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Filmmaker Nong Nhat Quang on His New Docuseries 'Queer Asia: Vietnam'

For 22-year-old filmmaker Nong Nhat Quang, growing up gay in Lao Cai Province, a conservative region of many ethnic groups, was tough. Being noticeably camp meant bullying and abuse were commonplace, as was the paranoia of being “outed.” He used Grindr to meet strangers or tourists 20 kilometers away in Sapa, but with high expectations from his parents, he kept his true identity secret to avoid rejection. The idea that he would go on to direct LGBTQ documentaries for an international audience was, at that time, impossible to conceive.

“I knew I was gay when I watched this bodybuilding competition back in 2004. I didn’t really know, but there was this tingling feeling in my stomach and, ever since then, I knew that I was… not straight,” Quang says.

Over a decade later, in 2015, he graduated high school and moved to Hanoi in order to live independently, break out of his shell, and start exploring. He again used dating apps, which he also chose as the subject for a cinéma vérité, short documentary film course at The Centre for Assistance and Development of Movie Talents (TPD Hanoi.)

He initially thought apps were a safe connecting space where gay men, who often choose not to declare their sexuality on social media, could avoid outside judgment. He found, however, that most interactions were limited to blunt inquiries, with people’s values determined merely by a bunch of photos. Thus, it was hard for him to see app users as anything other than objectifying fetishists.

The trailer for Queer Asia: Vietnam.

“We were in his living room, talking about literature. He liked Vietnamese 50s novels. Then, suddenly, he pushed me down, groped me and tried to kiss me. I reached for my phone and sent an emergency text. My roommate called questioning my whereabouts… I excused myself and left,” Quang says about one of his encounters.

Yet he remained open-minded and continued. The men he met came from all walks of life: entrepreneurs looking for fun during business trips; a father of two secretly using the app while stuck in a lonely marriage; a trans separatist using the app for activism; innocent college students finding friends. The more he talked with them, the more diverse his idea of gay identity became, until he eventually realized that he can define his own identity.

All of his experiences informed his debut documentary, Search, which aimed to address significant topics within the gay community, such as dehumanizing app culture, the lack of safe connection space and body image issues. Although the film wasn’t granted a nationwide screening by the Vietnam Cinema Department, its creation nonetheless marked a crucial milestone. It also made it onto the international scene and, in 2018, Jay Lin, a longtime LGBTQ advocate and producer of Queer Taiwan, approached Quang and asked him to contribute to Queer Asia, the region’s first international LGBTQ docuseries.

Queer Asia: Vietnam explores the capital's growing drag culture.

Keen to capture both the history and beauty of the gay community in Vietnam, particularly in Hanoi, Quang decided to create a short series telling the story of how Vietnamese gay people live, which explore everything from dating apps and drag culture to gay parents. The mini-series begins with a question for the audience: “What is queer culture in Vietnam?” before going on to depict the capital’s drag scene.

“That question originated from Search, where I became aware of how the ‘current way of being gay’ is not exactly local. Halfway through filming, after talking with the Queer History Month team and learning about their work, it became clear to me that neither native or foreign culture is necessarily better or worse, but in fact, complement and enhance each other. With that in mind, drag events — the backbone of many LGBTQ movements — serve as an indication of the future of our culture,” Quang says.

The first episode focuses on the history of queer culture in Vietnam and how it relates, on some level, to certain folk tales Vietnamese have shared for generations. It also explores difficulties the Vietnamese gay community currently faces, such as the lack of awareness generally in what remains a very traditional and conservative country. There is hope, however, in younger generations, who are better equipped with LGBTQ history and are presented here with activities which could help bridge the gap between young and old.

One individual Quang focused on is Dan Ni, the “femme queen on the streets, dom top on the sheets” who was featured in episode 2. Dan Ni, a 24-year-old graphic designer, is a part-time model, drag performer and a full-time queen. “My existence is a story to be told about gender politics, about defying what society says is masculine, feminine, what's accepted and what is not,” he says in the documentary.

A still from 'Dating with Dan Ni.'

'Dating with Dan Ni' also dissects another facet of modern dating — open relationships where partners are at liberty to meet, date and roll in the sheets with other people. Dan Ni and his boyfriend, Shay, have been in one for over five years now. “The premise of having an open relationship is not because we want to sleep with other people,” he says, “but about trust.”

Another filmmaker, Truong Minh Quy, directed ‘Mother’s Hands,’ the third and final episode in the series. Mother Thi is 73 years old with four children. The youngest son, Tu, was born after her second marriage at the age of 40, and is a gay man. Growing up in a small, rural village, the fear of coming out to his mother was always present. It was not until Thi accidentally found the coming out letter that Tu wrote long ago by accident, and to his surprise, he was accepted and loved by his mother. Even when neighbors call him “abnormal,” she corrects them. “Tu is a homosexual man, and he will not marry a woman,” Thi says. After Tu apologizes for being gay, Thi says that “children deserve to be in love, to make their own judgment and to make their own decisions on how to live their life.”

Queer Asia: Vietnam will take you on a roller coaster of emotions. While each episode forms part of the bigger picture of Vietnam’s gay community, they also showcase how much Quang has grown, how he sees himself as an individual, and how society is changing.

“I hope this glimpse into queer life shows there's more to being queer than one's sexuality, that we have a diverse culture and we're doing well,” Quang says. “To the kids growing up questioning their place, I hope it helps.”

Queer Asia: Vietnam is streaming now at gagaoolala.com.

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After Taiwan, Vietnam Among Asia's Most Progressive on LGBT Rights

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