Cannes 2024 review: Viet and Nam (Truong Minh Quý)

Viet and Nam is one of those films that wakes you up the further you get into its beguiling narrative, until the ending hits you and you realize this might have been a masterpiece.”

Rife with symbolism, but surprisingly easy to follow for those who can focus (which is hard at the tail end of a festival) and know a bit of Vietnamese history, Truong Minh Quý’s second feature Viet and Nam quite literally digs into the darker moments of Vietnam’s past, whether half a century ago or quite recent. Set in 2001, roughly halfway between the two most pivotal moments for the film (we know this because the 9/11 attacks are mentioned), one has to forgive the anachronism of this queer romance’s sad ending, inspired by a 2019 incident in England in which a number of Vietnamese migrants froze to death in a shipping container; an earlier remark from one of the film’s protagonists, telling his lover he hopes the water he needs to traverse freezes so he can walk across suddenly takes on a poignant and devastating meaning.

This is one of the more oblique references to Vietnam’s tragic history; the other tragedy, its biggest and best known, is tackled through Hoa, the mother of one of the protagonists, Nam. Having vivid dreams about her husband, who died during the war but whose body was never found, Hoa is determined to find his remains so she can finally put her grief to rest. Nam and his boyfriend Viet tag along, as does a family friend who fought alongside Nam’s father. Travelling to the country’s former Viet Cong territory, they cross the path of a charlatan psychic who is helping another family find a lost one. Digging up dirt, the woman exclaims that his body has turned to dirt, but insists that the mud she pulls up is indeed their long-lost relative. The protagonists follow Hoa’s dreams instead of fake visions, but whether that actually has a more satisfactory ending is left open.

There is a lot of digging in Viet and Nam, symbolizing that Vietnam’s earth holds the country’s history and also its secrets. Viet and Nam are lovers, a taboo that symbolically needs to be kept underground. They meet as coal miners in Vietnam’s extensive mining industry. Their trysts are kept in secret by the darkness of the mine; up top, they pretend to be brothers. “This time I will be the older one,” Nam tells Viet as he presents him with a birthday cake. The boy’s mother, in a touching moment of motherly love, tells Nam to bring Viet along on their quest to find her husband’s bones. But the two lovers are destined to be separated, as Nam intends to illegally move abroad, mimicking other family and community members who have done so. He is shown training on how to get into a shipping container, and also to cross a body of water in a plastic bag, pulled across by a swimmer. The film’s closing shot of a shipping container adrift at sea is foreboding and depressing. Officially it is this pessimistic outlook that made the Vietnamese government ban the film already before its premiere in Cannes, though its depiction of gay romance might also have played a role in that.

The bittersweet love story is gorgeously rendered on 16mm stock by DP Son Doan, especially in Viet and Nam’s sooty scenes of intimacy, where the glittering background of dark coal conjures up a starry sky or a flurry of snowflakes. The film’s opening scene, in which we see a half-naked man appear out of the dark, revealed to be carried by another as they get closer, is almost like a fever dream, and given the fate of these lovers it is already an early warning that this might not be a happy love story. But Viet and Nam are given their moments of bliss, even if Viet feels an increasing sense of abandonment over Nam’s plans to leave the country. Above ground the lush greens of Vietnam’s forests take over, although the polluting effect of the mining industry that employs both men is not ignored. “I probably have a few kilos of coal in my lungs,” Nam tells his mother, giving us at once a reason for him to leave the country as well as showing how the country’s industry is slowly poisoning its people. Viet and Nam presents these themes at times matter-of-factly, in other instances through more cryptic references, but at an unhurried pace that lets the viewer take everything in. Screening this at a moment at which festival fatigue is starting to hit everyone in the face was perhaps not the smartest move, but paradoxically Viet and Nam is one of those films that wakes you up the further you get into its beguiling narrative, until the ending hits you and you realize this might have been a masterpiece.