Popular TV show in conservative Vietnam has gay plotline
September 11 2004 12:00 AM ET
A gay killer is leading police on a harrowing journey into an underworld they never knew existed. It's up to officer Lan to solve the case before another victim is found, but he must first confront his own prejudices against a gay brother he refuses to accept. It sounds a lot like a hot new Hollywood teaser--only it's in Vietnamese.
Vietnam's favorite TV show, The Crime Police, opens its new season this month by tackling a taboo topic and offering a lesson about tolerance. The plot is groundbreaking for this communist country where sex is mentioned only in whispers, homosexuality is still largely considered a disease, and the state tightly controls publishing and broadcasting.
The 10-episode story line is adapted from an award-winning novel titled A World Without Women that took Vietnam by surprise in 2000 when it became the first book to address gay issues in a serious manner. Author Bui Anh Tan, 38, believes Vietnam is finally ready to see the topic discussed on national television. "I think the society will have to accept the reality," he said. "They cannot deny it because it already exists and it will exist." Physical closeness between men--walking hand-in-hand or sitting with arms draped around each other--is socially acceptable in Vietnamese culture, but homosexuality is ranked by some as a "social evil" alongside prostitution and drug abuse.
The TV plot follows homophobic officer Lan as he tries to unravel three similar murders of young gay men committed during sex. Lan struggles with the crimes and eventually seeks help from a journalist friend who writes about gay issues. Meanwhile, Lan's own gay brother, whom he beat and drove off, falls in love with another officer investigating the murders. Before catching the killer, Lan himself eventually becomes more understanding and welcomes his brother home, hoping he will leave the police officer and marry a woman but agreeing to accept him regardless of whom he chooses as a partner. It's an ending that Tan didn't have for the first two editions of his book. The People's Police Publishing House, under the government's Ministry of Public Security, altered his original conclusion so that Lan's brother returns home and decides to live as a straight man. Tan said he fought hard for his original ending to appear in the book's recently released third edition and believes his victory shows how attitudes are changing.
The author is a police officer himself who became interested in Vietnam's gay underworld while reporting on crime for the police newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City. He says he took a risk writing the book, knowing many would brand him as gay, something he's continuously forced to deny. But he said it was time for an honest discussion of the topic. Screenwriter Tran Thuy Linh said it was hard to adapt the subject for TV viewers who see men as the supreme power and breadwinner of the family and
cannot accept them as having "more of a tendency of a woman." Most of the TV plot centers around the crimes, with only a couple of scenes revealing subtle hints of gay affection. The author says the book and the TV adaptation are a good start. He's discussing a feature-length film and has finished another book called A Dialogue With the World Without Women, which prints excerpts of letters the author has received from gays not only in the more liberal Ho Chi Minh City but throughout Vietnam and abroad.
"They are medical doctors, artists, ordinary people," he said. "They express their gratitude to me because they said that I told their stories on their behalf and also made other people understand about gay people." Tan said his book has also stimulated the formation of A World Without Women Association, a gay support group in Hanoi, the conservative capital. He now hopes the TV series will have an impact not just in cities but in the countryside, where most of Vietnam's 81 million people live. "Most gay people in Vietnam have to hide themselves--they cannot show other people that they are gay," he said. "I cannot predict when society will change its attitude to gay people, but I think it will have to change. It will take time."