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Má Sài Gòn: A Queer Love Story

Interview with Khoa Lê, the Filmmaker

Article by Afterglo
Film by Khoa Lê
Photos by Danny Taillon

Hold on a minute. Khoa Lê... that name sounds familiar, right? Oh, yes, he's Afterglo's co-founder (and resident panda)! It turns out he's quite versatile; aside from being a restaurateur, he's also a creative director and filmmaker. In his role as a filmmaker, he strives to capture the nuances that define our humanity from different angles. His latest film, "Má Sài Gòn," explores themes of love, acceptance, connection, and belonging within the LGBTQ+ community. We sat down with him to understand more about his approach and how he balances his entrepreneurial and creative pursuits.

AFTERGLO: Congrats on your latest project, Khoa. Obviously, our team already knows all about Má Sài Gòn, but our readers might not. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?

KHOA: Má Sài Gòn is a documentary that delves into the everyday lives of LGBTQ+ individuals living in Saigon, Vietnam. We explore their concerns, as well as their desires and ambitions. The documentary takes us on a journey through their quests for acceptance, freedom, and connection.

AFTERGLO: These stories take place in your home country, Vietnam which feels like it adds a very personal component for you. How was it shooting in your home country? What inspired you to tell these stories?

KHOA: Vietnam is a place that both inhabits and haunts me continuously. Even though it's where I come from, I often feel like a stranger there. This is a common sentiment for many immigrants, I suppose. It seems that my Western values and habits distance me from it. Yet, at the same time, it's my original culture, and I carry it within me. I become particularly aware of this when I observe the relationships between people there—their way of interacting and expressing affection. That aspect remains very familiar to me. It moves me deeply and provides comfort. I understand the unspoken words better, perceive the invisible in relationships more clearly. Perhaps that's why most of my films are set in Vietnam. It's my way of reconnecting with the country, of feeling that I belong to it.

AFTERGLO:Although the movie takes place in Vietnam, it feels like its themes are global. Can you tell us a bit more about the LGBTQ+ community’s challenges and how some of the themes you explore resonate across any culture?

KHOA: Social norms have undergone significant changes in Vietnam. The society is relatively open to LGBTQ+ individuals. However, complexities arise in private, especially in relation to parents. The culture of family, community, and clan is deeply ingrained in Vietnam and places immense pressure on individuals who may not fully conform to these familial and communal systems. Issues of filiation are at the core of the struggle for acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals within Vietnamese families.
AFTERGLO: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while creating Má Sài Gòn? Can you share the lessons you learned from those challenges and how they contributed to your personal growth?

KHOA: I belong to the school of thought that believes artists bear a great responsibility. In documentary filmmaking, my material is human beings. I must represent them in a respectful manner while addressing my artistic desires and the concerns I highlight. How can I depict their reality in the most respectful and ethical way? This raises the question: am I making this film for the audience, for myself, or for the characters? Finding the balance among all these considerations is the major challenge, in my opinion. I believe a significant part of the answer comes from a spirit of collaboration. I try to involve the people I film in how they will be portrayed on screen.
AFTERGLO: Your team also created an intriguing web experience that is tied to the movie. Can you tell us a bit more about that initiative? What was the goal and vision behind it?

KHOA: The Má Sài Gòn space is an empathy experience. It's a space where LGBTQ+ individuals and their allies can share their stories, testimonies, and light—much like the characters in the film. I wanted to extend beyond the confines of the cinema to give the film resonance. And, of course, to foster connections. Because that's how we become more attuned to the realities of others, how we cultivate empathy.

Visit the Má Sài Gòn Space
AFTERGLO: You have varied interests. You're an artist, an entrepreneur, a restaurant owner, involved in a marketing strategy studio, and engaged in directing films and publicity. Is there a connection between all these activities?

KHOA: Yes, in the sense that everything I do stems from my desire to explore and better understand the world, humans, their ways of interacting, living together, and loving each other. For instance, the restaurant is a space we stage to encourage encounters, shared experiences, and celebrations. Similarly, with Afterglo, it's a way for me to better comprehend my own relationship with desire and sexuality—a crucial aspect of how we relate to the world! I engage in various activities because I'm curious, always in need of discovery and novelty. That's just how my brain works.

AFTERGLO: Anything else you would like to add?

KHOA: Yes, go see Má Sài Gòn in theatres! We've put a lot of effort into the sound and atmosphere to create a sensory immersion into the characters' world. The effect in a theatre is incredible. It's a universal film that speaks about acceptance, inclusion, love, and relationships. As humans, it nourishes us and prompts us to reflect. If the subject resonates with you, don't hesitate! The film is hitting theatres across Canada on February 2nd.

Má Sài Gòn is starting its theatre run on Friday, February 2nd, 2024.

Find out where it’s playing near you, Head to the Má Sài Gòn website to discover stories and messages from the LGBTQ+ community and follow Má Sài Gòn's Instagram for news and other fun content!
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