The new documentary from Vietnamese filmmaker, HÀ Lệ Diễm, Children of the Mist, transports the viewer to the fog-shrouded mountains of North Vietnam where dwell the Hmong. They represent an ethnic minority in the country and have a very disturbing tradition: bride-kidnapping.
Diễm and her camera spent three years with Di (pronounced Dee), 12 years old when filming began, and her family among the Hmong and watched this young girl move from childhood to becoming an adult way too fast.
We see Di as a happy child, helping her family grow the food that sustains them, playing with her friends and attending school. One of the games they play is "kidnap the bride" where they pretend to be taken by a young man at the Lunar New Year festival. Little do they know that the reality of this controversial tradition is anything but a game.
Di at Twelve Years Old from "Children of the Mist." © 2022 Varan Vietnam. All Rights Reserved.
The first hints of the problems to come is in witnessing the alcoholism that seems to run rampant in Di's village, including both of her parents. Also prevalent is sexual promiscuity in both the adults and teenagers. The director even notes that violence and rape are common in the area as well as trafficking the women who are sold at the Chinese border only 60 miles away.
With either her mother or father drunk much of the time, Di is left to her own devices together with her younger brother. As she enters her teenage years, the arguments with her Mom increase, even as her mother tries to keep her away from relationships that she is ill-equipped to handle. We find out that both Di's mother and older sister were kidnapped brides. La, only 17 at time of filming was already pregnant with her second child.
Yet, as a 14-year-old Di attends the celebrations for the Lunar New Year, she flirts with Vang. Then she doesn't make it home, much to her mother's chagrin.
Di enjoying the New Year's festival from "Children of the Mist." © 2022 Varan Vietnam. All Rights Reserved.
What follows is hard for a western mind to grasp, let alone a parent. A round of negotiations begins between Vang's parents and Di's. At one point her mother is saying that marrying Vang is up to her and she doesn't have to do it if she doesn't want to. The next moment, Di's mother is all for letting the kidnapping stand and not getting involved. It was interesting and quite disturbing (the whole thing is very disturbing, anyway) that Vang's parents made it clear to Di's parents that they were Catholic but that it didn't matter in the grand scheme of things.
Di with Van from "Children of the Mist." © 2022 Varan Vietnam. All Rights Reserved.
Even after very clearly expressing that she does not want to marry Vang, not now, not ever, she's dragged out of her home kicking and screaming, so afraid and helpless that she appeals to filmmaker Diễm, behind the camera, to help her.
Even though marrying before age 18 is illegal in Vietnam, the Hmong, isolated in the mountains, continue their tradition of early weddings and "bride kidnapping" with little legal repercussions. For the young girls, however, sexual abuse, forced marriages, and being trafficked are real possibilities with real-life fear that it could happen to them.
Children of the Mist is an eye-opening film that begs to be seen. It is heartbreaking to know that situations like Di's and girls like her actually exist in the world today. Change begins with knowledge. With Diễm's film, the knowledge is presented to the world. How will the change come about?