Mai Movie Review: Emotionally powerful lead performances in this sensitive and heart-breaking romantic film

Mai Movie Review: Emotionally powerful lead performances in this sensitive and heart-breaking romantic film

Mai isn’t a film that can be easily categorised. Sure, there’s a love story on which everything hinges, but to reduce it to just that would be doing it a huge disservice
Mai(3.5 / 5)

Mai packs in many subgenres into its two-plus-hour runtime. It starts off as a romantic comedy but gradually turns into an intense, poignant drama with some mystery/thriller elements to it. At its core, the film is a part-endearing, part-complex love story between the eponymous character Mai (Phuong Anh Dao) and Duong (Tuan Tran), two people at proverbial ends of the spectrum. Tran Thanh and the writers ensure that there is adequate nuance and build-up accorded to each section of the narrative. That Mai hides deep trauma beneath the outwardly genial appearance is a given, but the viewer isn’t spoon-fed, having to work to piece things together.

Director - Tran Thanh

Cast - Phuong Anh DaoTuan TranTran Thanh, Hong Dao, Huynh Uyen An

A highly skilled professional masseuse, Mai moves into town and joins a spa. No one really knows what she does for a living, but speculation abounds as to her likely source of income. Disrespectful terms like “sugar baby” and “hooker” are thrown at her behind her back while one neighbour accuses her of attempting to steal her husband (the blame being placed on Mai instead of the lecherous spouse in question). When she is not looking, ladies in the adjoining flats litter her doorstep with garbage and dog poop. These civic squabbles and jealousies may be presented in a melodramatic manner but they highlight the struggles of single women living by themselves in South East Asia (and elsewhere). Judgement and a lack of privacy are two issues that are commonly faced. Local playboy Duong and an independent, middle-aged woman are the only people who are accepting of Mai. If her domestic situation wasn’t hard enough, there are co-workers at the massage parlour upset with Mai’s success. She is booked on most days, with her colleagues worried about their regular clients being poached. When male customers wish for special services, she is quick to tell them that she is a professional and to keep any dodgy requests at the door. This attitude further enrages her contemporaries. Meanwhile, Duong, who’s footloose and fancy-free, takes a genuine liking to his neighbour.

Mai isn’t a film that can be easily categorised. Sure, there’s a love story on which everything hinges, but to reduce it to just that would be doing it a huge disservice. Sexual violence and suicidal ideation, complex family dynamics (not on the part of Mai alone but Duong too), deep-seated issues of trust and self-loathing as a direct result of past abuse, the inability of the child to sever ties with the parent, gambling addiction and resultant debt—there is a lot of heavy subject matter to uncoil here. And the intrigue makes each subsequent part of the story fairly unpredictable. You know some bad things are coming, but you’re neither sure of their extent nor their scope. Phuong Anh Dao does a phenomenal job as the film’s lead. Sensitive, kind and understanding, though she keeps those who try to get too close at an arm’s length. Her past is something that has clearly affected her life in an adverse way, and she wishes to steer clear of vulnerability. Even as Duong sheds his playboy persona when he develops feelings, she resists the urge to reciprocate. Shame is another repetitive theme witnessed through the film. It is indeed unfortunate that Mai judges herself so harshly; it is for those who wronged her (including her gambling addict father dependent on her for money) to feel shame. Sadly, that’s not how things work. And despite a supportive daughter, a benevolent benefactor and a man genuinely in love with her, it is hard for her to see her true worth.

Complicated parent-child dynamics are seen through Mai, with it being a difficult subject to shake off. Mai’s relationship with her father is fraught with issues; a role-reversal of sorts can be seen (she has to mother and protect him constantly). For all intents and purposes, he was a terrible father, putting her early life at grave risk. Duong, for his part, lives forever in his wealthy, single mother’s shadow. He stays on his own and dreams of pursuing a career in music, but everything is done on her dime. And not for a moment does she allow him to forget any of the sacrifices made. Worm, his pet name, only reinforces where all the power lies. These two parents, at different ends of the graph, are both equally to blame for their children’s internal struggles.

Beautiful and poignant, it is the sheer emotional range of Phuong Anh Dao and Tuan Tran that holds the film together. What is not said leaves a mark. Their faces and eyes tell a story beyond the dialogue. Mai has this strange ability to surprise you when you finally feel like you’ve called its bluff, and that remains one of the film’s foremost qualities. The writing doesn’t deal with its themes in a flippant manner. It goes to the heart of trauma, where love was once broken (perhaps even irreparably), to see if a small window of trust may yet remain. There are layers to Mai that aren’t easy to decode. The film attempts to understand that undefinable feeling, romantic or otherwise, setting itself apart in the process.

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