I don’t think in all of my years of being a film lover that I have ever had a documentary jolt and jar me the way that Children of the Mist did. This documentary lulled me into a false sense of security and then delivered a moment so shocking and emotionally gut-wrenching, that I think it will stay with me forever.
Directed by Ha Le Diem in her first full-length documentary, Children of the Mist follows the life of 13-year-old Di, who lives in a small village in the Northern Highlands of Vietnam. In the beginning, the film follows her everyday life, looking at what it is like for Di at school, and how she helps her parents on their farm. However, all throughout this time, we see her and her friends joking about the fact that young girls are often ‘kidnapped’ and forced into marriage. In fact, it is something that actually happened to Di’s own sister. That turns into a dark foreshadowing of the second part of the documentary.
Early on, it is easy to see that Di is friendly and flirty, yet very immature and unaware when it comes to men and boys. That friendly and flirty nature soon turns sinister when a boy she has been chatting to online turns up during the New Year’s celebration and Di disappears.
There is simply no way to prepare yourself for the harsh moments of reality that you will see in the second half of this documentary film. In the best half, at times, it feels like you are watching the Vietnamese version of Big Brother set in a small village.
Diem shoots this like a fly-on-the-wall documentary and for the most part, for the first half we see Di’s parents getting drunk with their friends, while Di plays and talks friends. Then everything begins to fall away, we witness fights between Di and her mother, and we see the frustration that her mother must endure with a husband that she claims is constantly drunk.
You are pulled into this world by the natural style of filmmaking that Diem brings to the screen, and perhaps that is why the second half of this documentary becomes so heart-breaking to watch. I found myself at times wanting to look away, but I was so invested in Di’s story that I had to keep watching to find out happened to her.
There are ten minutes of this documentary where I finally learnt what it means ‘to watch something with your heart in your mouth’. The realisation hit like a sledgehammer when I finally came to terms with the fact that this film is not manufactured Hollywood suspense – this is real life. Somebody actually went through the worst moments of their life that you are watching.
While Children of the Mist can be difficult film to watch, it is a very compelling and important one as well. If nothing else, this documentary will make you feel relieved that you live in a country like Australia, where these kinds of barbaric things don’t occur. Although difficult to witness, if you are curious and are willing to see this film, the payoff is certainly worth it.
Children of the Mist has limited screenings as part of the 2022 Sydney Film Festival.
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