Commercial movies keep breaking records. The highest grossing film of all time in Vietnam is now “Avengers: Infinity War,” which made VND 175 billion. This has been a boon for Vietnam’s fledgling independent cinema scene, as the cinema explosion has inspired confidence that smaller projects can still make waves. This has led to a noteworthy collection of LGBTQ films in Vietnam.

Filmmakers are telling LGBTQ stories not previously told. And they are doing it with small budgets. Whether or not the directors or actors identify as LGBTQ, these works reckon with a changing, more tolerant society. These films—from documentaries to surrealist shorts—use a variety of forms to tell stories about a range of experiences. Many eschew the label of LGBTQ altogether.

A changing society

Many consider Ngoc Dang Vu’s “Lost in Paradise” as the first film from Vietnam to explicitly depict same-sex love. The picture was released in 2011 and later screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Since then social perceptions have continued to change, and there have been independent LGBTQ films in Vietnam made by both established directors and young talents.

Societal change relating to LGBTQ rights has been rapid in Vietnam. The first gay pride parade took place in Hanoi in 2012 and a ban on same-sex marriage was repealed in 2014. In 2001, 82% of Vietnamese said homosexuality was never acceptable, but in 2014, nearly half were in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage.

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LGBTQ activist groups criticized the portrayal of the lead transgender character in “Let Hoi Decide.”

But the LGBTQ community still faces discrimination in everyday life. One-fifth say they have been abused by a family member and many face housing or workplace discrimination. Others believe that popular Vietnamese culture reduces the LGBTQ community to caricatures. The 2014 film “Let Hoi Decide” or “De Mai Tinh 2,” for example, was a huge box office success earning VND 100 billion. But LGBTQ activist groups said the character Hoi reinforced perceptions of transgender people as effeminate, weak, and flamboyant.

Bao Chau Nguyen is a filmmaker, student, and organizer of the Hanoi International Queer Film Week. During its inaugural iteration in April 2017, there were 23 films included. It is the only festival that has featured LGBTQ films in Vietnam to date. He says of “Let Hoi Decide,” “When I saw that film, I didn’t criticise the director. I just realized we need increased awareness for both the general public and filmmakers.

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The first Hanoi International Queer Film Week happened last April, with another scheduled for 2018.

Bao Chau Nguyen says that progress has been evident in Vietnamese society. “You can see perceptions—not just in film—but also in normal life—have already changed a lot. Ten years ago, I don’t think I could have said I was transgender.

Many filmmakers want to increase public awareness with their work. But for LGBTQ films in Vietnam, this message can take on countless forms.

The various forms of LGBTQ films in Vietnam

Le My Cuong is a documentary filmmaker who is finishing his studies in Hanoi. His short film “We Are Coming Home” recounts the story of a gay couple living in Hanoi and includes interviews with neighbors and family members, all of whom have different views on LGBTQ issues. Next, he is working on a project about LGBTQ people who are married and hiding their sexual orientation.

“Making documentary films is one of the best ways to spread messages about the equality and identity of the LGBTQ community,” Cuong says. “A sense of sympathy and curiosity motivates me. The journey of making a documentary film is also a golden opportunity for me to discover myself and reflect on my own experiences.”

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A screenshot from “Roommate,” a surrealist short film directed by Nguyen Le Hoang Viet.

Some LGBTQ films in Vietnam are choosing to showcase diversity in a different way. “Roommate” is a surrealist short and was the first successfully crowdfunded Vietnamese film, raising VND 92 million from Fundstart.

Nguyen Le Hoang Viet is the short film’s director. He explains, “I was exploring the theme of connection in a broad sense. It could be perceived as a sensitive exploration of LGBTQ relationships. But I try to avoid the limited interpretation that “Roommate” is about gay or bisexual issues.”

In addition to the rise of LGBTQ films in Vietnam, alternative methods of sharing stories are also cropping up. In 2012, the web series “My Best Gay Friends” made a huge splash upon its release—each episode currently has around 2 million views on YouTube. It features three gay men in their 20s who live together in an apartment in Ho Chi Minh City. Despite its shoestring budget, it proved popular receiving praise for its progressive attitude toward LGBTQ issues.

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The webseries “My Best Gay Friends” gained quick popularity for its humorous take on LGBTQ identity.

“I think the current state of LGBTQ representation in Vietnam reflects the fact that our country’s LGBTQ community is still discriminated against,” Nguyen Le Hoang Viet explains. “However, with the rise of social media there are now more ways for young queer Vietnamese to both see themselves represented and to represent themselves.”

Avoiding labels

Another film from Vietnam that touches on LGBTQ issues is “Mekong Stories” or “Cha Va, Con Va.” Like many films that show same-sex attraction or love, its creators shy away from labeling it is an “LGBTQ film.” It was released in 2015 and was the first Vietnamese film to debut in the main competition of the Berlin International Film Festival.

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“Mekong Stories” debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival. Hoang Cong Le plays Vu, far left.

Lead actor Hoang Cong Le plays Vu, a teenager who is coming of age in 1990s Vietnam. About his role, Hoang says, “When the director briefed me, it wasn’t about LGBTQ. It was about this guy who is growing up. As I understood my character, he might have loved his male friend. But he also liked his female friend.”

“It’s deliberately complicated because when we were filming we didn’t define anything,” he continues. “I just lived in the character and in the environment that the director created. In the film, the character didn’t define himself as LGBTQ either.”

“The primary goal of these films is showing diversity in experience, rather than dividing things into clear-cut categories. The labels don’t matter,” Bao Chau Nguyen says.

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Hoang Cong Le says that he doesn’t think of “Mekong Stories” as an LGBTQ film. He explains, “The character didn’t define it as LGBTQ either.”

Truong Chau Minh Ngoc is a producer at the small PuRuWa & SuToTa production house. She has produced several low-budget short films released on YouTube, including “The Pulse” and “The Truth Is.” She chose to make these films because she saw a lack of stories about lesbian woman in popular culture. But she also wants to avoid making the films too explicit in their message.

“In our films we have turned our stories of homosexual love into normal love stories to better elicit the emotions of the audience,” she explains.

The increasing number of independent LGBTQ films in Vietnam suggests that more people are interested in these stories. Most of the filmmakers involved are very young—many are even still in school, like Bao Chau Nguyen and Le My Cuong. And there are more projects on the horizon. One of those is “Goodbye Mother.” Trinh Dinh Le Minh is the director. He also shot the short film “The Scent of Fish Sauce,” and “Goodbye Mother” will be his first feature.

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Trinh Dinh Le Minh is the director of the upcoming feature-length film “Goodbye Mother.” The film touches on LGBTQ issues, but it isn’t the “primary theme.”

“Actually, LGBTQ isn’t the primary theme of this film,” he says. “We’re not trying to stir up a debate. Instead, the message is focused on how and why we make decisions within the family unit, and the effect those choices have on our happiness.”

Like the many other Vietnamese filmmakers currently working in this space, he wants his treatment of LGBTQ stories to be nuanced. “The audience has the freedom to make their own judgements,” he explains finally.

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