mother saigon Má Sài Gòn review

Má Sài Gòn is a beautiful documentary about queer resilience

4 out of 5 stars

The air is thick with romance in Khoa Lê’s documentary Má Sài Gòn (Mother Saigon). Shot in Vietnam and focused on a group of LGBTQ+ youths, Lê’s gaze blossoms with intimacy. Má Sài Gòn is one of the most beautiful documentaries of the past year, with shades of Wong Kar-Wai and a singular, patient vision. By rejecting the solemn authority of talking head documentaries, the film embraces an atmosphere that feels charged with fiction, even if it embraces the spontaneity and naturalism of the real world. 

For casual filmgoers with more rigid ideas about the nature of the documentary, Má Sài Gòn might feel confrontational. Though the various people who pass in and out of the frame are more accurately qualified as “subjects,” they feel more novelesque — the attention to their inner worlds more akin to an author and subject than the traditional non-fiction realm. As a result, the movie blurs an essential line between real and unreal. Rather than confrontational, though, the result is liberating — if not outright empowering — as the various characters (or subjects) who appear onscreen seem to hold onto ownership over their image. It’s a film that manages to channel everyday challenges while also gifting the various subjects an opportunity to bring a dramatic dream world of their imagination to the screen. 

The film contrasts the vibrant inner lives of the subjects with the repressive world they live in. We feel a gap between how they want to be seen (and how they’re viewed by those who love and respect them) and the more conservative Vietnamese society. It’s a film, though, that doesn’t linger too long on violence or oppression, as if resisting the stereotypes of queer art as portraits of pain and suffering. While it doesn’t skirt away from the brutal and often violent realities of many queer people in Vietnam either, the film strikes a careful tone, where violence never overtakes resilience. 

mother saigon Má Sài Gòn review
Má Sài Gòn (Mother Saigon)

The film adopts a singular perspective that reflects both the subject and the filmmaker. It doesn’t try to portray the world of its characters unfiltered but is purposefully mediated. In this case, the beauty and appreciation for the image feels born out of love and intimacy. One senses the frankness of the discussions and the openness of particular life experiences, an intense trust that allows for unparalleled vulnerability. It’s a rare thing to be able to witness a film of any kind that captures that sense of devotion. It’s a film that uses humour and fantasy to elevate the characters’ gaze, giving them focus and allowing them space to be their authentic selves. 

Má Sài Gòn flourishes as well as a subset of the city symphony film, at least in the broad sense that it aims to capture the bustling magic of Saigon. It’s a film that has a musicality in shooting the urban environment. It evokes the city as a landscape with rhythms and arteries that flow with history, conflict and community. If it doesn’t capture the soul of the city, it captures the heart of Khoa Lê’s vision of Vietnam, defined equally by restriction as it is by liberation. Much of the underlying tension is through the city’s paradoxical nature, as it is a place of expression and beauty, hidden beneath more oppressive and conservative violence (the film’s cinematographer is Mathieu Laverdière, who shot some of the most beautiful Quebec films in recent memory including Solo, The Acrobat and Nuit #1). Even the film’s title alludes to this dual nature, as the mother comes to represent an imagined place of shelter and love while also hinting at complex family situations where acceptance and love can sometimes be conditional — especially for queer people.

Few documentaries in recent years capture the sense of warmth offered by Má Sài Gòn. By avoiding cloying sentimentality, it’s a film that genuinely feels made with love. The cinematographic gaze is informed by more than just adoration but a sense of agency, as the various subjects feel invested in helping shape their vision. Rather than being limiting, this liberating force invites the audience into a parallel inner world often inaccessible to non-fiction. ■

Má Sài Gòn (Mother Saigon) is a beautiful documentary about queer resilience

Má Sài Gòn (Mother Saigon) opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Feb. 2.

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