Nguyễn Thị Thấm’s presence hangs over Madam Phung’s Last Journey like an anti-Felliniesque cloud, observing a troupe of mostly transgender, Vietnamese stage performers without the late Italian director’s taste for celebrating his own nostalgia. Whereas Fellini unites autobiographical detail with nationalistic strife in a film like Amarcord by simultaneously insisting on the story’s local color and universal dimensions, Thấm forgoes any such contrived narrative entry points for Western viewers. There are no “types” among Madam Phung’s performers; Thấm trains her camera on the film’s subjects without giving them character arcs or molding them into accessible surrogates for viewer empathy. And yet, just as forcefully, Thấm never loses track of the human condition, remaining visually attentive to how each member moves, gestures, and imparts thoughts, whether letting the camera drift to their feet while they speak or lie among them while they sleep.
These attributes are already the makings of a visionary film, but Madam Phung’s Last Journey cuts deeper. As it opens, a truck moves through the early morning streets of Vietnam, carrying a team of construction workers headed for the Sân Vận Động Ninh Phước fairgrounds, where they begin erecting a set for Madam Phung’s night show. Crucially, Thấm’s voiceover intrudes: “When I was a child, my parents were workers on the State’s big hydroelectric dam projects…meeting Madam Phung’s travelling fairground people brought back those childhood memories. I travelled with them into the remote rural South and to the Central Highlands of Vietnam.” Thấm’s statement confounds in its haziness, neither an assertion of intent nor a thesis regarding the film’s subjects. Instead, it prefigures the film’s events by selecting a memory with positive connotations as its point of inquisitive departure.
Subsequently, Thấm highlights some of the shows, which consist of theatrical song-and-dance numbers, but the film mostly stays off stage, as performers recover in tents following their nightly work. Madam Phung explains how they all “tank up” to fall asleep each night. Talking to a few admirers, Phung reveals she’s $2 million dong in debt and will be paying it back until she’s dead. Threats of death pervade the film’s spaces throughout, both from a band of intruders who rob the tents one night and a fire that takes nearly all of Phung’s possessions. The thieves almost certainly targeted the group for being transgender; Phung tells her troupe, “If police don’t act, we’ll organize our own defense.” When the police do show, they’re ineffectual, but simultaneously explain their duties to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
With the invocation of national allegiance as an inherent contradiction, the documentary blooms its larger, allegorical inklings. One day, as Phung lies around her tent, she tells Thấm, “When your film is on TV, [everyone] will see homosexuals everyday life.” But Phung mistakes visibility for seeing. To effect change or, at least, acceptance of individual autonomy, citizens first have to admit they can’t “see” another’s life beyond becoming tolerant of it. That’s Thấm’s overarching theme: memory, as a connection to the film’s subaltern subjects, merely aggrandizes the self. Likewise, the fairground, as a space of enabled fantasy, cannot be separated from how it affects the performers’ actual lives. Once the curtain closes, they’re no longer clowns.
As Phung lounges in a swing near the film’s end, she hums a tune, which asks: “Was it worth a life long of suffering?” The question is reminiscent of Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet Given Name Nam, which examined, in poetic form, the conditions for Vietnamese women since the Vietnam War. Though the war isn’t explicitly mentioned in Madam Phung’s Last Journey, its presence is palpably grotesque, a constant reminder how historical outcomes never fade.
The author Nicholas Brown recently wrote that “all theory is postcolonial theory.” By that, he means periods of colonial rule forever echo into the present. Those struggles linger as Madam Phung and her troupe suffer in their efforts to simply put on a bit of entertainment. Memory, then, is perpetually tainted by the realization that innocence never was. More haunting still, by the end of Madam Phung’s Last Journey, the viewer realizes the film has been completely, devastatingly, set in the present.