Hungry Ghosts review – spirits and families collide in love letter to the Vietnamese diaspora

On the eve of the Hungry Ghost festival – a Buddhist and Taoist spiritual tradition where the gates of hell are opened, allowing the dead to roam the mortal realm – the tomb of a vengeful ghost, Quang, is accidentally opened in Vietnam.

At the same time, protagonist May Le’s (Catherine Văn-Davies) grandmother Phương dies in Melbourne, and strange things begin to happen – dead people showing up, cryptic messages bestowed through proxies, demonic possessions – forcing three Vietnamese Australian families to confront past, present and future.

This unconventional and fascinating four-part miniseries, which premieres on Monday night on SBS, disobeys genre: it’s mystery, thriller, romance and drama all at once, overlaid with the sheen of magic realism. Directed by Shawn Seet, and with writers including Michele Lee and Jeremy and Alan Nguyen, it centres the experience of the Vietnamese diaspora and the ongoing trauma of the Vietnam war, 45 years after the fall of Saigon.

These impacts are seen in ways obvious and hidden – they are in the hairline fractures of these families, often unspoken but always there. As May says in the first episode: “The pain of past trauma can seep from one generation to the next.”

For the Nguyen family, the war has hardened South Vietnamese veteran Anh (Ferdinand Hoang), whose relationship with his son Paul (Gareth Yuen) is suffering; his wife Liên (Gabrielle Chan) is also struggling, as her first husband and Anh’s best friend, Khoa, was killed in combat, and her loyalty to both men traps her between past and present. The Tran family would rather forget the past, but the spirit of a fellow refugee, drowned at sea, will not let them.

All the while, a retrospective photo exhibition by white Australian war photographer Neil Stockton (Bryan Brown) provokes divisive responses from the Vietnamese community, as the photographer himself grapples with the ethics and human cost of his line of work.

In a plotline perhaps a little too reminiscent of Harry Potter, May must find the three pieces of Quang’s soul, hidden in unknown places, to satiate the ghost and restore peace to the community. On this journey, she comes to terms with the death of her grandmother and reckons with her relationship with her estranged mother, all with the help of her clairvoyant best friend and the handsome doctor who was present when her grandmother died.

There’s a lot to unpack in Hungry Ghosts, but it never feels forced or didactic: the show is compellingly paced, with all the hallmarks of a good thriller, but leaves enough breathing room for each family’s story to be teased out. There are flashes of normalcy – May’s job in a nail salon, a young woman FaceTiming friends from a party – which makes the juxtaposition with the ghostly elements all the more hyperreal and surprising.

The show lovingly represents details of Vietnamese culture and life (white headbands worn at a funeral, carefully laid-out Buddhist ancestral shrines) but to align with the more fantastical elements of the story, some of this is exaggerated. Though superstition and spirituality certainly have their place in Vietnamese culture, the mythology of the show is not always accurate – a chant that May does to ward demons off is not a part of any reality, and the Hungry Ghost festival itself is not one of the country’s more widely celebrated cultural events. What this means is that Hungry Ghosts does sometimes tread a dangerous line between representation and exotification, which could confuse viewers into a myopic cultural view.

But the personal trials the characters go through are very real, reflecting the continuing trauma of war (some stories are based on the real-life experiences of the actors and writers of Vietnamese heritage). In particular, the performances of the older actors are deeply moving – their experiences and pain trickle down through generations, yet they remain outwardly stoic, sometimes seemingly unfeeling. For so many Vietnamese Australian families, this is the reality: we come from struggle, and that struggle is in the everyday.

By reconciling with the events of the war, these characters can live in the present; it is not about forgetting the past, but rather finding a way to coexist with it and heal. For the younger generation, this is often about accepting our cultural identity, and continuing the great tradition of oral storytelling to keep our parents’ and grandparents’ stories alive. The central character of May, and a young artist named Daniel (Christopher Quyen) who recreates his grandfather’s stories as drawings, beautifully represent the symbiotic relationship between memory and family.

With almost 300,000 Vietnamese people living in Australia today, many of whom came by boat after the war, the storylines in Hungry Ghosts may well mirror the lived experience of someone you know. Featuring one of the largest Asian ensemble casts ever seen on Australian television, the show is an exciting step forward for onscreen representation – but more than that, it is a love letter to the Vietnamese diaspora, and a creative act of bearing witness.