erik lundegaard

Nhung Nu Hon Ruc Ro

Nhung Nu Hon Ruc Ro (2010)


Last April, on our last day in Hanoi, along with buying gifts for friends and returning to Cha Cha La Vong for the fried fish lunch, Patricia and I went to “Rap Thang 8”—which sounds like the worst MC Hammer song ever but is in fact a movie theater frequented by Vietnamese—to see a movie called “Nhung Nu Hon Ruc Ro.” Google translates those words into “The Brilliant Kiss” but at the time we had no idea what it was called or what it was about. We just wanted to see a Vietnamese movie and it was the only one playing in Hanoi that day. The woman selling tickets even warned us. “Vietnamese,” she warned. I nodded, smiled, made hand motions that indicated we wanted to see it anyway. She giggled. With reason.

The posters for Rap Thang 8’s three movies, along with TVs looping trailers for each, were on display behind the ticket-taker. In Phong Chieu 2, “Legion,” from Hollywood. In Phong Chieu 1, some kind of samurai horror movie. And in Phong Chieu 3, our movie, “Nhung Nu Hon Ruc Ro,” a Vietnamese musical comedy.

We were told Phong Chieu 1 was through that door to the right. It looked like an exit. But we walked through it ... and into an alleyway.

“What the hell,” I said.

“Did you get the directions right?” Patricia asked.

I returned, pointed to the ticket, and the ticket-taker again pointed me to the exit. “No,” I began, “That’s...” What could I say? I wished for the zillionth time I could speak some semblance of the language.

Sensing my confusion, the ticket-taker pointed out the door and then down the alleyway.

“Really?” I asked. “Okay...”

This time we saw the sign at the end of the alleyway: RAP THANG 8, Phong Chieu 3.” Except there was nothing at that sign even remotely like a movie theater. We stood and looked around.

“What the hell,” I said.

“Well, you wanted a different movie experience,” Patricia said.

Patricia was the one who finally found Phong Chieu 3. It wasn’t all the way down the alley, where the sign was located; it was about three-quarters of the way down the alley on the right-hand-side. You parted some heavy curtains and there you were. The floor was almost level, the theater seated about 50, flies buzzed around. It felt like something out of community theater.

There were no subtitles to the movie, of course, so we had to figure out the plot for ourselves. In the end it wasn’t hard for anyone raised on 1960s sitcoms.

The movie is set on a remote island resort, where a member of a boy band (which are still popular in Asia) shows up ... to get away from it all? One assumes. The owner of the resort, a good-looking woman, then finagles him and his bandmembers into giving a concert to get the customers to save her resort. Or something. Shenanigans, mistaken identities and romance ensues.

It’s a colorful, poppy movie, and probably supremely dopey, but notable for two reasons.

One of the supporting players, an assistant at the resort, is an over-the-top gay character. He’s there mostly for comic effect. During montage sequences, for example, in which Girl A is pursuing Boy A, or Boy B is pursuing Girl B, he’s pursuing, haplessly, the quietest member of the boy band: a kid with one eye hidden by his hair, a la Veronica Lake, and a fedora, a la Sinatra.

No surprise that he’s unsuccessful in his pursuit. One of our guide books, “The Rough Guide,” mentioned that, while there was no law in Vietnam banning homosexual activity, “Officially, homosexuality is regarded as a ‘social evil,’ alongside drugs and prostitution.” So the surprise was that there was a gay character in the movie at all.

Then we got to the end, and the big concert, and the onstage confessions of love from Girl A for Boy A, and Boy B for Girl B. And everyone getting together.

Except for our gay character. He comes onstage. He talks into the microphone. He becomes emotional about what he’s saying. But no one comes out to sing with him. He’s alone. Tears well up. He’s comforted but it’s sad. The message is clear: Don’t be gay.

Except suddenly the Veronica Lakeish boy-band member comes onstage, singing the love song they’ve all been singing. And the two meet in the center of the stage and hold hands. And everyone applauds.

Then the lights go off, along with fireworks, and you see silhouettes of the principles embracing. Including our gay couple.

Then the lights go up and you see everyone kissing. Including our gay couple.

Then we get our happy ending.

Wow, I thought. Much more enlightened than I anticipated. Not only are the Vietnamese not behind us in this particular area, but ... they seem ahead of us.

That’s the first thing worth noting about the film. The second is more of a punchline than anything.

I wanted to see this particular film because it was the only Vietnamese film playing in Hanoi that day, and I knew, from trying to see Vietnamese movies before we left, that they’re few and far between in the States. All that’s available is a handful of art films (“Cyclo”; “Scent of Green Papaya”; “Owl and the Sparrow”), and the long, messy history of Vietnam War movies.

But I was wrong. “Nhung Nu Hon Ruc Ro” is available in the States. You can watch the entire thing, in 10 segments, on YouTube.

—January 14, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard