In a small farming town in Southern Vietnam in the Mekong Delta/Saigon region, it is just days until 21-year-old Tram’s wedding. Marriage is a significant event for any woman, but for Tram, marriage means a total upheaval of her life: Tram is marrying a much older Korean man, Soo, and plans to live with him in South Korea despite knowing little of the language or culture. A Hundred Years of Happiness documents Tram’s wedding and final days in Vietnam before beginning her new life in Korea as a migrant bride.
Whilst such a topic is both intriguing and underrepresented in the West, Vietnamese-born Australian writer-director Jakeb Anhvu’s artistic approach leaves deeper explorations of historical context and societal implications to the outer edges, and instead focuses on capturing the ambience of Tram’s rural surroundings and community. In fact, Tram’s marriage to Soo is not even mentioned until halfway through the film, with the first half dedicated to showing Tram spending time with her family as they cook meals, farm, and go to markets.
Despite interestingly diverting from a paint-by-numbers documentary template, the lacking execution means the copious amount of time spent with Tram and her family doesn’t even offer insight into their personalities or thoughts. In large part this is due to a reliance on overlong and repetitive montages. This is most overtly apparent in a scene where Tram’s father waters crops accompanied by slow-motion and a traditional Vietnamese cover of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’, which feels more like an exercise in empty aesthetics than any sort of meaningful conveyance of Tram’s rural life on the fruit farm (the most information we are given of her family’s situation).
These moments of slow observation extend to scenes of Tram taking selfies with friends and a continual focus on communal meals, with plenty of close-ups on hands as they partake in cooking and eating. The effect of these montages, one could argue, comes down to noticing the small differences between each scene as a way of tracking cultural and emotional shifts leading up to the wedding day. Outside of an uncomfortable couple karaoke scene with a dour-faced Tram (how much Tram loves or even knows her husband is unclear) and continual comments from wedding guests that they don’t understand Korean, the struggles of this cross-cultural marriage are rarely acknowledged. Instead, one must gleam it from these blink-and-you’ll-miss-it details, such as noting the difference in expression when Tram is taking photos with her friends in comparison to her official wedding photographs, or how Soo earnestly partakes in Vietnamese wedding drinking traditions while still preserving Korean ‘look away’ manners.
As an observational documentary, the point may be to bask in the minutiae and mundanity of the everyday. But even then there is so little ground covered for what is supposed to be a pivotal period in Tram’s life that it’s hard to argue in favour of Anhvu’s chosen direction. It is even more difficult to excuse the film’s poor pacing as a byproduct of the observational or art-house subgenres when all subtlety is thrown out the window in the last ten minutes, where nearly all of the film’s musings on Korean-Vietnamese marriages is delivered through conventional straight-forward voice-over.
It is frustrating then that it is only in the final act that the potential of the documentary to astutely comment on cross-border marriages begins to peek through. The tension between traditional Vietnamese values and new opportunities for livelihood, for example, arises when Tram’s father questions how filial piety and a child’s duty to their parents can be upheld when they move overseas. Meanwhile, her mother acknowledges that international marriage is an economic proposition and survival tactic for women, commenting that Tram is lucky to go to Korea “or else she would suffer”. These short-lived moments show that it is possible to maintain Anhvu’s desired filmmaking style whilst giving (especially foreign) audiences much-needed glimpses of broader cultural and economic context within his intended “personal portraiture” of Tram’s family. It’s just a shame such balance is absent for the preceding 50 minutes.
Rather, it is clear that Anhvu is not particularly interested in the global-scale factors at play behind Tram’s situation. It should be noted that the documentary was initially conceived as the first part in a series, with the second film to be focused entirely on the groom’s perspective. However, this was before Anhvu was cut off from the family and production cancelled. Yet given the film’s inability to foster sufficient understanding or emotional connection to Tram’s life, this piece of context just begs the question even more: How can you paint a picture of a couple, especially one as culturally-complex as Tram and Soo, when one half does not even feel whole? In this case, it seems we might never know.
A Hundred Years of Happiness screens as part of Sydney Film Festival’s Virtual Edition and Awards from June 10–21 2020. More info here.