“All Americans are sluts”, said my friend Vu.
“Wait… What?” I exclaimed, assuming this was just misspoken English on Vu’s part, though he is fluent in the language.
“Yeah, Americans are all sluts, man. That’s what most Vietnamese locals think just from watching Hollywood films and shows.”
The group of male friends, all Viet Kieus and Americans, nodded their agreement. Vu was the only local in the group, and he had our attention:
“Everyone is sleeping with everyone else. Different kinds of people all sleeping with each other in different ways. We think Americans are all slutty.”
The belief that America is a hotbed of hedonism is sometimes reiterated to me when I talk to others here. It’s hard to convince my Vietnamese friends, for example, that certain sections of America are highly conservative, especially compared to what I notice in Ho Chi Minh. The constant stream of sexual experimentation and openness seen in Hollywood films, music videos, and American commercials cover over a frequently traditional Puritan inspired conservatism. It’s hard to convince outsiders this liberal attitude is a veneer, unless they have traveled for a time in an America that’s not L.A., or NYC.
Vu’s comment and this perception of American promiscuity was on my mind while I was watching the biggest hit film in Vietnamese theatres, a hybrid romantic/teen comedy called “Em Chua 18“. The film’s title is literally translated in English to mean “Little sister is not yet 18 years old”, but Vietnamese pronouns are relational and kinship based, so “little sister” here is simply the address a man would use for his female lover, without the incestuous implications one thinks it has.
“Em Chua 18” is the highest grossing Vietnamese film ever in Vietnam, netting significantly more than all other Vietnamese films previous, and even, it appears, Hollywood made films like Kong, that were filmed in Vietnam. Even now, a month after its opening weekend, it’s playing to rather packed cinemas. It grossed 100 billion dong in its first 11 days, shattering the record of the previous record holder, “Em Là Bà Nội Của Anh”, which took a month to reach the same mark. Korean, Indian, and Chinese companies have apparently bought the rights to create remakes of the narrative in their own countries.
On imdb.com, the film’s title is translated into English as “Jailbait”.
The film itself
Warning, Spoilers follow! Don’t read if you plan on seeing the film!
The film’s narrative is cleverly convoluted. A high school senior is left by her boyfriend, and attempts to get him jealous by entrapping a late thirty something, successful, perpetual playboy into becoming her new beau. She blackmails him with a purported sex tape to get him to be her prom date, then further blackmails him with a fake pregnancy.
The butt of the jokes falls firmly upon the unsuspecting target of the perpetual 30 something playboy, hapless most of the time against the wiles of a high school senior. Somehow, in the midst of this broad, farcical setup, the film manages to be a romantic comedy as well, with a 20 years difference in age between the male and female romantic leads.
When I tell my Vietnamese friends that I think American sexual mores would never accept such a premise for a romantic comedy, they express some surprise.
“But why not, it’s just a comedy!”
“Maybe in France”, I responded, “but definitely not in America. No way.”
Again, the notion that America is freewheeling in its sexuality overwhelms these responses. My interlocutors all seem puzzled: why wouldn’t this comedy be seen in America as just a humorous series of jokes?
I have not much to say to that, and I can only recall, years earlier, a withering look of disapproval from the older lady at the checkout counter when I borrowed Adrian Lyne’s film adaptation of Nabokov’s “Lolita”, with Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert. This occurred in my college town, Ithaca, New York, not exactly a bedrock of conservatism.
Other responses I’ve heard from Vietnamese friends is that a) this is a comedy, and therefore Vietnamese audiences do not take it seriously, ie… I’m overanalyzing it b) this is a generational film, created for, and appreciated by the young. Parents or folks in their forties and on, might be mortified at the conclusion of the film, in which a late thirty something year old playboy is essentially paired with a high school senior.
Similar scenarios as “Em Chua…” are not unheard of in Western films, but they provide discomfiting laughter rather than act as the framing device for the plot itself. In Trainspotting, for example, the exact identical scenario occurs when high schooler Diane blackmails the film’s drug addicted protagonist, after he has slept with her, thinking she was a college student. The scene is meant to both titilate and prod against taboo. Seeing the scenario play out in an Indie film that is meant to be assertively transgressive, however, differs from seeing it placed in the conservative milieu of romantic comedies. That such a scenario shows up in this fashion in Vietnam, and is accepted, reveals a lot about the differences in sexual mores between the two countries.
Everything else about Em Chua 18 is traditional, not transgressive. The film utilises all the usual tropes of American romantic and teenage comedies. There is the intense battle to become high school prom queen (Mean Girls). There is the central deception that leads to other deceptions, tearful confessions, that leads finally to acceptance and resolution (all Rom Coms). The girl remains, until film’s end, virginal, and devoted to family – the sex tape that was made never actually happened because the playboy had passed out before anything could occur. It was just a tool.
Nevertheless, I think the way the film’s title is translated into a name connotative only of pornography, suggests its being too transgressive for American culture. In America, we can only accept it as exploitative titillation, not as a player in the conservative romantic comedy genre it ought to belong in.
In spite of that, the film aspires in numerous ways to be American. The students fit various archetypes of high schoolers that have been seen from The Breakfast Club to High School Musical. There is the cheerleading squad, the basketball jocks, the sassy friend who gives advice, the importance of prom; all essential tropes from American high school comedies are there.
