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Homosexual movie characters are often stereotyped and silly, but a few new films are undertaking complex character studies to explore the gay and lesbian world

Most gay characters in Vietnamese films are predictable: they're overly emotional, flamboyant and they all have the gift of gab.

Some of the most popular movies in recent years Gai nhay (Bar girls), Lo Lem he pho (Pavement Cinderella), Hon Truong Ba da hang thit (Truong Ba's soul in the butcher's body) have made a habit of making fun of gay people, representing them as little more than silly weirdoes with a little flair.

Homosexuals are often the villains in films and many are prostitutes, cunning fraudsters or other criminals. They often lurk in the shadows, hanging out at the seediest establishments in the worst part of town. Most are in deep agony over what is described as their "sexual deviation" and they rarely have happy endings: they mostly end up dead or in jail when the film finishes.

Director Le Hoang, who made Trai nhay (Bar men), a film that tells the story of a gay man stuck in a love triangle between a heterosexual couple, even described homosexuality as a "disease."

"I can't approve of homosexual love anymore than I can advocate a kind of disease," said Hoang in an interview with local newswire VietNamNet. Many critics said his film was shallow and cold and not a genuine exploration of what it's like to be gay in modern society.

Some said it was slapstick comedy without the comedy.

But despite the mockery and snarkiness, some new films have taken to portraying gay and lesbian characters as real people, with thoughts, emotions and feelings.

The anti-HIV/AIDS TV series Nha co nhieu cua so (House with many windows) and Co gai xau xi (Ugly girl) both represent popular gay characters on TV, Choi voi (Adrift) and Cay tram vang (The golden pin) winner of Canada's Jury Award "Best Canadian Short" last year have moved to examine the lives of gay characters on the silver screen in ways that see them as three-dimensional subjects rather than as props, gags or gimics.

Coming out

Director Ngo Cuong's 15-minute "The golden pin" tells the story of a swimmer who finds true love with a male colleague instead of his fiancée. Critics said the film was profound and Cuong, 32, said it meant to show that love can be found and shared anywhere, even where you last think to look.

But Cuong says he was not always tolerant of homosexuals. Growing up in a community that did not accept gays, the director had to learn his own lessons.

"At first, to tell the truth, I was really afraid of gay people. This is the usual human reaction, we usually have conservative prejudices towards things we don't understand."

But all that changed when Cuong met his first gay friends.

"I found out that homosexuals, whether in or out of the closet, are normal and many are very talented. They have the right to be treated well."

Critics praised "The golden pin" for its delicate portrayal of the nuances and intricacies of close relationships. Particularly memorable was the protagonist's mother, a strong character whose support provides the foundation from which her son can pursue his true love.

Cuong also said that he does not flinch from being suspected of his gender.

Cuong now plans to make a movie adapted from Bui Anh Tan's famous novel Mot the gioi khong co dan ba (World without woman). He said that while this film would also focus on the gay community, its main draw will be its murder mystery.

New vision

Even though singer Cao Thai Son's gay character in his new film Buoc chan hoan vu (Global step) turns out to be straight in the end, the actor said filmmakers were developing a "wider and deeper" vision and sympathy for gay characters.

Director Bui Thac Chuyen's Choi voi (Adrift) was probably the most talked-about gay-themed movie in Vietnam last year. The complicated film takes a look at the quiet affection an in-the-closet lesbian has for another woman. The attraction Cam (played by Pham Linh Dan) has for Duyen (Do Hai Yen) is complex, not just lustful: it is at times ardent, at times impuissant.

A review in Tuoi Tre newspaper said: "the link between Cam and Duyen is more than just a homosexual relationship for its own sake, it is profound and complex. Duyen and Cam are like the two halves of a woman's body and soul."

Renowned director Nguyen Quang Dung's Tet holiday blockbuster Nhung nu hon ruc ro (Resplendent kisses) was successful in portraying lively homosexual couples that were funny not because we laughed at them, but because we laughed with them. The film's gay kiss depicted onscreen did not cause the backlash many had expected.

Cuong said the important thing about portraying gays, or any other minority, on screen, was letting the characters speak for themselves and ensuring that they are expressive of real people, not of conventions and stereotypes. Cuong says the open ending of "The golden pin" was one way to make the character's plights more real and less cliché.

"In real life, there is no ending until we die," he said. "So in "˜The golden pin", I want to invite the audience to join me in searching for an answer. There is no right or wrong."

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