Mother Saigon


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Mother Saigon
"It is very much an insider’s perspective and brings to the fore the sort of everyday issues that anyone, anywhere might relate to." | Photo: courtesy of Newfest

“There are a lot of people who have filmed the Asian LGBTQ+ community,” says one of the participants in Khoa Lê’s highly acclaimed new documentary, “but most of them don’t understand our reality and don’t get it right in their films.”

The danger, always, when Westerners film people living in the East, is of exotification and the fetishising of difference. That’s also a danger ever present in films about LGBTQ+ communities, so the combination of the two creates a precarious situation. This film, which recently screened at Newfest, does feature brilliant costuming and dramatic visual techniques, but it is very much an insider’s perspective and brings to the fore the sort of everyday issues that anyone, anywhere might relate to.

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Family is at the centre of the film. A wedding is being planned. Relatives have to be won over. Parents adjust to their kids’ sexuality and get to know their new partners. Some of them dive headlong into queer society, one mother acquiring stereotypically fabulous spending habits into the process, which puts pressure on the gay son from whom she constantly borrows money. Elsewhere, a house mother reminds the young people she has taken in to think about their futures. The implication is clear: it is no longer acceptable to assume, if living as a social outcast, that one won’t have one. Things are changing in Vietnam. This community is full of people who are no longer prepared to put up with being marginalised, with having their stories erased.

Last year, the country formally acknowledged that same sex attraction and the desire to transition are not mental illnesses, and that LGBTQ+ people deserve equal access to healthcare, helping to reduce discrepancies in life expectancy which exist across many parts of the world, including the US. A scene in which one man teases another about his desire to go on a particular fairground ride, telling him that he’s too old and receiving the response “I’m only 30!” again prompts one to wonder about this, but again the sense is of positive momentum. This characterises the film in general, despite the obvious struggles which some of its participants have faced.

Amid reflections on heartbreak, there are stories of love, some of which we see directly in happy couples and in recently expanded families whose older members glow with pride. Discussions about the difficulty of forming lasting relationships as a trans person with cis partners who find themselves under pressure to find a marriage which will produce children are balanced by an appreciation of the ridiculousness of some cis people’s behaviour. There is also a focus on the community’s determination to create joy and celebration on its own terms. Many of the participants work in the fashion business, and in their spare time they create amazing outfits which blend elements of modern and traditional design. Pageants and drag performances are shot with a focus on audience reactions, emphasising the way that being accepted and adored on stage can help those who have faced rejection elsewhere to heal.

We follow the protagonists through nightclubs and arcades with glittering walls made from strings of beads, where sequins shine under multicoloured lights. Khoa Lê shoots one scene through a giant aquarium, with fish swimming past. We also see the rain-damp streets, the tower blocks and public parks – Ho Chi Minh City dressed up and dressed down. It frames the action, wrapping around the people, holding them close. Here they all belong. A poem addresses this relationship, framing the city as a wayward mother, but there is never any real doubt of her love.

Reviewed on: 19 Oct 2023
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Mother Saigon packshot
A love letter to the mosaic of queer lives in Saigon, a city that is as liberating as it is oppressive.

Director: Khoa Lê

Writer: Jonathan Bernier, Khoa Lê

Year: 2023

Runtime: 99 minutes

Country: Canada


Newfest 2023

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