If you don’t like documentaries, chances are, you have not watched the right one. I first saw “The Last Journey of Madam Phung” by young director Nguyen Thi Tham when I was in grade 10. Back then, I neither had the slightest inkling of queerness nor firsthand experiences with social outcasts. So with the curiosity typical of an explorer encountering exotic natives on their foreign land for the first time, I watched as the real lives of transvestite troupe singers – led by Madam Phung – transpire on screen in tidbits. Fascinating. Heartbreaking.
Traversing the rural areas where locals dulled by their monolithic lives are waiting to be entertained, the troupe singers enthrall with their exotic looks and raffish performances that never fail to amaze. Their dapper movements tick. Their exuberant costumes a marvelous sight to locals dimmed by countryside austerity. And the troupe’s fairground activities sustain the locals’ attention a little bit longer into the night, before their initial enthusiasm (and probably pockets) thin. The troupe never stays anywhere for too long. Living off strangers’ curiosity and condescending kindness, these people are always on the go, heading where their deviant looks and whimsical performances make a fresh new sight to local people. Theirs is a life rooted in journeys with as much excitement as hostility await at every corner they turn.
When they’re not traveling and erecting makeshift stages to prepare for a new show, they resume some parts of their “normal”, daily lives: resting, drinking (sometimes a bit too much), gambling, and flirting among themselves or with locals and even the police. And the best part: recounting the story of their lives. Madam Phung, we learn, is formerly a monk who, catching glimpses of an exciting world outside the monasteries, left to join other peripatetic performers. Canny and charismatic, she soon made a fortune and started her own troupe, giving those who are shunned by society and without legitimate employments a roof over their heads, a livelihood, and a family. Hang, another elder, brags often about her own wisdom, moral codes, and past relationships with men, her humor drawing laughters from other troupe members. Younger transvestites are more into their looks and hanging out with young men, all the while endearing to the puppies they keep, also unwanted and unloved creatures.
Making the documentary with only the assistance of a friend, director Nguyen Thi Tham initially thought only of gaining a detached view of troupe singers’ nomadic lives. But her intended five months of making the documentary soon lapsed into a tortuous, eventful five years as attachment grew, and her outsider life soon became entwined with that of insiders. Without broad sweeps of landscape that impress viewers, Tham’s camerawork is more attentive to her subjects’ most private thoughts and feelings, and thus accord them the respect and understanding they rarely get to enjoy.
Made with an inquiring mind and a sensitive heart, Tham’s documentary never once loses track of the human conditions, timely capturing every moment of the troupe as they traverse villages and provinces. The violence that erupts in the last ten minutes of the film and the broken shouts and cries that come with it are some of the highlights so well captured that will move audience to tears. In short, the director has immersed herself long enough in the troupe’s peripatetic life she comes an indispensable part of it, and it an indispensable part of her.
On the acting front, to state the obvious, none of the characters in The Last Journey are professionals. In fact, they are not even acting, but they have embellished what would otherwise be a monotonous documentary in ways no accomplished actors possibly could. After all, don’t their charisma, fine humor, and interesting personalities deserve our love and admiration? Madam Phung’s charm is irresistible, and the confidence and unwavering audacity she exudes is unmatched. Hang’s story-telling and intimate jokes are engaging and entertaining. A slew of performances many other troupe singers have rendered are no less interesting than what we’re usually exposed to. And watching these sparkling characters shine through even their most hellish moments, one can’t help but wonder were they not judged and discriminated for being who they are, where their skills and charm would bring them.
“The Last Journey of Madam Phung”, after many viewings, ceases to be a treatise on gender. As director Tham herself admitted in a film screening that I attended, she was barely conscious of any particular messages when she was making the film. “The Last Journey of Madam Phung”, in its entirety, is more than a documentary that informs us of queer lives and advocates for gender equality. At its simplest, the documentary, made with such keen insight and industry, thrills not by trying to move beyond life as it is but by capturing exactly its traumatic realities.