In Nguyen Hoang Diep’s third, and first feature-length, film, "Dap canh giua khong trung" (Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere) which has been positively received at international film festivals, the woman finally has a great sexual experience only to find that it doesn’t last.
Cleverly scripted and visually polished, Nguyen Hoang Diep’s films - her latest work and two earlier shorts - consistently explore the theme of sex, the desire felt by a confused woman.
It’s lust more than love that I find in Nguyen Hoang Diep’s sex, though I don’t for a moment mean to knock lust.
Trapped by a sense of duty, honor and love toward the “husband” who is often unable to understand and satisfy a woman’s sexual needs, Nguyen Hoang Diep’s “wife” gradually breaks away, hoping to find more fulfilling sex elsewhere.
In her first short, "Mua thu nam" (The Fifth Season), a housewife yearns for sexual fulfillment with her busy husband. During the day, while he works, she stays at home washing his clothes.
As she washes his clothes, she tastes soap bubbles on her fingers and plays with his shirts to fill her emptiness. At night, when he is back home, he falls asleep quickly, leaving her yearning.
This husband even does worse. Unable to understand what his wife wants, he buys her a washing machine which ends up preventing her from being in touch with the sensual world of soap bubbles.
In Diep’s second short, "Hai, Tu, Sau" (Monday, Wednesday, Friday), the sexually unfulfilled housewife now has a lover. But the woman doesn’t allow herself to actually have sex with her boyfriend; he can only fool around.
When she finds out he has another option besides herself (there is another woman the movie refers to but doesn’t show), the woman returns to her husband, making peace with reality.
In Diep’s latest, longer work, "Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere," we finally see the woman get what she wants: a great sexual experience with a virile man who knows how to please women.
A scene from Nguyen Hoang Diep’s movie. Diep’s film seems determined to doom women. The central female character is too clueless and passive to deal with either the realistic challenge of an unwanted pregnancy or the high-brow, abstract challenge of an irresistible, impossible male lover.
Basically, to please women, a man should be gentle when necessary, because sex can be both pleasurable and painful to the female body as Diep’s movie eloquently shows.
Nguyen Hoang Diep is a clever filmmaker who knows how to package sex and lust with a solid social context to give the core content more taste and depth than it would otherwise have.
And I suspect that by doing so, Diep can also justify and exonerate her woman character’s sexual desire.
Unlike in the earlier shorts, in "Flapping", the woman is no longer a middle-class housewife who would have some means and thus be less likely to prostitute her body for money.
The heroine, Huyen, comes from a more vulnerable background: She is a poor college student who has to rely on scholarships and her parents who live in the countryside.
She has an unwanted pregnancy with Tung, a boyish, irresponsible, working-class boyfriend whose biggest sin is that he doesn’t understand the female body or treat it considerately.
Tung persistently wants sex even though Huyen is pregnant and worried and his moves are rough.
As the couple can’t afford to raise a baby, they decide to have an abortion. Tung gives Huyen some advance pay from work to save for the abortion. Later though, he steals this money to pay for his cock-fighting gambling debts.
As a result, Huyen is forced to find another way to find money for the abortion: by prostituting herself.
All of this constraining social, financial set-up is realistic because it reflects the real problems of irresponsible sex, unwanted pregnancies and dangerous abortions especially among young people in Vietnam.
It seems that Diep is able to find in this reality some basis for her own personal, recurring theme about feminine sexual desire.
This theme, embodied in Huyen’s customer, makes up the latter part of Flapping.
Huyen’s client is Hoang, an idealistic, irresistible and impossible male.
He is a rich, attractive older man with a strange taste: he loves babies in the womb and pregnant women.
Tung’s biggest sin is Hoang’s greatest merit: the latter understands the female body.
He treats sex and the pregnant female body reverently, as if through them, he can connect to something bigger than both himself and Huyen.
Hoang teaches Huyen what sex can be. The downside is, after a sexual act with a pregnant female body, he would move on to the next, causing Huyen much heartache.
Diep’s movie is unfair to women.
First, the director is unfair to the pragmatic but simple girl with an unwanted pregnancy when she puts on this girl’s shoulders the extra burden of having to unravel an abstract, unlikely hero, Hoang.
Hoang is a character more suitable for the more sophisticated, better-off housewives in Diep’s two short movies who might die to meet such a lover and have the intelligence to handle him.
A fairer and more convincing direction would have been for Huyen to not meet Hoang but to try to find another job instead of prostitution ,and work out the sexual differences with her boyfriend.
Her boyfriend Tung is not hopeless despite all his faults. He loves Huyen in his own way and together they can grow up.
Obviously, Diep is also unfair to the housewife character, or more accurately, unfair to any real woman of sense, including Diep herself who could simply give Hoang a slap and tell him that both he and she are more than just a male and female body.
There is something as worthy and difficult to unravel as the big, mysterious nature or universe out there, namely earthy, seemingly mundane and artificial human cares and concerns - the things that make humans humans, the topics that are often treated with contempt by the western, male-dominated artistic tradition that Diep seems to subscribe to.
Things like education and business. A college student like Huyen, for instance, should pay more attention to school and basic knowledge. If she did, she wouldn’t be so clueless about sex, pregnancy and abortion.
As for a rich man like Hoang, where does he get his money from? Wherever it is, he should pay more attention to that line of business that makes him so rich so that he is more in touch with less fortunate people.
Unfortunately, Diep seems determined to doom her woman. Huyen is clueless and passive, and has no ability whatsoever to deal with her pregnancy. To top it all, she has to meet the high-brow, disproportionate challenge that is Hoang.
The end result - she can’t deal with either challenge and is trapped, “flapping in the middle of nowhere” - is inevitable, too predictable, and too set-up.
My question is do filmmakers want to offer creative solutions to difficult, real-life problems. If they don’t, then merely reflecting reality can become an exploitative, wasteful, self-indulgent act.
Or do they want to be honest and show some personal, believable responses to an imaginary theme, such as Nguyen Hoang Diep’s own response as a real, educated woman to the abstract idea of a man that is Hoang?
That way, the film doesn’t have to be too realistic without sacrificing either imagination or verisimilitude.
Either direction is great and will yield different kinds of films. Perhaps a genius can handle both directions at the same time.
The worst a filmmaker can do is to not follow either direction but still make a show of cleverness and technical prowess for some unapparent, even dubious, motive.