By Randall Colburn
“This is not a story about war. It’s a story about falling in love.”
These are the words of Vietgone playwright Qui Nguyen, who (playfully) clarifies in the play’s opening moments that this story isn’t just about any couple, but his own parents. Vietgone is about war in the way that any story set during a war is about war; the innate tumult of the environment influences the action. But Nguyen isn’t kidding when he says that, first and foremost, this is a story about falling in love. Despite the tale taking place around 1975’s “Fall of Saigon”, the event many cite as the end of the Vietnam War, his tale is ensconced firmly around its two leads, Quang and Tong, and both the tragic and comic events that bring them together.
Nguyen offers a compelling perspective on the era’s war-torn milieu, but couches that insight in the trappings of a genre that splits sides and swells hearts. With the grace and humor of a wine-bearing bestie, Nguyen’s story indulges in no shortage of romantic comedy staples while also flipping them in surprising ways. It’s even got a montage, one that recreates some swoon-worthy scenarios you might recognize.
Using dearly departed pop culture site Grantland’s “Six Tropes of the Genre’s Golden Age” as a guidepost, we can dissect the ways in which Vietgone honors — and subverts — the romantic comedy as we know it
1. The Flawed Protagonist Seeking Salvation
“The atom of the rom-com is the protagonist. The bulk of romantic comedies are predicated upon the indisputable charm of an unrefined woman…Beneath that tough facade, you’ll find a vulnerable soul looking for her match, even if she doesn’t know that’s what she needs.”
It’s safe to say that the facade of Vietgone‘s Tong is tougher than your standard rom-com lead, but what she has in common with them is that deep sense of vulnerability. Tong, a 30-year old woman who finds independence in the U.S. after fleeing Saigon, isn’t concerned with love at all when she meets Quang, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s still nursing a deep need for human connection, which she masks with sarcasm and humor.
Quang, also, isn’t looking for love, as his heart resides back in Vietnam. But he, like Tong, is a stranger in a strange land in America, doing his best to keep up appearances as the world he’s known his entire life rapidly changes around him.
None of that may sound all that romantic on its surface, but tons of romantic comedies are built around people who discover that just because they don’t want love doesn’t mean they don’t need it.
2. The Meet Cute
“The nexus of plausibility and relatability is the perfect point of departure for rom-coms…The meet-cute becomes essential in conveying the impossibility of this couple happening in the first place.”
Meet-cutes are exactly what they sound like: A meeting between two people that is also cute, even if the cuteness only emerges in retrospect. The meeting is usually characterized by a charming chance encounter (i.e. Will spilling orange juice on movie star Anna Scott in Notting Hill) or, if the potential lovers are at first adversaries (like in Bridget Jones’ Diary), a tense one that, when you look back on it, resounds for just how wrong about each other they were.
Nguyen gives us two meet-cutes in Vietgone, but neither unfold as you’d expect. The sweet, chance encounter actually happens between Quang and Tong’s mother, Huong (the sparks, unfortunately, don’t fly), while Quang and Tong’s first meeting is tense and, well, unexpected. While meet-cutes are typically laced with a thread of innocence, theirs is, in ways decidedly not.
3. The False Start
“If the relationship is founded upon an unlikely circumstance, it only follows that there would be at least one moment of dissolution. There’s such a huge gulf to bridge!”
Something’s gotta keep our central couple apart, otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie. Usually, such as in movies like While You Were Sleeping or My Best Friend’s Wedding, it’s the object of affection that’s blinding our protagonist from the one with whom they’re supposed to be with. Vietgone also amps up the tension of its central pairing-one we know will happen before the play even begins-and introduces a variety of other (not-quite-right) suitors to complicate matters. Those suitors provide plenty of comedy, while also softening the more heartrending obstacles standing in their way.
4. The Grand Epiphany, and the Grand Declaration
“After the relationship temporarily stalls when one party makes an idiotic mistake, he or she who commits the error suddenly realizes that they cannot be without the other.”
Vietgone‘s “idiotic mistake” isn’t idiotic so much as it is poorly timed, which is a trope we’ve seen in everything from The Wedding Singer to Love, Actually. No matter how many times you’ve seen it, however, it’s curated in such a way that the gasps will no doubt fly. But Vietgone also subverts this trope, giving the characters’ independent epiphanies more weight due to the fact that they’re wrapped up not just in love, but also in matters of family and country.
5. The Supporting Cast of Friends
“In the traditional rom-com world, a relationship involves more than two people. Man, woman, and a coterie of best friends are elemental to the formula.”
The rom-com spirit is perhaps most alive in Vietgone‘s deep bench of players, each of which serve to represent the genre’s myriad archetypes. Horny best friend? Tough-as-nails parent? Idealistic sibling? Pathetic suitor? All are on display, and all of them not only embody those archetypes, but transcend them as well. Well, maybe not the suitor; that guy’s a blubbering mess.
6. The City As a Character
“In all the greats, there is a silent participant: the city in which the movie is set … Grand, unlikely comedic love is more compelling when you surround the couple with millions of people who are decidedly not right. The couple becomes like two jigsaw puzzle pieces in a set of 1,000, shuffling around in the box for the first 30 minutes, wrong fits everywhere.”
The idea of a city “being a character in itself” has become a source of parody in recent years, but that doesn’t change the fact that the most beautiful stretches of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are often the secret ingredient of any good rom-com. You’ll see none of them in Vietgone; instead you’ll visit the decidedly less romantic Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. But location matters here, as there’s something deeply affecting in how it takes Quang and Tong separately leaving Saigon in order to find each other in America. War is ugly, but sometimes something beautiful finds a way to emerge from the smoke.
All of this is to say that Vietgone provides as many simple pleasures as it does thoughtful ones, seamlessly drifting between conventions both familiar and subversive. And, of course, it has something that the majority of romantic comedies don’t: ninjas.
Vietgone runs at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, IL from August 15 – September 23, 2018. Learn more at www.writerstheatre.org.
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