Lost in Paradise: Berlin Film Review

A gay melodrama so treacly it should carry a warning for diabetics.

Possibly the most candid treatment of homosexuality to date from Vietnam's burgeoning commercial film industry, Ngoc Dang Vu's feature is glossy but insipid and rife with cliché.

BERLIN – Drowning in the schmaltz of Lost in Paradise, there’s a germ of social realism exploring the difficult lives of young Vietnamese gay men, driven from their small-minded hometowns and unaccepting families and drifting into prostitution to survive in Ho Chi Minh City. But director Ngoc Dang Vu and his co-writer take such a syrupy approach to their material that the pathos registers only as cliché-riddled sentiment.

At the risk of resorting to easy Asian generalizations, this is the Hello Kitty version of a gay hustler melodrama. The first few minutes signal what’s to come, cutting between a barely clad muscle dude working out in the park while his boyfriend pouts at home, flanked in bed by two of the fluffiest (but most personality-deprived) cats ever put onscreen. Meanwhile a cute twink wanders the streets, posing conveniently in front of a Chanel boutique and a Gucci billboard to remind us that easy living is seemingly within reach.

The principal plotline concerns new kid in town Khoi (Khoa Vinh Ho), a 20-year-old fresh from the provinces, who gets scammed by amoral hustler Dong (Linh Son) while looking for an apartment. Dong’s petulant boyfriend Lam (co-screenwriter Manh Hai Luong) is roped in almost unwittingly, but despite his concern for the guy they stripped of his cash and possessions, his objections are futile.

When Dong takes off and leaves Lam minding the cats, he continues to spend his evenings turning tricks on the street. Burned by love after his misadventures with Dong, Lam shrugs off the amorous advances of a simpering fellow hustler. But when he crosses paths again with Khoi, even further reduced by unhappy circumstance, love blossoms.

The conflict, trite as it is, stems from Khoi’s insistence that Lam give up prostitution, while the latter keeps spouting platitudes like, “They can buy my body but they can’t touch my heart.” Seriously. Dong inevitably resurfaces, looking to bust the lovebirds apart or get in on the action, but bitter experience has made Lam more unyielding.

Every montage of rapturous lovemaking or tear-stained disillusionment – and there are a lot of them – is backed unrelentingly by a mawkish instrumental refrain or a cheesy pop song. While technically, the film is quite polished, the sabotage committed by composer Minh Thu is insurmountable. The story’s major subplot, in particular, requires no extra saccharine from the music department. For poignant comic relief, a sweet-natured, simple-minded fringe-dweller (Hieu Hien) hatches a pet duckling from an egg while pining for a beat-up female hooker (Phuong Thanh) whose toughened exterior hides a warm heart.

There’s a faint impulse to cut this silly sugar-candy movie some slack given that its forthright treatment of homosexuality no doubt represents a breakthrough in a still-repressive culture. But right up to its tidy conclusion, balancing tragedy with hope, this is entirely lacking in any kind of edge. The storytelling is too unsophisticated for any but the most guileless audiences to invest in, making it unlikely to break beyond the gay-festival niche or its ideal target of local teens hungry for pop-cultural visibility.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)

Cast: Manh Hai Luong, Vinh Khoa Ho, Linh Son, Phuong Thanh, Hieu Hien

Production companies: BHD, Vietnam Studio

Director: Ngoc Dang Vu

Screenwriters: Ngoc Dang Vu, Manh Hai Luong

Executive producers: Phan Quang Binh Nguyen, Thi Bich Hien Ngo

Director of photography: Nam Nguyen

Production designer: Tuan Le

Music: Minh Thu

Editor: Khanh Ly

Sales: Fortissimo Films

No rating, 98 minutes