There is one shot in the film that made me chuckle when no one else in the audience did. It was when the thirty eight years old playboy has come back to the halls of his old high school, and noticed a photograph of himself holding the basketball championship trophy with his teammates. He had the same dyed blond hair as he does as an adult.
Such an international school with grand facilities and Americanized culture depicted in the film was not ever in existence in 1996. Not until 2000, did ISHCMC (Saigon’s first International School) graduate its first class of high school seniors from its recently constructed campus in district 2. To all indications, Saigon was still in its first opening to the world, and Asian high school basketball heroes with blond hair only a distant possibility.
Thus, the film imagines a timeless American International high school that exists outside the frame of Saigon’s past, an ahistorical, perpetual existence of high school cheerleaders, ambiguously raced/gendered teens (the doubly-misfit outsider clicque in the film), nerds, basketball jocks, and wealthy international school mean girls, outside of troublesome times when changes were just starting to take place and Saigon must have been much more traditional. I can’t imagine my old local school would have made it as a location.
It might be interesting to see how Saigon’s comedies are beginning to present the city to its national viewers as well as its projected international audience. From the limited sample of comedies I’ve seen, the filmed version of Saigon seems aspirational, timelessly international and cosmopolitan, with the sheen and gloss of already finished development and sharply dressed young professionals given romantic ailments for conflicts, rather than troubled by financial ills. Occasionally, wealth disparity is utilised, as, for example, in Dustin Nguyen’s 2010’s film “De Mai Tinh”, or “A Fool for Love”, when a poor bathroom attendant falls for a rich Viet Kieu girl. For the most part, however, people seem to be doing fine and working white collar jobs in the new economy of comedies. “My girlfriend is my Boss”, a recent hit, for example, stars two office workers who must choose between their romance or the conservative, sometimes competitive environment of their white collar positions and colleagues. I suppose that this is, after all, the slight escapist tendency of light comedy.
Comedies of the city gives viewers encounters with party boys, hot girls, overly flamboyant gays, clubs, bars, international schools, Asian yuppies, Westerners, even Westerners who speak fluent Vietnamese, as one of my friends played in “Em Chua…”. The countryside, on the other hand, seems to be the province of the quicksand past, of ancestors, bumpkins, weirdos. Ghost films and dramas are the preferred genres here, giving us glimpses of poverty, sadness and family griefs that don’t seem to ever let the young go.
Interestingly enough, most of the scenes of “Em Chua 18” are filmed not around the more urban areas of Saigon, but its suburban planned communities instead, with the villas of either Saigon Pearl or Phu My Hung making pleasant backdrops for the hyjinks of the screwball comedy. A friend told me the high school scenes were shot at Wellspring International School in Binh Thanh, a school completed just three years ago, with sterling white hallways, and lockers roomy enough for a bully to shove a victim in. It is a setting suitable, indeed, for any audience used to watching Hollywood made high school comedies.
Of Types and Stereotypes
As much as the film took up the tropes of American high school comedies, it was nevertheless gratifying to see that the Asian girl had to choose between an Asian love interest and… an Asian love interest.
That’s to say, it’s refreshing in its directness and acknowledgement that Asian men can be playboys, or a nerd who transformed into a well dressed hot boy, or jocks (though to be fair, the basketball team of “Em Chua…” resembled a K-Pop boy band that’s just taken up sports). These might all be archetypes, meant to provoke laughter, but they were types varied and atypical enough for this viewer, so used to seeing the nerd only roles of Asians in every American school comedy (that horrendous stereotype in Sixteen Candles is one amongst a long line of debasing performances), to truly enjoy and applaud the variety of performances in the film.
I kind of wish both male leads didn’t have dyed blond hair, though. A friend said to me that this was more of an allusion to the Korean, K-Pop and Korean drama culture than an attempt to appear Western, thus the confusion of influences is fascinating to me, though as a pure outsider and frankly, too old to know what’s hip anymore, it’s unclear what allusions these varied dyed hair is making. The playboys of Asian clubs sometimes just seem like anime characters to me.
Em Chua 18 is fun because it plays off that transgressive irreverence regarding traditional kinships in Vietnam. One of the best “laugh out loud” bits in the film involved the linguistic play between the father and his potential new son, not so distant from him in age. Both characters shifted uncomfortably from “ba” and “con” to “may” and “tao” and back again; translated, this shift is from “dad and son” changing to “bro and bro”. It’s not quite a perfect a translation, but anyone who knows Vietnamese knows the absurdity of this exchange between the two men.
Ultimately, most comedies conclude with social conservatism, and “Em Chua…” is no exception. The girl realises she’s gone too far in using her wiles to get what she wants, and is repentant. The playboy is ready to settle down; he builds a baby-safe room for the child he thought he would soon have, and realises the shallowness of his bachelor life. Even the once superficial basketball jock recognises he’s chosen the wrong girl, one who is all instagramming vanity; he understands he should have stayed with the more modest, self effacing girlfriend he had before. The one transgressive note, indeed, is the final matching of an older man to the high schooler as probably successful partners.
It’s interesting to consider the possibility of this premise retold in films of other countries that have shown interest in the film. It appears Korea, China and India have bought the script and rights to make remakes of Em Chua 18. If indeed there are remakes, what they choose to keep, or elide, from the original, will reveal much about social and sexual mores of these other Asian countries. In the meantime, this smash hit sensation will, for the moment, remain a pornographically titled page on imdb for those “slutty” viewers in America who won’t yet get to see it.