Sweet, Salty’s Bittersweet: A Free Write

Joanne Ho writes freely in this creative piece on Vietnamese filmmaker Linh Duong’s Sweet, Salty.

Sweet, Salty’s Bittersweet: A Free Write 

It’s strange that the English language has so few words to describe taste. There are the usual suspects: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami. Describing any combination of these is easy – resort to conjunction or make them compound: “hot and sour” (soup), “sweet and sour” (pork), “bittersweet” (chocolate). These descriptions seem simplistic, falling short of capturing what our palates really experience. The complexity of the things we taste meeting our linguistic shortcomings isn’t all that different from the difficulty of describing nuance in our lived or filmic experience. 

Sweet, Salty derives its title from cultural belief that the flavour profile of a woman’s pregnancy cravings tells of the unborn child’s sex. The film’s main character, Ha, is 40, pregnant, and preparing to confront her husband’s lover. She craves sour-salty food, and seems pleased that she and her husband have finally conceived a boy after two daughters. The film chronicles Ha’s day prior to the confrontation, and one can’t help but be stung by its everyday, quiet tragedy, its bittersweetness.  

Three moments of the film have seared themselves quite fully into my mind – a result of Director Duong Dieu Linh’s narrative deftness. But describing their intricacy; relating emotional resonance to you on the page, seems a near impossible task. Below, I’ve tried to free-write how these scenes make my heart ache, my mind nervous, my fists clench in anticipation; the delicacy of unadulterated feeling. 

Sweet, Salty, dir. Duong Dieu Linh, 2019
inhale, exhale  

Ha in the middle of her luscious, leafy courtyard, lime green mat beneath her, bathed in the morning’s soft light. The virtual yoga instructor’s breathy instructions are no match for what seems to torpedo through her, a force that seems un-vinyasa-able away. How does one cat-cow away marital betrayal? “Inhale deeply, then exhale” How does one reconcile bereavement with the satisfaction of finally conceiving a boy? “Go to cow pose, then roll your back up” It seems too cruel a trick for life to play. Ha drips sweat, heavy breathing, exerting herself. Her movements tortured, in slow motion. “Get into cat pose, now raise one arm and leg” A cut from a close up of Ha’s face, deep in concentration; to one which shows the little courtyard she practices in; her body petite, miniature, framed by the doorway’s bounds. “This is bird flying high pose” The subtleties and overtures of feeling trapped, in mind, in body, in space. “Fold your knee and try to reach your toe” She loses her balance, concedes to gravity, sadness, delicate rage. Sweat and tears. Her short hair is matted to her forehead, her features contort. The disembodied voice marches on, waits for no one. 

“Inhale, exhale”

karaoke dreams

Garish green and purple disco lights, unrelenting and dizzying. A platter of neon fruit, near otherworldly. Ha in a light coral, babydoll dress; not old, not young. The lights are off. Ha grabs the mic: “The morning dew still lingers on blossoming flowers, Together with my parents, I’m doing my makeup; The ferry is passing by its port; Everyone is looking at me;  I’m so shy, I don’t want to say anything; I’m only a 15 year old girl; Hey gentleman! I’m still a little girl!” She and her girlfriends bop to the song’s melodrama. The group of middle aged women smile large- they don’t imagine their youth. They are youth again. They don’t have distracted husbands, apathetic children, dishes to wash. All they have, all they need are youthful beauty, naivety, disco lights. But reality finds a way. The father of Ha’s first daughter’s child catapults himself into the room, steals the song, sings terribly. Ha hands him his son, “you’re late”. He leaves but now the  mic is missing. They resign themselves to the couch, look at each other. Revisit the mirage another day. 

warpaint and rice cookers 

Ha’s face in a tiny circle mirror on her daughter’s vanity; the plywood plastered with the paraphernalia of adolescence. BTS and K-Drama stars and lipstick, necklaces, hello kitty stickers, a barbie. She smears red lipstick on, makes sure none is on her teeth. It might as well be war-paint. Ha’s battle armor is beauty. She may be a woman scorned but at least she is beautiful, can wear that dignity like an oversized, costume broach. It makes her brave enough or perhaps angry enough to seek out the other woman- want to verify with her own eyes. It’s strange how beauty works, the ways in which it is weapon and defense. She looks at herself in the mirror, she’s in a hurry; impulsively grabbing a necklace. She’s flustered. There are still dishes out in the kitchen, she stows them safely under plastic food cover. A woman’s work: to be domestic, mother, femme fatale, bear children, be sexy, remain as Ha’s hairdresser says, “steamy hot”- hot enough to “dump her husband, and many men would jump right in!” Ha shuts the rice cooker.  

– Joanne Ho