Vietnamese filmmaker Hà Lệ Diễm’s debut feature, Children of the Mist, is a documentary about the tradition of “bride kidnapping” practiced by the Hmong people in North Vietnam. Diễm’s subject, Di, is 12 years old, which is considered marriageable age in the agrarian town of Sapa. At the outset, she’s an average tween dealing with the onset of puberty and fills her days with friendships and school. Di is among the first generations to have education available and is successful in her studies.
Despite being pre-teens, Di and her friends have boyfriends. Her mother warns her about this, trying to impart the wisdom of her own experience, to be careful about managing those relationships. Life for a married woman is hard. She’s expected to do a great deal of manual farming labor, as well as housekeeping, meals, and child-rearing. A fascinating task for women in Sapa is cultivating and preparing Indigo plants in the district for the distinctive blue-black dye.
Adding a new bride to an extended family means more labor resources to help the family. Di’s boyfriend, Vàng, decides it’s time to marry, and with the help of his family, at the Lunar New Year celebration, he kidnaps Di. This event triggers a series of formal meetings and negotiations between the families. In theory, the girl can refuse the arrangement and return to her home, but the cultural inertia is with the boy’s family, and it is seen as shameful to refuse. Her family may also exercise the option to drag her back, and while this is all framed as more ceremonial than practical, it can look violent and scary. In some cases, when a couple is older and has been together for some time, the kidnapping is more of a lighthearted nod to tradition, seen as a way to elope, but not always.
“…Vàng, decides it’s time to marry, and with the help of his family, at the Lunar New Year celebration, he kidnaps Di.”
The practice seems shocking and horrifically outdated to Western sensibilities. Indeed, even the teachers at Di’s school find it backward and try to intercede on her behalf. Once the girl is with the other family, her fate is uncertain. In many cases, girls are trafficked across the border to China or taken West to Laos. Nevertheless, Di is strong enough to express her agency powerfully, so the questions at the center of Children of the Mist are what she wants and how she will steer the course of her own life.
Spending time with Di’s family, Diễm became very integrated with them. Diễm spoke with SINdie magazine about her experience: “…her parents told me that they considered me as Di’s sister, as their own child. They asked me to help Di, and I agreed, in that, I would help “drag” Di back. I help Di as someone whom her parents regard as Di’s sister, whereas the filmmaker is not supposed to. At that moment, I thought to myself, I held the camera, but I was also a human with the right to my feelings and opinions. Many times, I disregarded the concerns of a filmmaker and went ahead with expressing my thoughts and sentiments.“
Diễm’s filmmaking skills are already sharp, despite this being her first feature. Movies are told in the editing, and she cuts the film to tell the best story in a skillful, professional way. For a Western audience, Children of the Mist does what a documentary should do. The filmmaker educates and entertains with a profoundly human story about the life of a young woman. Viewers will become invested in what happens to Di and learn about the Hmong tradition along the way.
"…educates and entertains with a profoundly human story..."