conflict between Van and his Mother.

Although, these issues are mere shortcomings in what is otherwise, a brazenly realistic drama. At its best, the film paints an intimate portrait of a couple whose love is confined to a private sphere. At one point, Ian laments to Van how he doesn’t want the bathroom to be the only place where they can be close. In retaliation, Van states, “We’re in Vietnam. Not the States”. This scene best exemplifies the central issue the film is trying to highlight. In spite of Vietnam’s legalisation of same-sex marriages, the general populace is still far from accepting members of its community. Van’s slow realisation of this puts him on the cusp between Western ideals and Eastern conservatism.

While the boundary is a line that has become increasingly blurred in recent years, the film’s resolution implies it may never be fully erased. Speaking of which, the film’s ending is one I want to highlight. In a film with twists at every turn, what struck me most was the way it ended. Van and Ian pack their bags and are set on leaving—this time, for good. Van has a tearful farewell with his mother, whom he hopes to relocate to the States. It’s a far cry from the romantic reveries Hollywood present, but it is a reality many queer Vietnamese youth have to face. Perhaps the film’s title, “Goodbye Mother”, means more than a parting adieu, but a farewell to one’s homeland. In Van’s case, his sexuality leaves him no choice but to shirk his Vietnamese identity, renouncing his citizenship and even his own home in the process. It’s painfully bittersweet but nevertheless apt, and a testament to Trinh Dinh Le Minh’s uncompromising direction.

- Charlie Chua
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