By Tom Ue.
Trinh Dinh Le Minh’s new film Goodbye Mother tells a seemingly familiar story: Van (Lanh Thanh) returns to his home in Vietnam, having been away in the US for nine years. Van brings with him his boyfriend Ian (Vo Dien Gia Huy) but the film’s focus is as much on their coming out as it is on the conflicts in Van’s own family.
In what follows, I discuss with Minh his earlier work “The Scent of Fish Sauce,” which follows the meeting of three people from markedly different cultures: Mai (Tram Ly) is hired to care for Matt (Dillon Cavitt) following an injury he sustained, and she begins to cook Vietnamese food for him. Minh gained his Master’s degree in Film Production from the University of Texas at Austin where he held a Fulbright Scholarship. His short film “The Scent of Fish Sauce” has been selected for a number of prestigious film festivals including BFI London and Palm Springs, and it was nominated for Best Short Film at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (Korea). His feature-length debut Goodbye Mother screened at the Busan International Film Festival and the Hawaii International Film Festival.
Congratulations on Goodbye Mother. I want to begin by talking about some of the motifs and connective tissues between your films, including “Fish Sauce” and now Goodbye Mother. Food, especially cooking, surfaces quite often in your work. Why?
For me, cooking and family dinner are rituals to explore the relationship between people as individuals and as groups. They are also good ways to examine the substance, the depths of relationships.
In what ways do you see it as being particularly significant to Vietnamese culture?
Vietnamese culture shares many common things with Asian culture and even Western culture, especially when we talk about cooking and eating. Cooking is the way we express our love and connection to our loved ones. In Vietnam, cooking can be done alone or in groups for different occasions and purposes. However, it’s always even a bigger deal for every family as we work all day long to have those gathering time, cooking and eating.
What do you see as being distinctive about Vietnamese food?
Vietnamese food always uses fresh ingredients such as fresh herbs and seafood. We create new dishes based on what we have in our gardens or what we can find in the markets. We can create fusion and combine well-known dishes from different cultures and make them our own. We do care about the taste and smell, but we also care about the texture, condiments, and the harmony of all the ingredients.
In “Fish Sauce,” we see the meeting of, and interaction between, three people of very different cultures. Food connects them (at least temporarily). What do you hope to show through Matt’s suspicion, acceptance, and finally rejection of Mai’s cooking?
I think it’s a temporary connection. That’s why it’s also temporary acceptance. When Matt has the choice of going out, he basically has more choices than the food that Mai can offer him.
What do you think Mai hopes to cultivate through food?
I think Mai looks for a connection and acceptance. Through food, we may feel accepted and connected.
Your original screenplay differs significantly from the completed film: can you talk a bit about your modifications?
The final draft of “The Scent of Fish Sauce” has an alternative ending which might have made the film less controversial. I did film that ending but never really edited it. Before the production, I hesitated. But afterwards, I think I know what I really wanted.
We hear less from Matt’s perspective: what drives him to treat Mai so poorly?
I don’t think Matt treats Mai poorly. It’s a connection where each side has different perspectives and takes.
Why do you think Mai does what she did to Matt?
Just like the whole concept and origin of fish sauce, if Mai cannot keep the fish fresh, she would rather preserve it.
What do you see happening to Matt’s mother?
She really tastes and smells nuoc mam (fish sauce) for the very first time.
Goodbye Mother also involves some wonderful sequences of cooking and eating; and we see Van’s family celebrating through food. I love how the intergenerational relationships play out often around the table and how Van’s grandmother (Nsut Le Thien) is ultimately more accepting of her grandchild. Is there a sense in which she knows more than she lets on?
I think the grandmother herself is great actress. As she is losing her memory, she remembers only the love in the past and only recognizes details of the present. Her acceptance comes from both her love and her confusion of prejudices.
We have more elaborate meals in Goodbye Mother. Tell us about your research into the feasts that are cooked.
I love cooking. Everybody in my family can cook. I don’t have any difficulties creating cooking and eating scenes in the movie. I always love to explore and integrate them as an important element of the storytelling.
The casting is much more complex than it is in “Fish Sauce,” with its three characters. Tell us about your processes for the two films.
