Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 14, 2022 12:56 pm 
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[Woman] filmmaker helplessly follows a cruel Hmong custom: child bride kidnapping

Diễm Hà Lệ's participating-observer documentary is a plunge into ethnography and the world of the Hmong people of a mountainous and misty region of Northern Vietnam. No question about the skillful, artistically effective quality of this film. It begins with a glimpse of Diễm's pre-teen friend Di and then several beautiful panoramic shots of the local landscape, which could be described as both "rugged" and "delicate." The film meanders a bit, thus conveying families, personalities, and lifestyles. Gradually it acquires a very coherent form and a main subject, the lingering custom of "kidnapping" young girls and making them child brides,, robbing them of a childhood and a better future.

I thought of Lévy-Strauss's famous title Tristes Tropiques. Not that we are in the tropics. The cool climate occasions the wearing of highly embellished needlework known as paj ntaub or flower cloth: both men and women, especially for an important event, wear beautiful clothing and plenty of it. But observation of the Hmong arouses the mixture of feelings reflected in Lévy-Strauss' adjective "tristes" even though the Mmong are often smiling, laughing, and playful. They are "tristes" because frankly their lives are nothing to envy, a world of limitations, narrow horizons.

These lives are an odd mixture of hard physical work and almost continual play. Alcohol is central to their culture. A marriage agreement as well as an agreement to suspend an engagement are both sealed by a drink. But beyond that adult men often have a continual buzz on. Nor is drinking and drunkenness a restricted male activity, but practiced by women as well. With this seems to go confused and irresponsible behavior.

The custom of "kidnapping" underage brides is one of these. At the traditional time of the Lunar New Year festivities a boy goes off with Di on a sort of "date," and the next thing we know she has failed to return home. Both Di's parents and Di herself behave ambivalently about this. Though Di initially went along with things, she later acknowledges being mistaken because she doesn't like the boy (though other girls say he's good looking). Her parents keep contradicting themselves, sometimes agreeing to the kidmap-marriage, other times objecting to it. As the [url=""]Variety review[/url] points out, at this point any resolve against marriage may now be too late "in a prickly period of negotiation between two mutually wary households, as matters of dowry, obligation and family honor are all considered ahead of the happiness of the two children in question." At one point Di's mother objects to her marrying Kang, the young boy, but then giggles and says "Is he rich?"

The kids go to school (a fairly new thing) and Diễm films in a classroom where we learn students regularly play hookey to help with farming chores. The teacher scolds them for this one by one. Later a group of teachers intervene on Di's behalf against the imposition of child marriage. But then can only opine, and then they withdraw, having no final authority over custom or family. Di recognizes that if she quits school to be a bride at fourteen, she is opting out of a better life, a possible job, and a chance (she says) to take her mother to places she has never seen beyond the village.

It is strange to observe that like everywhere in the world the Hmong, at least the young, carry cell phones so they are continually in touch with each other and, to some extent at least, the outside world. (Probably this aids them in learning Vietnamese as well as the Homng language, but that isn't gone into.) And they are on Facebook and have Facebook pages with all the speeded up electronic chatter and gossip that implies. Will this speed change? Surely one would think so, but it's too soon to say, and the culture is a powerful force for continuity in this isolated environment. (The town is only briefly glimpsed.)

The "participatory observer" role is a long-established one in ethnography, clearly true of Diễm, whom Di or others sometimes address. But it gets more intense when there's a scuffle and they bang into some of the film equipment, and finally when the kidnapping boy grabs Di to take her back and Diễm joins those trying to pull her back.

The adults are playful and childlike so three's a sense of fun. But we're left with a sense of hopelessness in the face of age-old customs that are disadvantageous for everyone, especially young women. These show no immediate signs of changing; but another film in a year or two may look different. Under the circumstances, we can't expect improvement.

Children of the Mist, 90 mins., debuted at Amsterdam Nov. 2021; also Seattle Apr. 2022; reviewed as part of New Directors/New Films (FLC, MoMA) Apr. 20-May 1, 2022.

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