Bóng Eroticism in Queer Vietnamese Cinema by Nguyen Tan Hoang

Picture from the movie Fool for Love, 2010

This article has been published as part of the Asian Film Festival Berlin 2017.
For further information please visit the website of the festival./
Dieser Artikel erscheint im Rahmen des Asian Film Festivals Berlin 2017.
Besucht bitte die Webseite des Festivals für weitere Informationen.

The queer literary critic Hiram Perez has written, “Being gay always involves, to some extent, being someplace else.” This assertion highlights the close connection between queer identity and physical mobility. Recall American soldiers traveling from small towns in the Midwest to the big cities on the coasts during World War II, and more recently, migration by Filipina workers from Manila to Hong Kong, Dubai, and Rome in the past several decades. What is striking in these movements is the way these subjects come to try out, adapt, and adopt queer identities after they have left home for “someplace else.” It’s worth noting that queerness-via-mobility is accorded different values depending on one’s points of departure and arrival: a movement from oppression to liberation, ignorance to affirmation, but also from safety to danger, familiarity to alienation.

Picture from the movie Fool for Love, 2010
Figure 1. Để Mai Tính (Fool for Love, dir. Charlie Nguyen, 2010)

This tension underscoring queer mobility can be seen in a small cycle of high-profile Vietnamese films that offer unprecedented treatments of male homosexuality: Trai Nhảy (Bar Boys, dir. Lê Hoàng, 2007); Để Mai Tính (Fool for Love, dir. Charlie Nguyen, 2010); and Hot Boy Nổi Loạn (Lost in Paradise, dir. Vũ Ngọc Đãng, 2011) [Figure 1]. These films depict “gay,” or bóng (literally “shadow”), characters either as rural workers living in abject poverty in the big city or wealthy overseas Vietnamese returning to exploit business opportunities. In both cases, they are seen as the outsider within, that is, as the national abject due to their extreme class status or sexual deviance. More broadly, in these films, homosexuality is closely tied to gender fluidity, conspicuous consumption, and transnational travel and migration. Marked as affluent, cosmopolitan, and modern, these characters’ bóng eroticism is painted as contagious, addictive, and morally corrupt. The achievement of bóng capitalist success is considered alienating, resulting in the irretrievable loss of traditional forms of intimacy and kinship. The films’ narrative trajectories echo the films’ address to upward and outward audiences; both in their themes and circuit of exhibition-reception-distribution, the films foreground the desires for market freedoms and the necessity of reigning in those dangerous freedoms.

Picture from the Movie Lost in Paradise, 2011
Figure 2. Hot Boy Nổi Loạn (Lost in Paradise, dir. Vũ Ngọc Đãng, 2011)

Consider the opening sequence of Hot Boy Nổi Loạn which introduces the two main characters. Khôi is a twenty-year old man who comes to Saigon from the smaller coastal city of Nha Trang after his family disowned him for being gay; the sequence shows Khôi walking around picturesque downtown Saigon. Intercut with Khôi’s city wanderings are shots of another young man named Đông exercising in a public park. The camera lovingly and fetishistically frames Đông’s half naked, buffed body as he goes through his exercise routine; it exploits multiple vantage points, from intimate close ups to omniscient high angles, to showcase Đông’s magnificent specimen of manhood: rippling abs, sculpted pecs, massive shoulders, thick legs. The cross-cutting between advertisements for Chanel and Gucci, that is, global luxury brands, and Đông’s muscular body creates a desirous association between the lure of commodities and the lure of the Vietnamese male body: both are for sale. The visual echo between the made-in-Vietnam male body and the imported, International Male one suggests a new body aesthetic: that of the normatively masculine, straight-acting “global gay” [Figure 2].
The blatant commodification of the Vietnamese male body can also be found in Trai Nhảy. The film focuses on the relationship between a straight masseur named Tuấn and a young wealthy gay man named Tony. Though Tony first claims to hire Tuấn as his personal masseur, it quickly becomes clear that Tony doesn’t really want the massages, but only the happy endings. Like Hot Boy Nổi Loạn, Trai Nhảy explicitly aligns its treatment of homosexuality with desirable consumption, class mobility, and cosmopolitanism. Both films forge a connection between homosexuality and commercial sex. One way of understanding this conflation is through the concept of “social evils” that encompass both prostitution and homosexuality. As Marie-Eve Blanc points out, “After the Vietnam War, Vietnamese people attributed all social diseases to the bad influence of American neocolonialism which left South Vietnam with many ‘plagues’…. Social evils describe behavior that is bad, with regard to the morals of society, and inimical to the edification of the socialist state.” And yet, as Mimi Nguyen reminds us, even as commercial sex signifies “a social evil and moral corruption, a public health crisis and civic failure,” it also constitutes “an economic option and an entrepreneurial lure (and lubricant).” Thus, I suggest that the connection between homosexuality and commercial sex bespeaks agency: the ability to buy someone else’s services or to sell one’s own. As Mimi Nguyen goes on to say, “[C]ommercial sex advances ideas about what it means to be ‘modern’ but also ‘Vietnamese’ in one’s sexual practices and choices.” However, as these gay-themed films suggest, this modern Vietnameseness is expanded to accommodate the global gay.
In Trai Nhảy, a set of oppositions frames the seduction of Vietnamese hetero-everyman Tuấn by wordly gay-sophisticate Tony: Tony’s foreign, English name reverberates with Tuấn’s down-home, local moniker; Tony’s worldliness, expressed in a blasé manner, contrasts with Tuấn’s naïve, bumpkin enthusiasm [Figure 3]. Tony’s immense wealth is set off against Tuấn’s destitution. After a night of heavy drinking and partying at a queer club and Tony’s successful bid to get Tuấn into bed, Tuấn wakes up and flees in a panic. Tony prostrates himself before Tuấn and beseeches him not to go. His posture suggests that his money, social status, and mobility are alienating and ultimately unsatisfying. Tony’s failure to seduce the straight-acting Tuấn ends with a curious solution: Tony decides to go to Thailand to get a “sex-change” operation. This narrative development suggests that while Tony appears as normatively masculine, as a bóng kín (“closed shadow,” or discrete homosexual), his inner female identity eventually wins out. Tony’s solution to his unhappiness, as a result of his unrequited love for Tuấn, is to “cross” gender, to become a woman.

Picture from the Movie Bar Boys, 2007
Figure 3. Trai Nhảy (Bar Boys, dir. Lê Hoàng, 2007)

The shameless exhibitionism of these recent gay-themed films reveals how queerness conjures forth both curiosity and fear, desire and disavowal. I want to return to my earlier statement about these bóng (“shadow”) characters’ status as the national abject. In using the vernacular phrase for homosexuality, I deploy bóng eroticism to animate its associations with the unreal, the unsubstanstial, the delusional, the ghostly, the derivative and dependent. But it can also be read as a threat, a critique of heteronormativity and its being relentlessly trailed by, and shackled to, its shadow. Bóng eroticism suggests that for some queer subjects, as Gayatri Gopinath reminds us, resistance against heteronormativity means staying put, remaining at home.

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