Once upon a time, deep in the hills of northern Vietnam, an ethnic Giay girl and a Nung boy fell in love. But the young girl was so beautiful that her family would not let her marry into a different tribe and fighting soon broke out between the two families. Broken hearted, the lovers parted, secretly agreeing to meet every year at the market in the remote town of Khau Vai. For one day, once a year, for their entire lives, they had a brief moment in which to share their love.
Fast forward a century or so and Khau Vai is now the site an annual ‘Love Market’. In honour of this romantic story, the yearly market is a time when young men and women come to sing, dance, shop, and (hopefully) meet the love of their life.
But is this tale of forbidden love an ancient myth stemming from the mountains or a modern day fallacy created to attract tourists and draw attention to this remote pocket of the country? In his new documentary, Vibrant Highland, Commercial Love, Hanoi-based filmmaker Matt Dworzanczyk goes in search of a real life couple that fell in love at the Love Market.
“It’s a story of wild and exotic love.” Dworzanczyk explains. “It’s a story of tribal kings and the opium trade. It’s a story of kidnapping and loss. It’s a story of sexual discovery, of spirits and magic. It’s a story of government control versus the fascinating and harrowing reality of the people.”
Myth and Reality
The film opens with sweeping shots of a beautiful, desolate landscape in the remote hills of Ha Giang. Filmed in a narrative style, Matt leads the audience into the depths of Vietnam’s northwest, an area very few of us get the time or opportunity to travel to. Filled with fantastic cinematography interspersed with moments of creative shadow-puppetry, the movie is an entertaining journey of serious issues and well timed comic relief. It is not just a documentary, it is an adventure travelogue.
Shot in five trips over two years, the film follows Dworzanczyk into the heart of the northwest and introduces us not only to the stunning rocky landscape, but also to the people that call it home. It is a journey to discover the truth behind the mythical Love Market, and who knows what we’ll find on the way.
“I started out by trying to find the history and legends behind the Love Market,” says Dworzanczyk, “but what I came to realise is that the people are so much more interesting than the myths.”
The story takes a winding, abstract road. There is no climax and no great revelation. Yes we do find the Love Market and Dworzanczyk does come to a loose conclusion on how and why it exists (I don’t want to give anything away) but that’s not the ‘ah-ha’ moment. The highlight is the pure pleasure of watching such a beautifully made film about a fascinating area of the world.
All of this is set to the backdrop of a score composed by musician Josh Kopeček. Played on a traditional khen — a stringed H’mong instrument transported all the way from Khau Vai — the music is a mix of modern influences and traditional sounds. It is a reflection of how the film has entwined pieces of history with a modern day event.
The result is 90 minutes of beautiful scenery, interesting stories, and great music. Vibrant Highland, Commercial Love is a must see for anyone curious about in the culture, history and people of the region.