'Madam Phung's Last Journey': Film Review

Courtesy Icarus Films
Fascinatingly explores a little-known subculture.

Nguyen Thi Tham's documentary profiles the cross-dressing leader of an itinerant troupe of carnival performers in rural Vietnam.

One of the more touching moments in Nguyen Thi Tham's documentary about a Vietnamese cross-dressing singer and her itinerant band of performers who travel around the country entertaining rural audiences is when she tells the filmmaker, "When your film is on TV, they'll see homosexuals' everyday life." What she doesn't realize is that, unfortunately, the resulting film, the moving Madam Phung's Last Journey, is likely to be seen only in film festivals and more adventurous arthouses. It's currently receiving a theatrical engagement at New York City's Anthology Film Archives.

Tham certainly found a fascinating camera subject in Bich Phung, a former monk who abandoned his religious calling when he could no longer ignore his sexual identity.

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"I saw beautiful fags praying, and felt like running away," she explains.

He transformed himself into Madam Phung, the leader of her largely transvestite troupe which delivers rough-hewn carnival entertainment including musical numbers and games of chance (like betting on which direction a trapped guinea pig will run) to remote villages whose residents are sorely in need of diversion.

The performers' obvious sexuality often induces jeering from the audiences, which sometimes escalates into physical altercations. Madam Phung acts as a protective den mother, counseling her charges to limit their drinking and gambling and sometimes resorting to paying off the local police for protection.

In her mid-forties, she's also well aware of the passage of time and her diminishing allure.

"I'm not scared of dying, but of aging," she comments.

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Using a cinema verite style to explore this little-known subculture, the filmmaker presents a tender portrait of his subjects who have little place in their country's society. That it ends on a particularly sad note only adds to its quietly elegiac quality.

Director/screenwriter/director of photography: Nugyen Thi Tham

Producers: Andre Van In, Sylvie Blum

Editors: Aurelie Ricard, Pham Thi Hao

Not rated, 86 min.