Review: ‘Children of the Mist,’ starring Má Thi Di

December 31, 2022

by Carla Hay

Má Thi Di in “Children of the Mist” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

“Children of the Mist”

Directed by Hà Lệ Diễm

Hmong and Vietnamese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2018 to 2021, in an unnamed mountain village in northwestern Vietnam, the documentary film “Children of the Mist” features an all-Vietnamese group of people representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: From the age of 12 to the age of 15, a Vietnamese girl name Má Thi Di is filmed, as she becomes increasingly likely to become a victim of child bride kidnapping, a frequently committed crime in her culture.

Culture Audience: “Children of the Mist” will appeal primarily to people interested in documentaries about rural Vietnamese cultures and the injustices of child exploitation.

Thào A Vàng and Má Thi Di in “Children of the Mist” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

The documentary “Children of the Mist” is a riveting and emotionally painful look at how an underage teen girl can become a victim of the rampant child bride kidnappings in Vietnam. It’s an unforgettable story of dreams and potential destroyed by sexism. Although the documentary tells the story of one girl, there are countless other girls who have experienced and will continue to experience the same devastating fate.

From 2018 to 2021, “Children on the Mist” director Hà Lệ Diễm documented the life of a Vietnamese girl named Má Thi Di, beginning when Di was 12 years old. In the documentary, which is shown in chronological order, Di lives with her parents and younger brother in an unnamed rural village surrounded by misty mountains in northwestern Vietnam. She starts off as playful and carefree, but over the years, Di grows increasingly apprehensive about the possibility that she will be kidnapped and forced to marry someone before she turns 18. In Vietnam, the minimum legal age to get married is 18 years old.

Di and her family live among Hmong people, an ethnic minority in Vietnam that has longtime cultural traditions that conflict with Vietnam’s laws. One of these conflicts is that it’s acceptable in Hmong culture for underage girls to be kidnapped by men or teenage boys who want to “marry” these girls. These kidnappings are such a “tradition” in the culture that it has become prevalent and expected, especially close to the Lunar New Year holidays.

In the production notes for “Children of the Mist,” director Hà (who is originally from the Tay community, an ethnic group in northeast Vietnam) comments in a statement: “I knew for a long time about ‘bride-knapping,’ but I used to consider it like a folkloric tradition. I didn’t realize that most of the parents were favorable to early marriage for their daughter, as they don’t trust in social promotion through school.

The statement continues, “Almost every family in these communities has once suffered abduction. As a consequence, sexual abuse and violence are very common in this region. Since I started to shoot, two schoolmates of Di were raped on their way to school. One of them was murdered. While becoming teenagers Di and her friends had fear growing in them.”

There is no sexual assault shown or even discussed in “Children of the Mist.” However, Di’s increasing fear has that it will happen to Di is visible in the documentary. That’s because, as it’s eventually revealed, Di’s feisty mother Châu Thi Kay and Di’s older sister Má Thi La were both victims of these kidnappings. At one point in the documentary, when Di is almost 15 years old, it’s mentioned that La is 17 years old when La is the mother of an infant and pregnant with La’s second child.

Di describes the anguish that her mother and other family members had when La “dropped out” (disappeared) when La was 15 and was kidnapped by the man who forced La to be his wife. (La’s husband is not shown in the documentary when La goes to visit her family.) Di comments about La being forced to marry at an illegal young age: “She wanted to have fun, but that was the end of her childhood. I won’t be that naïve.”

Still, “bride-knapping” is so ingrained in the culture, an early scene in the movie shows Di and some female friends playing a chase game called “Catch the Bride,” in a field where one of the girls has been chosen for playing the role of the person who’s supposed to be kidnapped. In another scene, Kay half-jokingly tells Di what she thinks about Di’s chances of being kidnapped: “You’re not Hmong, so they can’t force you.” At 12 and 13 years old, Di has a lot of bravado that she will never be kidnapped. As she gets older, that confidence diminishes.

Di is a bright and outgoing child who likes school, which she also uses as a refuge to her oppressive life at home. The movie has some scenes of Di and other students in their classroom. Her parents have a very small farm, where Di is expected to help out as much as possible. There are several scenes of Di, her mother and some other relatives doing harvesting activities in the nearby rice paddy fields. It’s also Di’s responsibility to help feed the animals on the farm.

