A glimpse into the practice of bride-kidnapping maintained by the minority group of Hmong people in rural Vietnam, Children of the Mist is a shocking revelation of stolen childhoods, unhappy family dynamics, and combative sexual politics. Director Hà Lệ Diễm, who was living for three years with the family that is documented in the film, also negotiates between the expected impartiality of a documentarian to the empathetic human reaction when confronted with the events that unfold. Although only 92 minutes long, the film is not a comfortable watch.
Initially, the documentary feels like a slice-of-life look into a cloistered and humble farming community hidden in the misty peaks of northern Vietnam. The main subject, Di, is a 12-year-old who lives with her parents and younger siblings in a large but dimly lit and sparsely furnished concrete house. The family harvest rice in the nearby paddies and keep dogs, cats, and pigs. Di also attends school, where straight-talking teachers remind the students that farm work is not an excuse to shirk their studies and that they should aim high in life — and definitely not break the law.
In many ways, Di is just like any other child in the world. She wears bright colours, dainty earrings, and sometimes lip gloss. She plays with her friends and messages them on her phone. She does her chores and helps out around the house. She is vivacious and capable. Life is almost banal. But in between the scenes, we see unsettling elements in Di’s home life. Her parents often argue with each other, leveling complaints towards the camera about the father’s uselessness as a provider or the mother’s alleged infidelity and promiscuity. They are frequently drunk, talking too loudly, or sleeping off rounds of rice wine. Their toxic relationship is insinuated to be the result of the father kidnapping the mother years ago and forcing her into marriage.
Their rough language trickles down to young Di. She laughs with her friends about genitalia. They pretend to kidnap each other. She chats easily about flirting with boys as if she were a decade older than her preteen years. In a community where bride-kidnapping is expected, speaking openly about sex and rape is commonplace. Di’s older sister has already been subjected to this process at just 14; she visits her parents with her second baby in tow, and everyone coos over the chubby infant. Di’s mother warns Di about what may happen to her if she is out late at night, but it’s not enough to scare her headstrong daughter from going out.
When the inevitable happens, it is not quite as devastating as it might be at first. Di is persuaded by a friendly boy around her own age to visit his house and Diễm captures them walking off together, hand-in-hand. It seems innocent enough; Di seems happy to have someone paying attention to her after her usual boyfriend has cheated on her through Facebook. At home, Di’s mother realizes her daughter is missing and becomes frantic, calling Di over the phone and warning her to stay awake and remain in a lighted area in the stranger’s house.
The next day, the boy’s parents visit Di’s house, bearing wine and ready to negotiate a dowry. Everyone seems pleased by this match that will bring extra money to the house, but Di’s parents agree it is ultimately her decision. Di is eventually brought back home with the boy, Vang, and his family. Although she does not want to marry Vang, Di’s family members wheedle and coax her, trying to convince her not to turn him down right away. Vang is a little embarrassed by what is happening but quietly persists by remaining at Di’s side, allowing the adults to make his argument for their union for him.
Di feels the pressure so acutely that she makes her brief escape to school, but her mother follows her and drags her back home in front of her unhappy teachers who argue that underage marriage is illegal, their words falling on deaf ears. Tensions increase as Di is unable to fully articulate to the adults why she doesn’t want to marry this strange boy whom she met only recently. People point out that he is nice looking and turning him down would be shameful after all the fuss made so far. Her petulance only highlights how wrong it is to ask children to make these kinds of decisions and then hold them to it.
In the harrowing climax of the documentary, Vang and his family pick Di up and drag her out of her family home. Di is screaming and crying for help from Diễm — the filmmaker and only outside witness to this archaic custom — who finally steps in, although her feeble camera is pushed away again and again. At last, they let Di go, and she stumbles back home in tears. Vang agrees to withdraw his proposal. They seal the agreement with shots of potent wine that make them sick and dizzy. Children of the Mist is bookended with Di situated on a high rock, overlooking her home. A bit older and sadder after all that has happened, Di proclaims that she wishes she were a little child again.
It’s difficult to gauge just how self-aware or critical Di, or her mother, are of the harm associated with this outdated custom during the runtime of the documentary. Di is a little too young to be fully critical of a societal norm that her mother and sister have already undergone, but her mother’s oblique, drunken warnings (before the kidnapping and negotiations) definitely hint at a desire to protect her daughter from getting taken advantage of by men. I would have liked to see the footage delve more into the influence of Di’s school and smartphone — both portals into the wider world and its modern opportunities for young women — might have upon her. Much is left to wonder over.
In the end, it is unclear what the future holds for Di and other members of her community, particularly for other pre-pubescent girls. It’s unclear if the dismayed teachers or Diễm herself could do much to intervene beyond bearing witness until the bride-kidnapping custom dies out. There are glimmers of hope, however, as Di says at one point that she wishes to show her mother the rest of the world. As long as she can continue her education, Di may find her escape.
Children of the Mist will be showing at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, Canada starting February 15.