In spite of making significant progress over the recent years, including the legalisation of same-sex marriages in 2015, the conservative Vietnamese society is yet to be fully acceptable of homosexual couples. The dynamic of a gay relationship and its place in a traditional Vietnamese family is explored in director Trinh Dinh Le Minh’s debut feature film “Goodbye Mother”.

Goodbye Mother” is screening at San Diego Asian Film Festival

Nau Van returns home several years after staying in America on the anniversary of his father’s death to meet his family, which comprises of his mother Mrs. Hanh, the family’s main bread-earner, his elder aunty and her family, his younger unmarried aunty, and a senile grandmother. He brings along Ian, an American born and raised Vietnamese boy who the family instantly warms up to, including Nau Van’s cousin Kim, who starts fancying the good-looking Ian as well as his senile grandmother, who insists that Ian is her grandson Nau Van. Little does everybody know though that Ian is actually Nau Van’s boyfriend, that the two have been in a relationship for years or that they have come together so that Nau Van can come out to his family. That, however, seems easier said than done in a family and society where everyone is pressuring Nau Van, the eldest grandson of the family, to marry soon and have children of his own.

While the story of “Goodbye Mother” isn’t completely fresh, Trinh Dinh Le Minh’s treatment of the subject certainly is. The film is as much a comedy as it is an LGBTQ drama and the director finds the right balance between the two. While the first half is filled with more laughter, the second half brings the drama full-on as secrets are discovered and realisation dawns that some expectations are to remain unfulfilled forever. The film has a lot to say about traditional Vietnamese society’s bias towards the LGBTQ community and the expectations of elders from their children, including a comment on how only the senile seem to be the only sane in today’s society, but thanks to Nhi Bui’s subtle screenplay, it feels very natural and organic. In fact, the same can be said of the film in its entirety, where none of the drama, or indeed the comedy, feels forced. 

The film is also not interested in the explicitness of their relationship. Instead, it is more content observing the quiet glances at the dinner table, the longing gaze they share at a local carnival dance, wanting to hold each other but vary of the crowd around them and the rare kiss exchanged stealingly inside the outdoor shower cabin. In this endeavour, it is vastly helped by its lead central pair of Lanh Thanh and Vo Dien Gia Huy as Nau Van and Ian respectively, whose chemistry is beautiful to watch. Everything from their romantic scenes to their arguments and the tears feel genuine. Watch out for the scene where Nau Van tends to the wounds of Ian after a tussle and cries; the tears have a tendency to replicate on your face too. 

While the rest of the cast (mostly the ladies) are all very well in their roles, it is veteran actress Hong Dao who steals the limelight as Mrs Hanh. Her quiet demeanour as she observes the two boys, suspicious of their relationship but never confronting them about it, is masterly. One scene of particular note is nearer to the end of the film where the family gets into an altercation and outright name-calling and Mrs. Hanh defends her son. It is plainly visible in her performance that every word coming out of her mouth, and of those around her, is hurting her but she braves on. Nsut Le Thien also deserves special mention for her hilarious turn as the senile Grandma.

Huay Bing Law’s colourful cinematography makes ample use of the stunning southwestern Vietnamese countryside, capturing the lush green gardens, winding village roads and picturesque rivers and bridges with as much beauty as it does the interiors of the vast house the family lives in. A couple scenes, one with Nau Van lying next to his mother’s feet and shedding a tear and other with him kissing a sleeping Ian are personal favourites. Ton That An’s music fills the film’s quieter moments with a peaceful charm.

“Goodbye Mother” is a progressive step in the right direction in a film industry still stuck in the tragic love stories and cliched camp characters when it comes to depicting homosexual characters which impresses with its authenticity and sincerity. I, for one, am anxious to see what Trinh Dinh Le Minh does next.