“Children of the Mist” – Seen clearly [MOVIE REVIEW]

Di in "Children of the Mist. Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

Di, a young Hmong girl. Photo courtesy of Film Forum.

The coming of age film is an evergreen that is very hard to pull off and find something or some way new to say it. Director HÀ Lê Diêm has mined the field and found gold in the far north region of Sapa in Vietnam near the Chinese border in this telling documentary. 

Tracing the three year journey of Di, a teenage Hmong girl, from age 12 to almost 15, she has given us an intimate look at the culture of this secluded ethnic group that has resisted all integration into the greater Vietnamese society. They speak their own language and have customs that run counter to the now accepted norms in the country. For years they were able to maintain their way of life without interference due to their remote location. But trying to achieve universal literacy, the government mandates that education between the ages of 5 and 11 is compulsory. Schools have been set up throughout the country including the Hmong villages. But the fact that this is the law does not mean that it is followed.

The Hmong people still adhere to their old ways. They are poor farmers who rely on the land to provide what they need. Daughters are married off in what is increasingly looked at as a repressive, almost barbaric tradition, bride-kidnapping. When a boy is interested in a girl, he can organize a kidnapping of the girl to force her into marriage. In many cases, the girls, as young as 13, encouraged by their families, acquiesce. Their schooling ends and they are soon thrown into domestic duties in her husband’s family home. The national government has tried to stop this tradition by raising the legal marriage age for girls to 18 and 20 for boys. But the Hmong, distrustful of the national government and disdainful of education, find ways to hide the early marriage of their daughters.

Di and the boy who wants to be her husband. Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

Technically, the kidnapped girls have the right to refuse the marriage but the social pressure applied by parents on both sides of the equation is enormous and there is the additional threat that the family of the boy will retaliate by selling the girl to the Chinese on the other side of the border. 

Watching Di change from a carefree child into an impetuous teenager is fascinating. Always interested in her studies, her parents, both alcoholics, are not encouraging about things they don’t understand. Her mother wants her home to work in the fields and feed their pigs and chickens. But like her counterparts around the world, this girl wants to have fun. She laughs with her friends and posts on Facebook. She flirts with boys and has her heart broken repeatedly when her chosen favorites post about other girls. Recklessly, she smiles at the wrong boy and accepts a ride on his motorbike, a joy ride that turns into a bridenapping. To try to extricate herself, she finds that she has no allies as both sets of parents set out to force her into an illegal early marriage.

Di, a sober teenager. Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

The remarkable access that HÀ Lê Diêm was given may have been instrumental in eventually freeing Di from the future she faced. The filming is seamless and it is only on the occasions where Di asks for her intervention that you are aware that there is a third party to all the events.

One can only hope that there is a market for this astonishingly fresh and enlightening film. HÀ Lê Diêm has done a remarkable job of documenting the collision between old ways and new. Di is the very embodiment of this intersection and one can only hope that this very bright girl was able to surmount the enormous difficulties that still lay ahead of her. You will care.

In Hmong and Vietnamese with English subtitles.

Opening January 30 at the Laemmle Monica Film Center and Laemmle Glendale.



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