Madam Phung’s Last Journey
Directed by Nguyen Tham Thj
November 12-18 at Anthology Film Archives
Madam Phung’s Last Journey resembles a Vietnamese Paris Is Burning, with all the exuberance taken out and all the tragedy left in. If the fight against homophobia is far from won in the US, it seems to have barely begun in Vietnam, and even gays’ understanding of homosexuality and gender identity is quite different from that of Westerners. I’ve seen reviews describe Madam Phung, a 40-year-old mother hen of a troupe of fairground performers who travel around rural Vietnam, as transgender, but her preferred term is “fag.”
Bich Phung used to be a monk, but she left that life because “I saw beautiful fags praying, and I felt like running away.” She now manages a fairground troupe and sometimes performs with it. Her songs are full of melancholy and, frankly, self-hatred; she sings about being trapped between genders. The troupe consists mostly of gay men and transgender people. Their presence frequently leads to violence. At best, homophobes throw stones at them; at worst, an arsonist tries to burn down the fairground. However, local residents also make passes at them, a form of attention that seems equally creepy if less dangerous.
Nguyen Tham Thj’s directorial style is quietly observational. Much of the film takes place at night. A lot of the tension takes place within the troupe itself; the performers can be their own worst enemies, especially when they get drunk or gamble. Madam Phung gives them a lecture about the dangers of creating drama, but they don’t really listen. Phung addresses Nguyen on camera a few times, but otherwise, the director effaces her presence.
Phung discusses discrimination against LGBT people in Vietnam; it’s so rampant that she was forced to create the fair in order to make jobs for young gay and trans people. She’s a strong person, yet self-hatred seems to poison her actions. At the same time, she resembles an old-school Hollywood diva. She worries about what will happen to her troupe when she dies or is no longer able to take them on the road. A coda twists the knife in further. As grim as it gets, Madam Phung’s Last Journey is a rewarding ride in a country the US likes to speak about rather than listen to.