There is a moment in Diem Ha Lee’s 2021 Documentary Children of the Mist where the camera lingers on a shot of the blossom on a tree for a while, and at that moment a sense of hesitation seems present. The camerawoman seems intent on finding, and staying close to, some mark of beauty amongst what has, and will have, been a sequence of rather ugly, violent proceedings.
Ha Lee’s subject is a teenage girl, Di, who lives in the North Vietnamese hills, one of the only members of her immediate circle who can communicate with Ha Lee in Vietnamese. The rest of her friends and relatives are all members of the Hmong ethnic group, which has its distinct language and customs. Ha Lee said in an interview given last year that she decided to capture Di’s life when she saw something of herself as a child in the way Di and her friends played. Over three years, Ha Lee stays with Di’s family, unable to fully understand all of what is being said or going on, but unwittingly becoming privy to a world that, in the end, bears very little resemblance to her childhood after all.
What Children of the Mist shows is the Hmong practice of ‘Bridenapping’, which involves young Hmong girls being stolen away from their families by older boys and men for them to become married, sometimes never seeing their old families again after this. The practice takes place each Lunar New Year, and whilst the governing bodies at the school, and Ha Lee herself, clearly disapprove of this practice, most of the Hmong people simply accept it as a way of life. With this, the audience is introduced to the central conflict of the piece – the respecting of tradition rubbing against the perceived promotion of ethical, modern values. Eventually, Di will become pinned in this conflict, as she too will be thrust into a position where the game she replicates in play with her friends, of being spirited away from her family in the night, becomes all too real.
Ha Lee’s directorial debut dangles on these boundaries throughout the 90-minute runtime. The pastoral beauty of the Vietnamese mountains and the charming culture of the locals contrasts the negligence of the drunken parents and the blind acceptance of subjugation that Di and her young female friends have been saddled with. The film never feels exploitative, not trying too hard to tug on the heartstrings or vilify any one individual.
However, it does stray at times into a richly uncomfortable area where we are presented with a world that we can’t necessarily judge – it almost feels at times that we just shouldn’t be watching it altogether. Ha Lee herself seems to wrestle with this too, and she becomes more prevalent as a voice throughout her stay with Di’s family. Indeed, her opinions become more outwardly intrusive until she finally steps in herself to directly affect changes within Di’s life. At some point during her stay, when the mist from the title of the documentary inevitably rolls in and blankets the Vietnamese hills in a thick cloud – there is a shift, and taking of a stance, when Di begins to lose her innocence, and Ha Lee starts fighting to preserve it.
Ha Lee so directly inserting herself into the proceedings is emblematic of the entire conflict of documentary filmmaking. How the director should simply observe, not steer the narrative anywhere, despite so desperately wanting to. In this case, the documentary may not have worked as well as it does if Ha Lee didn’t speak up, because it illustrates the conflict between two separate perceptions of life in visceral, real-time. The bond that is built up between Ha Lee and Di is felt at all times, and when Di isn’t on screen, we mourn her absence alongside Ha Lee, leading to absolutely heart-wrenching scenes in the last third of the film. Ha Lee wanted to capture the joy of childhood, and Di’s arc is demonstrative of what a gift this is to lose. In particular when you see later how Di is pulled, literally at times, in two different directions, by forces seemingly out of her control.
Children of the Mist is not an enjoyable watch but is incredibly well made and succeeds at its aims. It makes you realise the fleeting joy that innocence represents – that how no matter how long you wish you could stay gazing up at the blossom on the tree, eventually, the mist will always roll in.
Press image courtesy of EIFF