“Having your neck draped in gold isn’t what it seems.”
This is what is said when Tram’s father is bonding amongst his friends over drinks while sharing a meal of Vietnamese escargot and discussing arranged marriages to ‘foreigners’. Something that 21-year-old Vietnamese girl, Tram is exactly doing.
‘A Hundred Years of Happiness’, an expression spoken in support of a newlywed bride and groom, is a documentary that follows Tram and her family on her quick journey to marriage. Marriage normally in Western culture is something that is joyful and romantic. You would normally want to marry your best friend, your soulmate, someone that you are deeply in love with. However, Tram is not marrying for love.
With her initial plans dashed when she could not study in Australia, Tram’s path and choices have severely narrowed, her future now leading her to marrying a South Korean man that she has never met before. As a viewer, we do not know how this is arranged. We are only thrown into the midst of the nuptial planning.
Living a rural pleasant life with her parents and grandmother, her father a farmer, her mother a housewife, I found it difficult to understand how a person, one who has never travelled to the city, could share that she loves to travel. Nor do I believe that she is perfectly fine with the arrangement. But Tram appears to be so well composed throughout the film, perhaps moving too fast to even comprehend these life-changing decisions.
In what appears sweet and wholesome trying to learn her mother’s recipes with Tram quickly scribbling down instructions her mother is advising step-by-step, but not actually watching her mother’s actions while cooking, I later on realised during my viewing that Tram was trying to salvage her mother’s wisdom so that she can still eat her favourite family meals when she is no longer in Vietnam.
Tram’s pending marriage (and pending doom in my opinion) is all too real when we are shown the engagement and wedding ceremonies with family, friends, and neighbours all preparing the venue and cheering with encouragement for Tram next step in life. But this big change, this marriage, is to a man whose name nobody seems to know.
Soo, the South Korean groom who is not exactly nameless, is completely lost in translation. Nobody has come from South Korea to celebrate this incredible change with him. He is just alone. Although appearing kind and willing, visiting each table at the reception to have a drink with guests, we literally know nothing about him. We don’t know how old he is, we don’t know his full name – and it seems, neither does anyone else.
Discovering that Tram’s parents have been gifted money by the groom, I couldn’t help but feel this was some sort of frightening heartless transaction. I wondered throughout the film; Why didn’t Tram try to get a job in the city? Why did she give up studying? Why couldn’t she stay in Vietnam? But the more as I watched the film, the more I felt that a lot of these crazy decisions were made by Tram herself.
The way director Jakeb Anhvu documents Tram’s story, his camera work respectfully observes the subject in a way that never actually intrudes on Tram’s journey. The only narrative are small excerpts from Tram herself and for the most part, the film simply follows Tram and her family in rural Vietnam, letting their voices and actions speak for themselves.
I believe that Tram made this decision so that she could provide for her family, even if from a distance. But how does she know that she will be able to send money to them? Is she going to get a job in South Korea? Will she get an allowance from her husband if she is to be a housewife? Will she ever be able to return to Vietnam? Will she ever see her family again? Unfortunately, all these questions remain unanswered at the end of the film.
With the currency exchange of the Australian dollar being so strong in comparison to the Vietnamese Dong, I feel sick knowing the fact that Tram’s path could have been vastly different had she been able to study in Australia and provide for her family on her own terms, or if people had donated to those less fortunate.
Unfortunately, ‘equality’ is something that is still yet to be achieved in first-world countries, and for those like Tram, love is something that many just cannot afford. ‘Heartbreaking’ is an understatement.
A Hundred Years of Happiness is available online as part of the Sydney Film Festival. The festival is on now until the 21st of June.
For more information, visit: https://www.sff.org.au