Children of the Mist: The Bride-Kidnapping Festival
Amid the sea of white mist on Vietnam’s northern plateau, film director Ha Le Diem spent three years assimilating with a local Hmong family, using only a camera and audio recorder to document their daily lives in an actual, unscripted setting.
For what is supposed to be a simple documentary film, Diem found herself praying that nothing bad should happen to Di, the family’s 12-year-old daughter, who she had befriended during her stay.
Growing up in Vietnamese-Hmong society and witnessing three of her female friends get married at a young age, Diem has always questioned how this tradition of girls marrying young had come to play an important role in the Hmong community.
The family that allowed Diem to stay with them to shoot the film comprised the father, who rarely worked but often drank, a talkative mother who shared her humour and worries with Diem, Di, and her younger sister. As the movie progresses, we learn that Di has an older sister who had earlier married and left the house in what could be described as bride kidnapping, in which young girl is coerced through the stigma of pregnancy and rape to marry her abductor.
In the first half hour of the film, viewers are introduced to the folk ways of the Hmong ethnic people in Sa Pa province in Northwestern Vietnam. Like most Southeast Asian rural communities, villagers here mainly engage in agriculture and animal farming, mostly chicken and swine, while the popular mode of transport is motorcycles due to the uneven hilly terrain.
The plot thickens when Di, the 12-year-old protagonist, starts playing with the fire of passion. On Chinese New Year day, she spends a night at the house of a boy her age, whom she had met at school and with whom she had exchanged chats and selfie photos via mobile phones.
After that night, Di was considered “kidnapped” by the boy’s family and therefore must marry him, according to Hmong tradition.
A problem arises when the boy’s family later asks for Di’s hand in marriage, but she refuses, saying she was not in love with him and had agreed to spend the night only because she was “curious”. Little did she know the repercussions of her decision.
To preserve the tradition, Di’s parents force her to accept the proposal against her will, prompting her to turn to her school teacher for help. The situation escalates as other teachers and city councillors join in to deliberate on the issue. Though Vietnam prohibits marriage of persons under 18 without their consent, Hmong tradition seems to supersede the law.
The day after the council meeting, relatives of the “groom’s” family charge into Di’s house and drag her away to the boy’s house to make her his bride. The sight of the commotion becomes too heartbreaking for Diem, who briefly forgets to keep her distance as a silent observer, and tries to help the young girl.
Questioning the tradition
The film urges viewers to question the morality behind the bride-kidnapping tradition of the Hmong people, while highlighting the pain of the girl’s family which is clearly at a disadvantage in this tradition.
Di’s mother was also once a “kidnapped” bride who has had to live with an abusive drunken husband throughout her marriage. Viewers can easily predict that if Di were to accept the boy’s proposal against her will, she would unavoidably suffer the same fate as her mother and that of many other Hmong women.
However, educated viewers should beware of the differences in culture and tradition when using their lens to judge other societies.
Many viewers questioned why Di’s family was forcing marriage on the young girl, when the couple clearly did not love each other. The inaction of Di’s mother, who cries when she learns that her daughter was “kidnapped” but later lets the groom’s family take her away, has baffled several viewers.
Prominent Thai historian Prof Nidhi Eoseewong once said that maintaining their “face” in society and following socially accepted practices are of the highest priority for families in several Southeast Asian cultures.
He said the ties among family members are woven together by traditions, and the folk ways are designed to keep the society running. Since ancient times, activities such as transplanting rice paddy and building a house cannot be done by a single person or family, but they rely on the help of community members. Marriage between villagers also serves as a way to expand the workforce and strengthen the community.
Since the community has been built around these traditions, those wandering off the accepted folkways are often meted out punishments, ranging from being gossiped about, shunned, or even excommunicated. This is the major difference between an ethnic community and a civilised society, where individuality is respected and often celebrated.
Clash of traditional vs modern thinking
In a crucial scene when Di turns to her school teacher for asylum, her mother intervenes and orders the girl to come home, shrugging off the teacher’s protest that Di should at least finish her schooling before getting married, for better career opportunities. This scene reflects the inner conflict of Di’s mother, who deep down does not agree with the marriage of her young girl but chooses not to break the tradition to save the family’s face in the community.
The movie compares two concepts of the old and new eras. On the one hand we have traditions that have been observed maintaining order in society for generations, and on the other hand modern parents realise that education could be the foundation of a better future for their children.
It might come to a surprise to many viewers that in the eyes of the Hmong people, marriage is more important than completing compulsory education. Some Hmong parents view education as an uncertain path as finishing school does not always guarantee a good career or good future, unlike marrying into a family that is wealthy, or is at least doing better than their own. Many families, despite giving basic education to their children, end up shipping them off to work in China to support the family.
Since people in these remote communities rarely experience the tangible benefits of education, they tend to stick to existing traditions which at least have proven to serve their lives well in the past. This is a tricky issue that humanitarian organisations must consider before providing help.
The film ends with Di eventually being spared the traditional marriage to a man she does not love — a relief for me and other viewers. I believe that she will not be the last victim of this marriage-by-abduction tradition, which is still present in the Hmong community, in sharp contrast with the modern world that values a person’s consent. This film has truly inspired viewers to question the clash of values of the old and the new worlds.
“Children of the Mist” is being screened at the Bangkok Asean Film Festival 2022 from January 20-25 at Paragon Cineplex and SF World Cinema in Bangkok. Don’t fret if you miss the festival, as the publisher, Documentary Club, will be bringing the film to theatres soon.