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‘Má Sài Gòn’ Is a Vibrant Mosaic of Queer Life in Vietnam



Two individuals sitting in a park
Danny Taillon



To label Má Sài Gòn a documentary would be correct in the barest sense of the word, but also insufficient. Indeed, Khoa Lê’s film operates on an exciting new level of documentary filmmaking that we haven’t really seen before. Colourful, emphatic, and full of life, there’s an air of rebellion to the film itself that befits its subjects, who are equally vibrant and unapologetic. The result is a spellbinding visual portrait of queer power, deeply human at its core, and undeniably magical.


With his film, Lê takes us to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (still known as Saigon by many), where we meet various queer folks who call this place home. From drag families to odd couples to trans women revelling in the butterflies of new romance, Má Sài Gòn shows us the full rainbow of Vietnamese LGBTQ+ culture, specifically honing in on the paradoxical experience of being both sustained by an exponentially evolving city and oppressed by some of its everlasting conservatism. From here, the film and its subjects — and, for that matter, the audience — search for answers to larger questions of love, family, desire, and liberation.


Right from the opening scene, it’s clear that we are Dorothy entering Oz for the first time, stepping into a place that feels unknown, yet immediately piquing our curiosity. In a single long take, locked in a static long shot, two individuals sit at the base of a tree in a park, engaged in casual conversation, one dressing the other in various types of jewelry. The pair’s movements are minimal, their voices soft and mellow, and while not much is said about who they are and what their overall stake is in the documentary, what’s evident is the love and care they have towards each other.


This prioritization of love and kinship would be Má Sài Gòn's defining characteristic. In fact, Lê effectively shuns tradition, taking a more unconventional approach that feels less interrogational and more observational. There are no interviews or talking heads here; we are not being “taught” about the queer scene in Vietnam, as a more typical approach might entail. Instead, we are introduced to queer and trans romance in this city via different vignettes, each of which exist entirely on their own, separate from the others and only connected by the fact that some type of love is at the forefront of the respective story. In a way, we are only meant to witness what blossoms on-screen, guests of a museum rather than archeologists at an excavation site.




Four Vietnamese drag queens in vibrant costumes
Les Films de L'Autre / Les Films du 3 Mars

In this regard, Lê’s intentional direction, Mathieu Laverdière’s cinematography, and Marie-Hélène L. Delorme’s score are indispensable, working in tandem to capture how each queer character moves through this city, how the city views them, and, more importantly, how they see themselves and each other. To be queer means to exist permanently in a kaleidoscope: society sees us one way, enforcing rules for us to follow, while we might see new and different paths for ourselves.


Lê, of course, isn’t naive about the constant threat queer and trans people are under, even in politically liberal places like Ho Chi Minh City. He’s aware that conservative views exist in the bedrock of any society, and he takes care to explore the traumas and grief the subjects might have endured. 


And yet, there’s something radical about his choice to reframe these hardships as acts of resilience. Ultimately, Má Sài Gòn is all the more powerful because of it. Some of the most striking imagery the film offers are the nightclub scenes, where we see the queer subjects, who trudge through the day like regular folks, come to life with extravagant outfits, shiny costumes, and breathtaking makeup. They are both painter and canvas, as if proclaiming against all odds: this is who I really am.


Má Sài Gòn is now playing in select theatres.

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