Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere (2014)
Nguyen Hoang Diep’s feature film debut has the simple premise of a college student who finds that she is about fifteen weeks pregnant. With a hypersexual boyfriend who is more preoccupied with earning money through cock fighting than with helping her think through the decision of keeping the baby or having an abortion, Huyen (Nguyen Thuy Anh) finds herself at a crossroads. But Nguyen takes this premise and rejects its potentially overly dramatic story of suffering and indecision. Instead, she creates an episodic work that presents the lives of young people hustling in Hanoi to get by, where things such as unplanned pregnancies can take place. Granted, the film does contain moments of melodrama. But it does not overpower the film to the point where Huyen is portrayed as an extraordinary being going through an extraordinary situation, resolved in an extraordinary way. The film eventually wins over the spectator precisely with its attention to the everyday, the rough texture of city life, the perspective of young people removed from the political or the allegorical, and its frank, sensual imagery.
Granted, the film does contain moments of melodrama. But it does not overpower the film to the point where Huyen is portrayed as an extraordinary being going through an extraordinary situation …
Nguyen uses the general premise of a teenage pregnancy not only to tell Huyen’s story but also to address a range of issues, including bodies, desire, and gender. The film begins with Huyen examining her body to confirm and deny simultaneously her new physical condition. In one sense, the film is about Huyen getting to know herself through the changes that her body will go through because of her pregnancy. Whether or not she wants to get an abortion gradually becomes less a question of holding on to her boyfriend than an opportunity to reflect upon herself, cultivate an emotional independence, and explore her genuine desires, new and old. The financial obstacles that succeed each other and prevent Huyen from going through with an abortion early on in her pregnancy become transparent steps towards her growth and self-introspection. This growth in understanding and exploration of herself results in a widening gap between her and her boyfriend Tung (Hoang Ha). A great visual representation of their developing disconnect occurs when the two are in the bucket crane of the truck that Tung uses for his work of repairing broken streetlights. As they stand inside the bucket crane raised high alongside a building to have a conversation above the city bustle, they are framed in such a way that makes them suspended in midair, as if affirming how they are in limbo about the pregnancy, their relationship, and each other.
Nguyen uses the general premise of a teenage pregnancy not only to tell Huyen’s story but also to address a range of issues, including bodies, desire, and gender.
In contrast, when her roommate Linh (played by pop star Thanh Duy) coaxes her into dipping into prostitution to earn money for an abortion, Huyen meets a nameless wealthy businessman whom she dubs Hoang (Tran Bao Son). Hoang has a fixation with pregnant women, and romances Huyen with his more mature, restrained approach to communication and mysterious demeanour. But the first, albeit brief, glimpse of Hoang that Huyen and the spectator see is him in the nude, shot from behind. Hoang’s older and more muscled body is a stark contrast to Tung’s beanpole physique. The film reflects this contrast through pacing and the respective actors’ movements. Tung is kinetic, impatient, and impulsive, always buzzing around Huyen and other girls or at the cock fights (and sometimes getting beaten up), echoed by short shot lengths and the city’s commotion. Inversely, all of the scenes with Hoang have a meditative pacing removed from city spaces that makes it seem like a trance—indeed, he comes and goes in her life like an apparition of an idealised man—which differs so strongly with the film’s overall animated feel and city center setting.
Also providing contrast in terms of body is Linh. In the opening scene, Huyen’s reflective examination of her body is interrupted by the arrival of her roommate, a young woman with a bob haircut and wearing a short tight dress. But as Linh settles in and changes into more comfortable clothes, her gender slowly changes before our eyes, unassumingly and nonchalantly. When ‘she’ emerges from the bathroom after her shower wearing only a towel wrapped around her waist, we discover that ‘she’ is in fact a he. It is a minor point in the scene, but a significant detail in the overall film, for Linh’s experiences as a female prostitute runs nearly parallel to Huyen’s experiences with her whimsical, macho boyfriend; dilemma of her pregnancy; and meetings with Hoang. The result is a tapestry of differing identities and situations, presented without judgment or embellishment.
At times, the film’s pacing becomes more languid than provocatively pensive as intended, especially when it comes to Huyen herself. In a way, she is more like a lens through which to capture the range of male bodies and lives of Tung, Hoang, and Linh. All the same, it is significant that we view them mainly through her shifting perspective and body. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the catalyst for the film’s story and characters came from her television documentary series titled Life Changes.
The film eventually wins over the spectator precisely with its attention to the everyday, the rough texture of city life, the perspective of young people removed from the political or the allegorical, and its frank, sensual imagery.