Madame Phung's Last Journey: A Film By Tham Nguyen Thi 2014
Distributed by Icarus Films, 32 Court St., 21st Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201; 800-876-1710
Directed by Tham Nguyen Thi
DVD, color, 88 min.
College - General Adult
Homosexuality, Vietnam, Gay Men, Transvestism, Transgender People, Sociology
Date Entered: 09/01/2015Reviewed by Johnnie N. Gray, Director of Media Services, Christopher Newport University
Follow a troupe of rag-tag drag queens as they are led by Madame Phung throughout the poorer parts of Vietnam in search of income. Madame Phung provides one of the few sources of employment for her cross-dressing performers. Ostracized from their fellow man, Madame Phung becomes the den mother who accepts them for who they are. Not only does she provide a source of income, but also security, advice and support. Footage is filmed in a stark and up-close way, as the director embeds herself in the troupe for an inside look at a hidden world. She sits and talks to the performers and hears stories of love, despair and living in a world between existing as a man and a woman. "Auntie Hang" provides advice to all - if you have your youth and beauty, you can keep a man, but once it fades, you cannot hope to keep a man to be happy. Parts of the film focus on Madame Phung's attempts for atonement. Her religious piety is depicted several times, as though failing to live as a monk weighs heavy on her head. She struggles with aging and worrying about what will happen to her troupe if she dies. Several times the viewer is a witness to the wiles of Phung as she provides sound advice to guide the troupe.
The carnival life consists of corrugated metal and rainwater bathing. Everyone pitches in and either entertains or manages a game booth. You witness the harassment of the troupe as the locals taunt them wherever they go. As the troop endures harassment at each stop, each new venue brings the possibility of income. After each night of performances and when the raffles end, drinking and gambling help to pass the time. The viewer also gets inside glimpses of a performer who designs costumes for extra money and the attempt to master the electrical wiring. One singer has an original song that explains why life is so hard for her and how she feels her fate is destined to be unhappy. Each new venue brings caution yet hope for money in the form of tips and contest tickets. All money goes to Phung and she sorts it out and pays everyone their share.
It is a tragic story that Madame Phung tells and the ominous title alludes to the ending. She operates under someone else's name and license, has endured heartache and misbehavior of her troupe that she deeply cares for. An amazing piece of cinema verte,that explores a rarely glimpsed side of Vietnam. The film is excellent material for cultural studies and what homosexuality looks like in another part of world.