Empowerment or Exploitation? Sexuality in Để Mai Tính

diaCRITICS will periodically have guest blogs. Here’s one about the sexual politics of Để Mai Tính/Fool for Love from Lee Ngo, a third-year Ph.D. student in sociocultural anthropology at the University of California, Irvine.

Actor Thai Hoa

When I first heard that Fool For Love, a romantic comedy directed by Charlie Nguyen (The Rebel) and starring Kathy Uyen (Spirits, Passport to Love) and co-writer Dustin Nguyen (21 Jumpstreet, The Rebel, The Legend is Alive), is premiering in my hometown of Portland this month, I felt a mix of excitement and apprehension. I’ve seen the film three times (twice in the US and once in Vietnam), and immediately I knew its crowd-pleasing story and tongue-in-cheek humor would be a hit with a Vietnamese-speaking audience. The films stands as the biggest box office grossing film ever produced officially in Vietnam, and its run in the US has pulled in a respectable gross so far compared to other films produced by and for ethnic Vietnamese.

Random comment: that bag is fabulous.

With an approximate population of 15,000 Vietnamese in Portland (12,000 as of 2005, 10,000 in 2000), however, I don’t think it will make a big impression on a visible but demographically small community. I’m much more concerned with reactions from the LGBTQA community in Portland. Much of the interest in this film from Vietnamese and American audience focuses on Hoi, the main supporting character of Fool For Love. Hoi, an out-and-proud cosmetics entrepreneur played by Vietnamese actor Thai Hoa (who is straight), is a perpetual scene-stealer and unsung hero of the film. Many media sources in Vietnam regard Hoi as the film’s true star, and they widely expected that Hoa will win his second Golden Kite (the Vietnamese equivalent to the Academy Awards) for his performance. If you asked me last week, I would have agreed with this sentiment. Now I’m not so sure.

"Did Lee say that I don't deserve another Golden Kite? Oh, no, he didn't."

We all know that for years non-heterosexuals get caricatured heavily in film and television. Putting over-the-top gay characters into a project, whether the story demands it or not, is an easy device to draw cheap laughs, especially from a pretty conservative community such as the good majority of Vietnamese in the world. Even though I am a hyper-sensitive heterosexual ally leftist who champions civil rights and equitable representation for everyone, I couldn’t help but laugh when Hoi burst into the screen for the first time. Or the second time. Or even the third time. I just got caught up like everyone else with Hoi’s unyielding, energetic conviction from start to finish. The film also digs very deep into Hoi’s background, and by the end of the film I sincerely cared for his character’s well-being. When I saw Fool for Love the third time with packed crowd of mostly ethnic Vietnamese in San Diego, however, I began to question my original perspective.

A heterosexual bites the homosexual hand that feeds him. Hidden message?

As Hoi made his grand entrance once again, I could hear the crowd murmuring, mostly in Vietnamese: “Pê-đê… pê-đê…” This word has many meanings, most of them pejorative. In Vietnam, my relatives told me it’s used specifically to describe ladyboys in Vietnam, i.e. people who are born men but live their lives as women (other Southeast Asian approximates include the Indonesian waria, the Thai kathoey, or the Filipino bakla). I grew up in the United States thinking that this was the term to refer to homosexuals, but a graduate student colleague and friend of mine who studies lesbian subjectivity and activism in Vietnam told me that the term is extremely offensive, drawing its etymology from the word pederasty (a man who loves pre-pubescent boys). I started to wonder if my queer friends in Vietnam saw Hoi the same way I saw Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’sor Gedde Watanabe’s Long Duck Dong in Sixteen Candles. These films exploited Asian identity in order to entertain a broader audience of non-Asians, and now they’re heralded as American classics. Is queer identity exploited in the same way in Fool For Love, except this time the film’s excuse is to entertain a broader audience of Vietnamese-speakers instead? Is sexuality getting sacrificed in the name of nationalistic interests? Is Thai Hoa’s Hoi an offensive caricature of subjectivity, or is he simply a character who should be lauded for his courageous self-expression?

He got to slow dance with Dustin Nguyen, so the score is Team Hoi 1, Haters 0.

As a heterosexual man, I don’t feel that I am fully capable of answering these questions. As a “Vietnamese” man (I get more ethnically confused by the day) I’m even more conflicted, because I want to see every film made by and for a Vietnamese-speaking audience do as well as possible. A few of my queer friends saw the film and said that Thai Hoa’s performance didn’t bother them at all – if anything, it held their attention throughout. Portland, however, is a very gay-friendly city. Its mayor, Sam Adams, is the first openly gay major of a Top 30 city in the United States. Many of my queer friends in Califoria speak of Portland like it’s Shangri-La, and all of my queer friends in Portland agree with my California friends. In a sentence, Portlanders don’t take too kindly to any threats to their collective hyper-progressive attitude, however well-meaning they may seem. I worry that Fool For Love might have that kind of effect in my hometown, even though it’s really just wants to be an innocuous romantic comedy that aims to show Vietnam in a positive light.

In Vietnam, like anywhere else, only the best looking guys can pull this look off.

My favorite Portland mantra pretty much says it all: “Keep Portland Weird.” Portlanders pride themselves on their alternative perspective, and even though the city has attracted a grossly disproportionate number of hipsters in recent years, it’s still the best place in the world to me. I invite all of my Portland friends – queer, non-queer, Vietnamese, non-Vietnamese, cinephilic and even cinephobic – to check out Fool for Love when it drops and tell me what they think. Responsible, ethical representation of all people remains one of my top priorities in life, and I hope through an engaged, constructive discourse we can all work towards that goal together.

– post by Lee Ngo, third-year Ph.D. student in sociocultural anthropology at the University of California, Irvine


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