Film Review: Tam Cam: The Untold Story

Fairytale adaptation from Vietnam mixes magic and martial arts in a lavish period adventure.
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A period adventure that's light on its feet, Tam Cam: The Untold Story updates a popular Vietnamese fairytale with wit and affection. Lighthearted and sexy, the movie also has an air of innocence that is unexpectedly charming.

The initial plot may remind viewers of "Cinderella," with an abused stepdaughter sneaking her way into a palace ball with the help of a fairy godfather. Tam (played by newcomer Ha Vi) is a slave to her stepsister Cam (a beguiling Ninh Duong Lan Ngoc) and stepmother Di Ghe (Veronica Ngo Thanh Van). But her purity and beauty win over the heart of the Prince Thai Tu (Isaac, a singer in the Vietnamese boy band 365).

The Prince is defending his people from the warring Chinh La nation, unaware that his evil magistrate intends to defeat him and take over the country. That the magistrate is also a demon ingesting human souls comes out later, after Tam Cam has turned into a very different kind of fairytale.

Both Tam and the Prince undergo hardships, and both have their love and loyalty tested. The Prince is betrayed by a faithless retainer, discovers the power of reincarnation, and must sacrifice himself for the good of his people. Tam learns that each action has a consequence, and that suffering can lead to redemption.

The screenplay, by five credited writers, pulls from a wide range of influences. Chinese costume dramas, Grimms' fairytales, Peter Jackson's Tolkien movies, and music-videos are the most obvious, along with recent Disney adaptations like Cinderella and Maleficent. But what's refreshing about Tam Cam, apart from its use of Vietnamese traditions, is its drive to please and entertain viewers, not talk down to them.

A lot of the credit should go to Veronica Ngo Thanh Van, whose assured direction keeps the movie on track. A pop singer herself, she also assembled the 365 band, whose members fill a number of roles here. Ngo, who is in the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi, delivers some of the most striking acting in Tam Cam. She knows how to direct intimate, romantic scenes as well as crisply choreographed action. Her vision, largely free from irony, embraces the spirit of the source fairytale, even down to its perverse elements.

Tam Camsuffers from spotty special effects—its digital landscapes and battle scenes look especially artificial. But the Vietnamese locations are lush and dramatic, and they are aided by truly ravishing costume design. All in all, Tam Cam is a surprising treat that deserves a large audience.

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