Two gay Vietnamese miners face an uncertain future in Truong Minh Quy’s delicate drama

Viet And Nam

Source: Cannes Film Festival

‘Viet And Nam’

Dir/scr: Truong Minh Quy. Vietnam/Philippines/Singapore/France/Netherlands/Italy/Germany. 2024. 129mins

Closeted romance, migration, human trafficking and the spectre of war are among the themes granted space to quietly reverberate within Truong Minh Quy’s third feature. Following his debut with The City of Mirrors: A Fictional Biography (2016) and festival breakthrough The Tree House (2019), the writer-director truly finds his rhythm with this entrancing tale of two gay miners set against the backdrop of the central highlands of Vietnam.

A richly personal blend of the authentic and the abstract

Comparisons to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s filmography, from Blissfully Yours (2002) and Tropical Malady (2004) through to Cemetery Of Splendour (2015), are inevitable given Truong’s emphasis on dreams and memories in a bucolic setting, and there are also discernible echoes of Bi Gan and Anocha Suwichakornpong. Competing in the Un Certain Regard selection at Cannes, Viet And Nam will surely impress on the festival circuit and should have no trouble catching the eyes of specialty distributors. While it would sit well in any LGBTQ+ streaming catalogue, international art-house theatrical appeal is afforded by its wonderfully textured, almost hand-made quality which was achieved by shooting on 16mm film stock. 

The film is set in 2001, indicated by references to the years since the Vietnam War and news of the 9/11 terrorist attack. Its titular characters are 20-something lovers who toil away down a coal mine and snatch fleeting moments of passion in its sooty depths. Nam (Thanh Hai Pham) is planning to follow other young people from the region by migrating to Europe, so is readying for an arduous journey in a shipping container that has been arranged by a trafficker. Viet (Duy Bao Dinh Dao) desperately wants Nam to stay, but keeps his growing sense of abandonment at bay.

This bittersweet romance overlaps with the yearning of Nam’s mother, Hoa (Thi Nga Nguyen) to make peace with the loss of her husband who perished during wartime military service before Nam was born. Her husband’s body was never recovered, but her dreams of him next to a big tree inspire Hoa to seek assistance from his army friend Ba (Viet Tung Le) to locate his resting place. With their separation imminent, Nam and Viet join her mission as a last hurrah of sorts.

Viet And Nam may not quite be slow cinema, but it is an unhurried experience with a deceptively slight narrative that gradually unites its generational strands. The first half creates a complete contrast between the subterranean environs of the mine and the pastoral lushness of the surrounding countryside, presenting the former as a refuge where Nam and Viet can express themselves fully without fear of reproach. Their relationship blossoms amidst an environment that is not only dusty but also hazardously polluted. Yet cinematographer Son Doan gives these intensely intimate scenes a hallucinatory quality that conveys the manner in which visual and sensory distortions occur in a space with limited air. Rock formations become positively phantasmagorical, glistening in the darkness like stars, while Doan’s framing accentuates the illusion that these naked bodies are drifting in outer space.

The second half constitutes a quest as the path of Nam’s father as a soldier is retraced, and a psychic (Le Ho Lan) with performative tendences enters the picture in almost showstopping fashion. It’s at this juncture that Truong delicately invokes the haunting presence of the past which possesses Hoa and Ba. The shared trauma between the widow and combat veteran is achingly portrayed, with Ba clearly holding something back in his account of Hoa’s husband’s untimely demise. His eventual disclosure is one of the film’s more conventionally dramatic developments, but one that provides an understated catharsis that allows for the possibility of a belated new beginning.

Related to the theme of moving on is Truong’s rumination on border crossings, whether real or imagined. Nam’s preparations for undocumented migration are presented in a matter-of-fact manner that indicates the dangers involved. Yet his impending journey is casually talked about as if it is a commercial flight rather than a congested sea voyage, which seems incongruous in the face of myriad news stories of human trafficking operations which have taken tragic turns. Elliptical editing by Felix Rehm that interweaves a floating container with the young men’s underground tryst vividly expresses their willingness to take considerable risks to fulfil corporeal desires and needs.

Viet And Nam may studiously occupy a certain world cinema niche, but Truong’s flourishes ensure that it offers a richly personal blend of the authentic and the abstract.

Production Company: Epicmedia Productions

International sales: Pyramide International,

Producers: Bianca Balbuena, Bradley Liew

Cinematography: Son Doan

Production design: Truong Trung Dao

Editing: Felix Rehm

Main cast: Thanh Hai Pham, Duy Bao Dinh Dao, Thi Nga Nguyen, Viet Tung Le, Le Ho Lan, Khanh Ngan