Southern Vietnamese drama Vua Di Vua Khoc pushes boundaries on national television, highlighting the country’s burgeoning and progressive entertainment industry. By Ruben Luong. Photo courtesy of VTV.

In the very first episode of Vua Di Vua Khoc (Walking and Crying), young Dong Duong’s paternal grandmother generously buys fitness books for her grandson, who’s hammering a makeshift fence outside their hut.

“Yesterday I visited so many old bookstores to buy these books,” Duong’s grandmother says. “You…you bought these books because of me? Why is that?” asks Duong.

Her grandmother replies: “Do you know that I only have your dad as a son? But unfortunately your parents passed away early and left behind five granddaughters. You’re my only grandson. Fortunately you’re a boy. Or else I can’t close my eyes when I die. Because I would feel guilty towards the ancestors. Your five older sisters are girls, so when they get married so they can take care of their husbands. You’re the only one to make us proud. But why are there so many times you look a lot like a girl? Your limbs and your body is so small and weak. Just like a girl. And many times, you also act feminine. So gross! I already bought these fitness training books. Take a close look and read carefully, and I will sign you up for a fitness training program. Let’s do that. Ok?”

Duong (Minh Hang) doesn’t like weightlifting and is actually the youngest of six daughters, but her grandmother doesn’t know it. Since Duong was little, her parents dressed her as a boy since her grandmother yearned for a grandson.

With gender and sexuality as clear motifs, VDVK follows Duong through 36 episodes of unexpected relationship twists. The heartfelt and comical episodes explore traditionally taboo themes that previously have not been aired on Vietnamese national television. Subsequently, it attracted a loyal following from when it premiered on VTV3 in March to its finale in June.

The show, filmed over four months in Ho Chi Minh City, revolves around characters who are mostly the working poor in slums along the canal bank. Vietnamese director Vu Ngoc Dang, who also directed the film Hot Boy Noi Loan about male Vietnamese prostitutes, is known for his humanistic portrayals of deep and harrowed characters and minority groups.

“I did not think of VDVK as a gay drama, but simply thought that I’m doing a film about love,” Dang told Kenh14.vn. “Because to me, love, whether gay or heterosexual, deserves to be appreciated. But I think bringing gay themes to the movie is good and should be promoted. I wish Vietnam had more works depicting life and love in this manner so that everyone has a better perspective regarding homosexuality.”

There are two situational gay plotlines that are constantly in flux, beginning when Duong’s grandmother pushes her to marry the lovely girl-next-door, Theu (Nha Phuong), who is attracted to Duong because she is unusually cute and well-mannered for a boy. However, Duong eventually harbours a secret crush for Hai Minh (Luong Manh Hai), an attractive and affluent man whose mother abandoned him and his father due to difficult circumstances. Hai Minh inadvertently develops feelings for Duong, unaware of her true gender.

The final episode leaked before the day of the official broadcast and quickly captured 20,000 views online. In a highly anticipated and poignant scene, many re-posted in online forums a powerful quote that resonated with viewers: “In every human being is a heart. If the heart knows love, it deserves to be stirred and cherished. Do not care about the gender of the heart. Everyone has the right to live life as they want, as long they do not hurt other people’s rights.”

That particular scene was a catalyst for young Vietnamese viewers who began actively discussing cultural attitudes on gender and added closure to the many ups and downs of the series. “The story, the situation in VDVK is constantly changing. You should see a set, there are a lot of emotions, laughs and cries,” production manager Le Hanh said at a VTV press conference in June.

The strong reaction has also been prompted by Dang’s progressive filmmaking style, which is characterised by vivid, eye-catching frames and locations. “The riverside buildings and trade along the river banks is characteristic of Saigon. When doing this movie, I exploit and retain the history and context of each scene because I believe that a few years from now it will be lost and will be cleared,” he said at the press conference. “Each scene is either humorous, relatable or sincere to watch and evokes strong sympathy and compassion.”

“I always want each of my films to make people feel more confident in life and love people,” Dang said. “I will continue to tell fairy tales, because I believe that there are fairy tales in life that are necessary.”

VDVK can be watched with English subtitles online at Viki.com