In the early part of the documentary, Di is shown doing karaoke with two girls who are about the same age. As she gets older, her activities and conversations with her friends and relatives revolve more around dating boys and her family’s expectations on when she should get married. Di and the other teens in her social circle rely heavily on their phones to communicate and find out what’s going on with each other.

A scene in the movie shows Di, at about age 13 or 14, shyly flirting on her phone with a man who calls himself Pao. He wants to meet her in person, but Di is reluctant and at first won’t tell him her real named. Di never goes to meet him, and his identity is never revealed, but the phone conversation looks like a case of an older man preying on an underage teenage girl.

“Children of the Mist” shows that the family goes to community festivals and parties, where the adults often get drunk. Alcohol abuse is mentioned numerous times throughout the movie as having a negative impact on family life. Kay bitterly complains about her unhappy marriage and says that her husband Má A Pho is a drunk who often verbally abuses and beats her and Di. (This alleged abuse is not shown in the documentary. Pho is shown stumbling around a lot and acts like happy drunk.)

Meanwhile, Kay (who admits to getting drunk on occasion) has this to say about her husband: “The man has no dignity. Even our son-in-law hates him, but he still thinks he’s the king.” Pho overhears her complaints about him, and he replies, “I know you’re cheating on me.”

At 14 years old, Di tries to tune out her parents troubled marriage, and she’s preoccupied with problems in her own love life. She gripes to a friend about how an ex-boyfriend dumped her for another girl, but Di says that she doesn’t love this guy anymore anyway. Still, she cares enough to discuss at length what this ex-boyfriend’s social media activities. And when he contacts Di to try to get back together with her, Di and her friend agree that it’s best for Di to ignore him.

The documentary takes a turn when Di starts dating a teenager close to her age named Thào A Vàng. It quickly becomes apparent that Vàng is much more smitten with Di than she is with him. She doesn’t want to break his heart, but she doesn’t want to marry him either. What happens during this courtship will define what type of woman Di wants to become, which might not align with other people’s expectations.

“Children of the Mist” presents an interesting sociological portrait of how teenagers who live in a relatively isolated rural areas are often caught in a world of being required to follow ancient traditions, but they have access to the modern world through technology and are keenly aware that these old traditions aren’t forced on people in other communities. In other words, Di is very aware that she can and should have options on what she wants to do with her life.

Di talks about wanting to finish her education and get a job so that she has enough money to travel with her mother, who has never traveled outside the village. The relationship that Di has with her mother is an example of how a mother wants the best for her child but is also fearful that her child will make the wrong decisions or will be trapped in the same harmful circumstances. Di says she’s not ready to get married at this time in her life, but how much will that decision be respected by other people?

In a very telling scene that shows the family’s dynamics, Di has stayed out past her curfew, and it’s assumed that Di is with Vàng. Kay’s attitude changes from slight annoyance that Di hasn’t been returning phone calls and messages to Kay expressing so much fear that she starts crying. Her husband Pho isn’t so worried and reminds her Kay that she used to break her curfew when she was Di’s age too, and it was how Pho was able to kidnap her. This reminder gets Kay even more distressed and worried about what happened to Di.

“Children of the Mist” offers an up-close look at many aspects of Di’s life. If there’s any flaw in the movie, it’s that it doesn’t really address the alleged abuse. Viewers are left to wonder if “Children on the Mist” director Hà had footage of this abuse but purposely chose to leave it out of this cinéma vérité-styled documentary. In addition, Hà says in the documentary’s voiceover introduction that she became friends with Di—perhaps inevitable, considering the intimate nature of this documentary, but still calls into question if this close friendship compromised the director’s judgment as a documentarian.

Even with so many unanswered questions about Di’s family life, “Children of the Mist” is still a very engrossing film that shows a poignant story about what child bride kidnapping can do over time to individuals, families and communities. It’s a real-life horror story that some people have become so numb to, it’s become accepted in the culture where Di was raised. Unlike a horror movie, there’s less likely to be a “final girl” happy ending.

Film Movement released “Children of the Mist” in select U.S. cinemas on December 16, 2022. The movie will be released on digital and DVD on February 14, 2023.

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