Di, the 13-year-old Hmong girl at the heart of Ha Le Diem’s shattering documentary, has a beautiful, contagious laugh that rings through the misty mountains of northern Vietnam, where she lives with her family in a small village. With her big eyes and rosy cheeks, Di has an endearing mischief about her, but even in the games she plays with other youngsters, the shadow of an archaic tradition looms large. At one point, Di and her friends pretend to perform a “bride kidnapping,” a Hmong custom that allows a boy during New Year’s celebrations to abduct a girl and force her into marriage.
This practice was how her parents met and it was also how her older sister got married at the age of 14. Most of the housework and farm work is done by the women – even Di has to carry logs much bigger than herself – while the patriarch spends most of his day drinking. Yet Di is not defined by her restrictive social environment; her bubbly personality dominates the screen instead. From her desire to complete her studies to her crushes on other boys, Di is determined to make her future her own.
However, this dream is interrupted when an innocent flirtation leads to Di’s bride-kidnapping of another boy. As she is dragged kicking and screaming from her family home, the scene calls into question the usually detached, ethnographic approach to filmmaking about marginalized communities. Behind the camera, Ha Le Diem tries to protect Di by reasoning with kidnappers, but is pushed away; she later admits to the young girl that she had not expected the tradition to be so brutal. The decision to leave out such details is particularly thought-provoking and breaks the assumed neutrality of documentary filmmakers.