Vietnamese pop music’s exuberant take on LGBT

By Linh Do   November 19, 2019 | 06:24 pm PT
Vietnamese pop music’s exuberant take on LGBT
Singer Van Mai Huong kisses a female partner in "Nghe Noi Anh Sap Ket Hon". Photo courtesy of Van Mai Huong.
A slew of musical videos featuring LGBT characters have been released and become YouTube sensations in 2019.  

The most popular has been Truc Nhan’s song titled "Sang Mat Chua" (Serve You Right), which has amassed almost 45 million views since it was released at the end of July.

Filmed for two years in Vietnam and Thailand at a cost of around VND2 billion ($86,000), Nhan’s video features catchy music, slick choreography and a comic story in which a gay man threatens to crash his ex-boyfriend’s wedding to a woman by revealing their previous homosexual relationship.  

Other singers offering their takes on LGBT this year include Gil Le, Dao Ba Loc, Mai Tien Dung, Van Mai Huong, Nguyen Tran Trung Quan, and Vu Cat Tuong.

Director Huynh Tuan Anh, who shot Van Mai Huong’s musical video "Nghe Noi Anh Sap Ket Hon" (I’ve Heard You’re Going to Get Married), told the media that the topic of LGBT is inevitable as there is now more social awareness.

Vietnamese pop music has addressed homosexuality off and on over the years, not just this year. Some earlier gay and lesbian songs include "Tinh Tuyet Vong" (Desperate Love) by well-known songwriter Thai Thinh, who came out in 2006, Phuong Uyen’s "Chiec Bong" (The Shadow) and singer Thien Dang’s "Tim Lai Chinh Toi" (Finding Myself).

Cinema too has featured LGBT issues, reflecting a solid tradition in Vietnamese culture that dates as far back as the love poems written in the 1960s.  

Though musical styles vary, there is a common theme of sad separation. Nguyen Tran Trung Quan’s characters for instance are always locked in an impossible, fatal love triangle.

Following last year’s "Mau Nuoc Mat" (The Color of Tears) about a lesbian who undergoes a sex reassignment surgery, Nguyen Tran Trung Quan released another video in October titled "Tu Tam" (From the Heart) about bisexuality.

Like "Mau Nuoc Mat", "Tu Tam" too features sizzling sexual scenes, stylized costumes and sets, good acting, and melodrama and tragedy.

In it, a gay king discovers that his queen has been cheating on him with his own lover, a bisexual Vietnamese two-chord fiddle artist who loves both of them.

Set in some imagined royal court, "Tu Tam" has attracted views and comments from audiences from Myanmar, Thailand and Laos to Australia, Turkey and Brazil. Many viewers even want a sequel. The song has also been shared many times and commented positively on social media in China. 

Vu Cat Tuong’s musical video "Co Nguoi" (Someone), which premiered on YouTube in November, is also tragic: a lesbian dancer breaks her leg after being hit by a car and so can’t dance with her partner any more.

The same theme of separation is featured in Van Mai Huong’s song "Nghe Noi Anh Sap Ket Hon", released in October, about two lesbians and two gay men.

In both, a lesbian woman either addresses herself or is addressed by her woman lover as "anh", the Vietnamese pronoun for a man older than oneself.

And as in Truc Nhan’s song, in Van Mai Huong’s musical video, the heterosexual wedding serves as a kind of crucifix which tears homosexual lovers apart.

A tricky subject

Despite the increasing social awareness, the artists making these videos still admit to a tinge of apprehension.

Truc Nhan for example said he did feel afraid his song would be controversial.

Nguyen Tran Trung Quan admitted he had to think very carefully about shooting intimate scenes with Denis Dang, who plays the two-chord fiddle artist in "Tu Tam", because he feared his parents might misunderstand and his fans might object.  

Van Mai Huong, who wrote the script for her musical video about lesbianism herself, found her kissing scene with woman model Dong Anh Quynh awkward and difficult to shoot, and it took them 20 takes to get it right.

Dinh Ha Uyen Thu, who directed "Tu Tam", said though she has directed many musical videos on LGBT themes, she still thinks very carefully before accepting a new offer because without the right touch the subject could easily become offensive.

To Huynh Tuan Anh, who has directed both movies and musical videos on LGBT themes, the homosexual kiss is particularly tricky. The greatest difficulty is to make actors and actresses agree to shoot such love scenes.

But he said LGBT themes have been well received by audiences, suggesting the subject might not be as sensitive as people think.

The music videos are also attractive to the LGBT community itself because many of its members really love art and spend a great deal of money on entertainment, he said. 

The cultural representation of LGBT people comes in all shapes and sizes and should not be taken at face value, because it may misrepresent or underrepresent its subject. 

Indeed, when it comes to the media, the representation of homosexuals has been found to be prejudiced.

The Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE) and the Academy of Journalism and Communication in Hanoi found that as many as 41 percent of 502 articles in the print and electronic media they studied showed prejudices against homosexuality, while only 18 percent represented it objectively and positively.

The perspectives of the remaining articles were unclear.  

Media prejudices include portraying homosexual sex as abnormally excessive, uncontrollable and violent, homosexuality as concentrated in urban areas, among young people, among men, and among people working in the arts. In reality, it is much more diverse.

For instance, an online survey of gay men by iSEE found that only 13.5 percent worked in art and entertainment, well behind customer service (18 percent), and only slightly more than in research, science and technology (11.4 percent).

Homosexuals are also often stereotyped in the media as finding relationships at unsafe places associated with an unwholesome lifestyle such as bars, night clubs, public parks, and the streets, having multiple partners at the same time or constantly changing partners, and involving in crimes and social ills.

Screenshot taken from Sang Mat Chua music video by Truc Nhan.

Screenshot taken from "Sang Mat Chua" music video by Truc Nhan.

As far as homosexual sex is concerned, it is not in any way more abnormal than heterosexual sex and is often overemphasized relatively to other common needs and rights such as love, marriage and, especially, children.

In Vietnam, which is quite progressive about LGBT issues by Asian standards, marriage and family laws stop short of recognizing homosexual marriages and their attendant rights such as the right to adopt children together.

According to the iSEE study, the media also often tries to find the "causes" of homosexuality, identifying it either as an unfortunate innate biological illness or as a contagious, lifestyle-influenced social problem.

In reality, there is no scientific consensus about any particular cause or group of causes determining sexual orientation. Many scientists agree that both biology and society play complex roles here and most people cannot choose their sexual orientation.      

Commenting on the recent LGBT musical videos, some gay men interviewed for this article had diverse impressions. One said Truc Nhan’s "Sang Mat Chua" is prejudiced because the story does not differentiate between gay and bisexual people.

The ex-boyfriend in the video may in fact be bisexual and so there should be no problem with his getting married to a woman.  

Another said singers like Truc Nhan and Vu Cat Tuong do a pretty good job of talking directly about LGBT people in the lyrics of their songs rather than just portray them in the storylines.

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