Film Review: Madam Phung's Last Journey

At times like a very skewed 'La Strada,' this doc about some peripatetic and put-upon carny workers sneaks under your skin.
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The girls–and the puppies–are sleepy on the bus bearing Madam Phung’s traveling variety show, plumb exhausted from their daily, and nightly, labors. They are Vietnamese and mostly transgender, and director Nguyen Thị Tham films them with an objective but obviously affectionate eye—having herself a sense of childhood nostalgia and remembrances of her parents evoked by their presence—as she follows them through the remote rural South and Central Highlands of Vietnam in Madam Phung's Last Journey.

The villages they visit, announcing their presence by shouting through a megaphone from the back of a motorcycle, seem pre-Internet and lost in time, their poor inhabitants obviously starved for diversion, which La Phung’s troupe gives them via guinea pig competitions, games of chance and songs and dances by her lithe lady boys. They sweetly warble impossibly romantic and sentimental ditties about love, in marked contrast to their hard lives, with constant menace from the vicious men they encounter who prey on their vulnerability. They endure death threats, marauding robbers and, ultimately, arson, which completely destroys a business already deeply in debt. Police are called in but prove basically ineffectual to deal with the serious transphobia so prevalent in their environs.

Phung hopefully tells Tham, “When your film is on TV, [everyone] will see homosexuals’ everyday life.” Although a shrewd businesswoman, at this moment she seems as naïve as her youngest, greenest bewigged employee. But her sterner side emerges when she doles out some tough love and advice to her assembled troupe, threatening to forbid their card games, as it leads to debts among them which provoke fights. For its no-nonsense dose of reality in the midst of all the scrupulously applied makeup, hair and frequent napping in tents, that is my favorite scene in this affecting but ultimately pretty forlorn view of a uniquely strange and very hard world.

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