‘Children of the Mist’ Review: Extraordinary Vietnamese Doc Follows a Clash of Values Over a Child’s Marriage

Torn between village customs and the modern freedoms seen on her smartphone, 12-year-old Di makes for a riveting documentary heroine in Diem Ha Le's IDFA-premiered debut.

Children of the Mist
Courtesy of Cat & Docs

Like many girls her age, 12-year-old Di is not easily parted from her phone. All but welded to her hand, it’s the device through which she communicates most freely, sharing secret thoughts with her friends about the boys she likes, before cautiously approaching the boys themselves. But if it connects her local social network, it’s also her window onto a world far bigger and more modern than her remote rural village in the mountains of north Vietnam — where underage marriage for girls like Di is a longstanding local custom. On the brink of such a wedding herself, she attempts to reconcile what she knows of 21st-century feminism with a normalized family tradition, giving rise to internal and community conflicts that Diem Ha Le’s first-rate documentary “Children of the Mist” parses with even-handed intelligence and complexity.

This modestly scaled but beautifully presented Vietnamese production, made with a grant from the Sundance Institute doc program, has the makings of a significant festival hit, suitable for both specialized human rights-themed showcases and general arthouse exhibition. It’s an auspicious arrival for first-time feature director Diem, who handles delicate subject matter (not to mention vulnerable human subjects) with a frankness that stops short of button-pushing. That tact is crucial in a film operating as both close-quarters character study and wider ethnographic portrait, offering a rare, dedicated view of Vietnam’s little-represented Hmong population.

Anchoring the film through these subtle shifts in framing and focus is the mercurial presence of Di herself, a funny, forthright pre-teen who firmly knows her own mind, except when she doesn’t. Her assured sense of self and independent notion of womanhood — encouraged by reasonably progressive teaching at the local school — don’t entirely square with the Hmong traditions of her upbringing, particularly when it comes to marriage. Among the Hmong, bride-kidnapping of girls as young as Di is commonplace, with both her mother and older sister La having married in early adolescence. (La, now 17, is pregnant with her second child.)

Di questions the practice without quite resisting it. When Lunar New Year festivities (the traditional occasion for bride kidnappings) come around, she appears compliant when gawky local boy Vang carries her off on his scooter, all too easily entering a fate from which her jaded, domestically abused mother has repeatedly cautioned her. Yet as the film unpacks the consequences of Di’s disappearance, the circumstances behind it grow ever more hazy, raising questions of consent, consciousness and responsibility. What permissions has she given, and at her tender age? What permissions should she even be allowed to give? (Her would-be husband is scarcely more accountable: “I don’t know why I kidnapped her, I am still a child,” a bewildered Vang admits.) Ambiguities amass as thickly as the silver mist shrouding Di’s family farmstead, only to be rendered moot as her wishes suddenly achieve clarity: She doesn’t want to marry.

It’s a resolve that perhaps comes too late in a prickly period of negotiation between two mutually wary households, as matters of dowry, obligation and family honor are all considered ahead of the happiness of the two children in question. This is not a story of villains and victims: Diem finds a measure of sympathy for all parties in this situation, variously torn between life as they’ve always known it and the onset of more contemporary gender politics that are at once freeing and disorienting. “Children of the Mist” does, however, have a clear, radiantly expressive heroine in Di, who must prove her maturity in order to be a child again. Few coming-of-age protagonists have ever faced such an impossible arc.

Acting as her own cinematographer, Diem takes an involved, headlong formal approach, her camera plunging into the center of confrontations and disputes that sometimes leave Di a living tug-of-war object — limbs pulled this way and that, even as her mind remains her own. Elsewhere, the filmmaking drinks in the severe, serene beauty of her surroundings, its palette dictated by steel-gray weather and the indigo crops harvested by Di’s family. Still, “Children of the Mist” never strays into travelogue territory, mindful of the potential prisons hidden in this wild, rolling space.

‘Children of the Mist’ Review: Extraordinary Vietnamese Doc Follows a Clash of Values Over a Child’s Marriage

Reviewed at Int'l Documentary Festival Amsterdam, Nov. 19, 2021. Running time: 92 MIN.

  • Production: <div class="table-module__row___3Jdf5"> <div class="table-module__cell___14MpK table-module__value___1QXn5 type-module__default___3yLbV">(Documentary – Vietnam) A Varan Vietnam production. (World sales: CAT & Docs, Paris.) Producers: Swann Dubus, <span style="font-family: -apple-system, BlinkMacSystemFont, 'Segoe UI', Roboto, Oxygen-Sans, Ubuntu, Cantarell, 'Helvetica Neue', sans-serif;">Thao Tran Phuong.</span></div> </div>
  • Crew: Director, camera: Diem Ha Le. Editor: Swann Dubus. Music: Nick Norton-Smith.