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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