Saturday, January 20, 2018

Review: Tấm Cám: The Untold Story (Tấm Cám: Chuyện Chưa Kể)

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Tấm Cám: The Untold Story (aka Tấm Cám: Chuyện Chưa Kể)
Directed by Veronica Ngo (aka Ngo Thanh Van)
VAA Productions / BHD Vietnam Studios / Cleopatra Entertainment / MVD Visual
115 minutes, 2016 / 2017

Well, I must say, this is my first Vietnamese film viewing that has nothing to do with the action there during the 1960s and early ‘70s. This is more the sweeping epic kind of period story one would expect from either Japan, or especially China; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) comes to mind.

Asia has a history of taking Western stories and Easternizing them, such as Macbeth (Throne of Blood, 1957) and King Lear (Ran, 1985). Then again, the West has taken the Eastern stories as well, and either transplanted them (The Magnificent Seven, 1960; A Fistful of Dollars, 1964;, more recently The Ring, 2002), or merely placed themselves in the story in Asia (Shogun, 1980 and The Great Wall, 2016, for example).

For this release, it is in part a reimagining of the Cinderella story, set in the magical past of Mainland Southeast Asia.  We see sweeping vistas and mountain castles as the camera swoops and flies in both the real and digital realm, and it’s all beautiful and lush (and easy to distinguish between the two, but that’s alright).

Ha Vi and Isaac
Even before the credits, the handsome prince with Spock-like eyebrows, Thái Tử (translated as “Prince”; Isaac), is all bedecked in gold armor while racing to see his dying father. He and his posse almost runs over Tâm (“Center”; Ha Vi), and it is love at first sight. But, as the story goes, he takes off without finding out who she is, which he will later regret.

While pretty accurate to the Grimm’s Fairy Tale, there is also a lot of minor tweaking along the way. For example, along with the evil step-mother Dì ghẻ (“Step Mother”; director Veronica Ngo), there is only one nasty step-sibling, Cảm (“Cold”; Ninh Duong Lan Ngoc), who is a horribly spoiled brat. Also, rather than a fairy godmother, there is a fairy godfather, But (“Shoes”; scene stealer Loc Thanh), who is obviously based on the Robin Williams’ Genie character from the animated Aladdin (1992). He has a nasty sense of humor and also mentions things that have no place in the story or time, such as the Energizer Bunny. Dressed like the White Wizard phase of Gandalf (sans hoodie), with eyebrows that go down to his chin, he is quite hysterical.

The Cinderella part is actually quite abbreviated, even if it gets the most credit, with the entire story taking only the first 30 minutes. For example, the whole “fit the foot to the shoe” bit takes place at the initial ball when Tâm first walks in dressed in her fine outfit.

People may not remember this, but fairy tales were often quite dark, such as in the original Cinderella story, one of the step-sisters cuts off part of her foot to try and make the shoe fit. Here, while nothing this gruesome visually occurs, there ae some sad and surprising moments with death, the threat of murder, and war never far away. You may certainly begin to wonder about the “Happily Ever After” part.

Huu Chau
There are many layers of fantasy here, including ghost stories, reincarnation, and a bit of another Fairy Tale, “Beauty and the Beast.” I’m not necessarily up on my Tales since I haven’t read them (or had them read to me) since I was a small kinder, but there is much in the way of intrigue, betrayal and resurrection. And like many Tales, this is a bit over the top; honestly, though, this is the kind of production that is built for it. When I was in Xi’an, China, a few years ago, I saw an opera/ballet called A Song of Everlasting Sorrow, about the first Emperor of China and his Concubine; there are some similarities here, as well. This also is a story of love that goes beyond death, treachery and friendship.

As for the betrayals, some come as a surprise (as they should be in the true definition of the word), but the obvious one is the main villain, a Fu Manchu-ish, Saruman-like Magistrate, Thừa Tướng (“Prime Minister”; Huu Chau). He is more cartoonish in a Ming the Merciless way, though the main difference is that he is actually is played by an Asian actor (unlike anyone in the West who has played Mr. Merciless).

Ngoc Trai
Along with the character But, my favorite is Nguyên Lực (“Resources”; Ngoc Trai): who is a friend to the prince, and also an outstanding comic relief. Trai is never ridiculous to the point of losing credibility, sort of in the way that Donald O’Connor would play to the likes of Gene Kelly.

Of course, there must be sweeping battle scenes, and there are a few, which are very well composed and shot. Yeah, they fly through the air with the greatest of ease, though not always getting the outcome you might expect. Once again, there is a strong mix between real, harnesses, and digital. The end and inevitable battle between good and evil is nearly all Digi, and it looks a bit silly and great at the same time.  

The story is, well, a Fairy Tale, and I wonder how much of it is based on Vietnamese folklore that I haven’t a clue about. I mean, while someone in the West may wonder, what?!, I’m betting there’s probably somebody saying the same thing there about a story of someone who is nailed to a piece of wood and comes back to life three days later. It’s all perception and culture.

The only extras on this disk are the trailer and the chapters.

The lovely director Ngo, who can also be seen in the new Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), does a splendid job with her second directed film in bringing this all together, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of her output.

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