My Best Gay Friends is a YouTube sitcom that sets out to both entertain and inform. Lien Hoang reviews this flawed enterprise that’s worth watching. Photos by Christian Berg.
In episode six of My Best Gay Friends, a teenager named Tun moves in with his brother Rje. We later see Tun privately don a sleek black wig and silver stilettos and dance to Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’. Rje’s discovery of his kid brother’s alternative lifestyle leads to a fight — and then acceptance, with the line: “I might not have a brother, but a sister is good, too.”
The episode closes with all the roommates trying on wigs.
MBGF, shot throughout Ho Chi Minh City, centres on young people who are mostly gay or transgender, but also straight. Like any form of “edutainment”, the YouTube show seeks to entertain and inform simultaneously. It can be clumsily overt in its treatment of LGBT concerns, but there’s more than enough comic relief. In fact, it’s more like a comedy that just so happens to give insight into Vietnam’s gay community.
What drew me to this show were the LGBT issues it covers. What keeps me watching it are the characters and the humour. A lot of it is admittedly lowbrow, which doesn’t exactly set it apart from mainstream television in the country. In one scene, for example, Rje gets a faceful of soda; in another, main character Khoa squeals while his legs are being waxed. In fact, there’s a lot of squealing all throughout MBGF. Those kinds of outbursts are symptoms of an unfortunate gay stereotype — the effeminate, flamboyant homosexual — that the sitcom seems to embrace for sheer entertainment. In that sense it follows on the heels of many TV shows I’m used to in the United States, which use sassy and colourful characters for comic effect, whether they’re gay or not. Modern Family has Jay and Cameron; Big Bang Theory has Sheldon Cooper.
This leads critics to fault MBGF for presenting caricatures rather than characters. At times that’s true. But the cast also have a way of endearing themselves to audiences. I still can’t get Thien Hy’s voice out of my head, whenever he sings with delight or snaps at naysayers. Rje usually plays the dictatorial, no-nonsense landlord, but swoops to the rescue of friends in need.
Among the sitcom’s weaknesses are the laugh-track, the actors who sometimes appear to be reading their lines, and the lag between audio and video. But these aren’t so bad, considering the constraints. Creator, director and star Huynh Nguyen Dang Khoa puts together the low-budget (more like no-budget) series with an ensemble of friends, mostly college-age. For a group of thespians, we can forgive the overacting and technical immaturity. Actually, Khoa et al pull off something pretty impressive with their resources. The video image quality holds up against (or often surpasses) that of so many VTV programs. The team relies too much on post-production (hence the audio delay) but creates professional effects, like the apartment fire that brought Khoa to tears. Even the opening sequence has gotten better.
For expats living here, familiar scenes around Ho Chi Minh City add another joy to watching the show. Characters drive around Notre Dame, play at Suoi Tien, and go on dates at Highlands Coffee. It also helps that Khoa and company have added English subtitles. The translations are what you’d expect from a voluntary crew, but they’re slightly better than Vinglish and reflect surprisingly appropriate idioms. “Desperate times call for desperate measures!” Rje declares when their apartment burns down.
The unpaid actors generally use their real names and wear their own clothes. They’re pretty young people in a modest production that’s very much generational, from the Angry Birds T-shirts to the Facebook chats. Khoa says he uses material from his and his friends’ lives when writing the script, but some episodes also play out like a personal fantasy. In it, he is a well-liked and well-meaning guy who encounters challenges (his parents kicking him out, a date standing him up) but overcomes them with a little help from his friends.
Of course, MBGF transcends the toils of one protagonist. The series doesn’t directly broach homosexuality until episode two, after which it occasionally tackles common LGBT struggles, like finding a job or earning parental acceptance. In this way, the show does a service to local culture, giving us something like a Vietnamese Will & Grace. For all its adolescent shortcomings, MBGF simultaneously offers social progressiveness with entertainment, in the form of characters we want to see succeed.