Written By Luke Digweed.
Hue has recently been prominent on the Vietnamese big screen with the releases of romantic comedy Gai Gia Lam Chieu 3 (Naughty Cougar 3) and nostalgia-driven Nang Day Xu Hue (the Bride of Hue). Over the turn of the new year, fans of previous Gai Gia Lam Chieu installments were quick to pack the cinemas upon its opening week.
Gai Gia Lam Chieu 3 focuses on the interclass relationship between old-money, Hue City born Jack Le and Saigon-hotgirl TV show host ‘Ms, Q’. Just as Jack proposes to Ms. Q in a chic Saigon restaurant at the beginning of the film, his mother Mai swoops down from Hue and saves the family heirloom from someone she’s concerned unfit to be a daughter-in-law. Subsequently, Jack and Ms. Q go to Hue in order to appease Jack’s family, win consent for their wedding and recover the antique engagement ring.
Ms Q and mother Mai. Taken from youtube.com
Gai Gia Lam Chieu 3 doesn’t offer much more than you would expect from a third outing of what is a quick-buck film: a gaping plot line built on the unconvincing stereotypes of scandal-addicted Saigoneers and throwback, stiff upper-lipped Hueians. Add a flamboyant elderly relative as well as a scheming, family-approved rival bride and you will get a good idea of Gai Gia Lam Chieu 3’s predictably happy ending. The film quickly drew criticism for its parallels to American rom-com Crazy Rich Asians (2018) but Gai Gia Lam Chieu 3’s timely release at the break of Tet (Vietnamese New Year) gave comical reprieve to young people who had already spent days enduring the in-house politics of their own family over the national holiday. But the film’s gags reflect a reality that many young people face when dodging questions from family members around marital relations and the anxiety over introducing out-of-town partners for the first time. This further strengthens the contextual relationship between the audience and the film’s ‘love triangle’ narrative made of mother Mai, son Jack and girlfriend Ms. Q.
Jack and Ms. Q Photo taken from https://saostar.vn/
It is fair to say that Jack in Gai Gia Lam Chieu 3 makes some goofball errors bridging the generation gap between his confucian-fuelled mother Mai and Ms. Q, his livestream-addicted girlfriend. He doesn’t inform his mother of his engagement plans and doesn’t do much to protect his girlfriend during the most intense conflicts of the film. He jumps negligibly between the filial love of mother Mai while covertly demonstrating his ‘eggplant-shaped asset’ to Ms. Q in the family guestroom. This duality extends further when considering his foreign name, influenced by his American education and his New Saigon lifestyle: both of which are enabled through his inherent ancestral privileges and encouraged by confucian bonds that prioritize education, yet demand conservative family values (i.e no sex before marriage, parents consent of wedding partner and frowns upon marrying an older woman, aka ‘a cougar’ ~ a term that appears in the title and frequently within the English subtitles). Simultaneously, confucian values allow Jack, as the first son in the family tree (chau dich ton), to enjoy a role in the film relatively free from the fallout between his mother and girlfriend. This cultural conflict between mother Mai and Ms. Q is pivotal in providing the plot. Most audience members wouldn’t expect anything more from Jack in the film due to the grudges exchanged between mother and daughter-in-law, a domestic relationship which is frequently stereotyped and joked about in contemporary society.
As well as the comical anecdotes that built on regional exclamations or Huecentric utterances, it isn’t only those on-screen relationships that resonated with local audiences. The scenes, overcrowded with antique phap lam (enamel porcelains), incense sticks and royal cuisine are complemented with a flurry of postcard locations that keep Hue cinema goers wooing. Yet, those Hue scenes that make up the majority of Gái Già Lắm Chiêu 3 aren’t all pagodas and bridges. A large proportion of the film revolves around Jack’s family home which is filmed in two locations, one of which is the real-life home of prominent Hue artist, Boi Tran.
Hue House Party. Taken from: https://saostar.vn/
Possibly the most celebrated female artist from Hue, Boi Tran has been painting for more than 30 years. Although most artists in Vietnam have received formal education at universities situated in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City or Hue, Boi Tran was somewhat self-taught under the direction of the well-respected artist Nguyen Trung . She also once ran an art gallery in Hue that housed works from local artists. Since then, her work has gained international recognition and has regularly featured at international auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Her portraits, which make up a large proportion of her work, radiate abstract binaries; joy against woe, hope yet melancholy, feelings that have transpired to the canvas from the difficulties Boi Tran has faced in life, possibly none more so than her divorce and the loss of her only son .
Boi Tran’s garden house is majestical. Designated on the somber Thien An Hill outside of Hue city, visitors are enamoured by the sense of Hue’s legendary romanticism that occupies the residence. The compound comprises of architecture inspired by French colonial buildings and the former abodes of Nguyen court mandarins. Fruit looms from a variety of trees planted around the garden and dragonflies dart between ponds populated with fish. This is where sneaky cougar Ms. Q first meets mother Mai in Hue during an exclusive party and Boi Tran’s house perfectly facilitates the generational clash between old and new Vietnam: offsetting the previous scenes of bustling, a la mode Saigon lifestyle with the isolationist lavishness of fading Hue glory . Gai Gia Lam Chieu 3 very much revolves around the disequilibrium between Ms. Q and mother Mai but the character of mother Mai’s strikes numerous parallels between herself and the artist Boi Tran.