Before Goodbye Mother, I had not directed any scenes which involved more than three characters. I did feel pressured as Goodbye Mother has ten characters plus extra scenes.
For “Fish Sauce,” I intended to cast actresses from Vietnam but flying anyone to the US was too complicated and expensive. I tried to cast Vietnamese American and other Asian actresses but the problem was that they did not speak, smile, or react like Vietnamese. When you see the “Vietnamese smile” of the actress in the film, you will understand what “Vietnamese manners” mean.
Finally, I casted a Vietnamese friend who is a real nurse and has no experience in acting. At that time, she had been living in the US for around 10 years and had not gone back to Vietnam. I know that the feeling of isolation, temporary connection as well as the love and wistfulness are deep inside her. All I had to do was to trigger it.
For Goodbye Mother, casting two Vietnamese actors playing LGBT+ roles was a real challenge. Lanh Thanh and Vo Dien Gia Huy showed passion, sensitivity, and the determination as they are making their debuts in feature film as well. I did say to Lanh Thanh, “When you agree to get on this boat, you have to be brave and devoted. This is not only your first ole but also my directing debut. If you and I failed, you might have the second chance, while I may have not.” Last but not least, they showed great chemistry during the audition.
For the mother, I had a hard time as well: some actresses thought the role is too challenging as she only observes during in the whole film. (In Vietnam, sometimes actresses prefer more active roles like the two aunts). Hong Dao used to work mostly in theatre, especially in drama roles. After moving to the US, she has been known as a comedian in TV shows. I bet on her again as I believe the film can be her comeback in film.
For family members like the grandmother, two aunties, and the cousins, I already had names who are veterans. I simply talked with them about the roles.
As Goodbye Mother progresses, we learn more and more about Van’s family, and the conflicts that lead up to the angry confrontation. Can you tell us a bit about the backstories that you are suggesting here?
Every single family has secrets and conflicts that members are hiding. This family faces the same dilemmas as it tries to stay together as a whole unit while having a tendency of splitting apart. The angry confrontation is the way each member discharges this suppression. I think it works like a cycle. Confrontations like this will likely happen when they reach a boiling point, then the anger vaporizes before boiling again.
None of the characters seem particularly happy. Are there ways in which they can improve their conditions?
It’s the nature of living in a big family. We feel both warmth and suppressed. We feel happy, care for each other, and mean to each other sometimes.
Van’s mother Mrs. Hanh (Hong Dao) accepts so many responsibilities and yet she is routinely suspected and blamed by her family members. Mrs. Hanh nevertheless says that she derives some compensation from her family. Is it worth trying to keep the family together single-handedly?
Every single family needs a commander/ leader like Mrs. Hanh to keep things from falling apart. I think it is the way of Vietnamese family culture.
However, at the end of the film, you can see her releasing herself from all the responsibilities towards her son and her family.
Considering how poorly her family manages, are Mrs. Hanh’s goals viable in the long run?
If Mrs. Hanh doesn’t manage the family, I think each member will surely struggle as they rely on the structure of the big family a lot.
Van and Ian (Vo Dien Gia Huy) lead, we are routinely told, a very different life in the States. Do you see it as being better?
It’s not necessarily better but they can freely show their love there. At the end of the film, Van does not feel hesitated showing his emotion and love to Ian any more.
As with “Fish Sauce,” you incorporate some shower scenes that show characters’ individualities manifesting themselves more fully. Tell us about those.
I really like shower scenes as they offer opportunities for characters to be alone by themselves. Characters can rediscover their bodies and minds during those refreshing moments.
The film’s title suggests finality, yet Mrs. Hanh may one day join Van and Ian. Are you optimistic for them? What kind of future do you envision?
The audience may read the ending differently. I am optimistic for them. Whatever the situation is, understanding their loved ones is most important to every single relationship.
What is next for you?
I am making a thriller film, which is mostly for the domestic market. I think I will continue to explore the theme of temporary connection between strangers and the re-evaluation of family relationships in my next film.
Tom Ue researches and teaches courses on nineteenth-century British literature, intellectual history, and cultural studies at Dalhousie University. He is the author of Gissing, Shakespeare, and the Life of Writing (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming) and George Gissing(Liverpool University Press, forthcoming), and the editor of George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming). Ue has held the prestigious Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship and he is an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.