Vietnam: Children of the Mist, 2021
By: Claus Mueller, Senior Editor
In her first feature documentary set in contemporary Vietnam, director and cinematographer Diem Ha Le contrasts the conflict prompted by established cultural community values and governmental stipulations that set a legal framework for marriages. The film elucidates the interpersonal problems of reconciling archaic family traditions in a rapidly modernizing society where young people have constant contact through social media and a secular educational system. Her production is set in a Hmong village in the mountains of North Vietnam and records the story of twelve years old Di and her social and family life over three years. The Hmong belong to an indigenous ethnic group of about 900,000 living with their families in small communities and surviving through agriculture and animal husbandry. Though sympathetic to Di, the filmmaker embraces a subdued ethnographic approach, leaving interpretations up to the viewer.
The film documents a persistent feature of the Hmong tradition which determines for some young women their transition to adulthood, an unusual matrimonial custom, bride kidnapping facilitated by the expectation that girls marry at a very young age. A would-be groom, with the help of his family and friends, abducts the girl. If her family cannot locate her, the kidnapping victim will be forced to marry the prospective groom. If she is found, both families can negotiate a solution. If a marriage takes place, the girl’s parents work out a payment or bounty from the other family. What is feared most is the disappearance of girls because of traffickers selling them in nearby China.
Di is an articulate attractive young girl, raised by her mother and rarely shown father. She helps with the farm work, has an active social life, and is attending school. She learns about her rights, though still steeped in the traditional Hmong life. Di is abducted by Vang, with full support from his family during the Lunar new year celebration, the bride-kidnapping season. Vang has dropped out of school, has no clear direction for his future, and cannot explain what motivated his abduction of Di. Di’s mother is ambivalent about the abduction. She was abducted too, a fate repeated by her other daughter La. La left school, and now at the age of 17, expects her second child. If Di were to leave, there will be no help for the mother because she and her husband are alcoholics. Her experience and traditional values condone the bride kidnapping, but she warns Di that Vang may turn out to be like his and her father, an alcoholic. The mother supports the enforced marriage of Di and pressures her husband to get money and many dowry gifts from Vang’s family.
Though admitting to being immature, Di is in a better negotiating position because she knows the official rules and is supported by her teachers. When both families meet to solve the problem, Di argues that she has not reached the legal age for marriage and that full consent by the parents is required. The parents will be punished if they violate the laws. She also adds that she can consider marriage only after graduating from school. If laws are broken, birth certificates may not be issued. A second attempt to abduct her fails. Di tells Vang that she will never marry him, and he agrees to the breakup though his and Di’s family will lose face breaking the archaic tradition.
Children of the Mist was supported by Sundance, the Ford Foundation / Just Films, the Open Society, and other funders. The film received the 2021 Award for Best Directing in the International Competition from the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.