Female cast of Gai Gia Lam Chieu. Taken from https://2sao.vietnamnetjsc.vn/
With no father figure present in the film, there is an absence of a gia truong (male family head). Matriarch mother Mai is left to protect the conservative family values and social prestige of the family residence. Boi Tran’s artwork cycles through a few select themes and those which are visible are no more significant than a few which are amiss, one of which is the absent father figure. Both Boi Tran’s artwork and mother Mai’s onscreen verbal outbursts demonstrate their personal difficulties in a conservative masculine Hue culture. Mother Mai inherits the responsibilities of the gia truong yet is subject to the vulnerabilities of being a woman living through outdated cultural codes; evident when she comes close to losing ownership of the entire family estate. Boi Tran discreetly elicits similar difficulties through her paintings. While her artwork evokes romantic Hue scenery and family portraiture, it also omits the presence of men. Boi Tran is a single mother divorced from a son of an aristocratic Hue family. she is left to uphold those same graceful Hue values through the period of significant economic transitions in Vietnam (the Doi Moi period) but required self-reliance to raise her children in a conservative culture that continued to demand a male figure. While writing this article, it became apparent that these parallels between Boi Tran and mother Mai were no coincidence. As actor Le Khanh, who plays mother Mai, had returned to the screen after a twenty-year absence because she felt empathy towards the character:
‘I almost nodded even before holding the script in my hand. The only reason is that I sympathize with this woman. Moreover, the story of Thai Tuyet Mai has somehow coincided with my life, my mother’s life, my sisters … It touched my feelings so I decided to take this opportunity’.
According to the article, the Hanoian actor spent time with Boi Tran in learning more about the customs and responsibilities of the Hue woman to fully engage herself with her part. The film director Bao Nhan noted:
‘’When I told [Le Khanh] that this story is a true story,…inspired by real life, [she] immediately wanted to meet that real character. Before the shooting, we requested artist Boi Tran [for a meeting] ‘. 
The house of the Le family is decorated with numerous Boi Tran paintings. As the film progresses, mother Mai is seen creating her own artwork which imitates the core motifs of a Boi Tran painting. Mother Mai’s painting depicts a woman sitting beside the ocean, refusing the viewer’s glance while contemplating over an empty sea. In one scene, mother Mai continues to paint during a heated exchange with her son, each stroke applied to the canvas more aggressively as the dialogue intensifies, almost ruining the painting. During the film’s final scenes, mother Mai puts the finishing touches on the painting and Jack comments ‘is that the painting of you at Lang Co (a nearby lagoon), mother?’ This brief vocal acknowledgement of the painting alludes to a greater significance to one of Gai Gia Lam Chieu 3’s underlying themes. Mother Mai’s completion of the artwork, instead of its destruction, is not an acceptance and change in character of her new daughter-in-law, but an allowance. The painting communicates the prolongation of the isolationist Hue woman as she dutifully standing guard over conservative values and allowing ‘new Saigon’ to pass. The portrait shows Mother Mai, watching as the shoreline gradually erodes into the sea of modernity which will too eventually engulf her.
An interpretation of Gai Gia Lam Chieu 3’s conclusion is not only to consider it mother Mai’s allowance of modernity but the transition of the family’s conservative legacy to Jack and Ms. Q. Like so many of the women involved in this film, both on and off screen, mother Mai later admits to being an outsider who was brought in to serve the family, a role that Boi Tran personally experienced and communicates in her work. Both women went through their own tribulations when being initiated into their husband’s respective families. It would be natural to ask if these cultural shifts are forever a burden upon family matriarchs, or if this is the age that sees the erosion of what are deemed nation-defining Vietnamese cultural values.
Maybe Ms. Q will give up the phone addiction and become a gender rights activist while defending Vietnamese culture from globalization in Naughty Cougar 4! But, I wouldn’t hold your breath.
Ms. Q and her Saigon Friends. Taken from https://media.ex-cdn.com/
- Webpage: ‘After 20 years away. Actor Khanh Le had to ‘go back to school’ to play character in Hue’. htttp://tiin.vn. Accessed 30/1/2020. http://m.tiin.vn/chuyen-muc/phim/sau-20-nam-roi-xa-man-anh-nsnd-le-khanh-phai-di-hoc-de-vao-vai-phu-nu-xu-hue.html?fbclid=IwAR3f4p1MnWNYsrWbDYtLiaQAcHt50Dzx1RO43NI-yblqNTC47eYFlB6nxcc
- Webpage: ‘Gai Gia Lam Chieu 3 spent 5 billion. 10 tons of flowers filmed the super party scene, Le Khanh and Lan Ngoc were both acting and trembling for fear of breaking a crystal cup’ https://sastar.vn. Accessed 29/01/20
- Interview with Mr. My at the Boi Tran Gallery on 03/01/20
- Webpage: http://boitran.com Accessed 29/01/20
- Webpage: http://news.baothuathienhue.vn/one-who-paints-love-a49690.html
- Phuoc Tai once used the term ‘faded glory’ to describe today’s Hue City and I have adopted it here.. Thanks Tai!
I have reluctantly omitted Vietnamese diacritics from this article for the purpose of the formatting of my blog. Sorry if it pained you like it pained me.
Thanks to Mr My at the Boi Tran Gallery for taking his time to show us around. Thank you to those that gave their feedback before publication and thank you to Quynh Anh who took her time to help me find additional sources as well as bounce ideas.
I realise there are flaws in this article, particularly in the analysis but I hope that it brings to your attention some correlations and connections that have generally gone amiss during the release of Gai Gia Lam Chieu 3. It has definitely been my favourite blog post to write so far. Thanks for reading.