A former monk who left monastic life because "I saw beautiful fags praying, and felt like running away," Madam Phung is a canny businesswoman who got her start as a singer, and saved her money in the form of gold bars she would bury in the ground. Now she is something of a den mother to her largely transgender troupe - berating them when they drink or fight too much, warning them to stay out of trouble, and dealing with local police and occasionally hostile locals when necessary.
It's the classic carny existence: long hours; setting up and tearing down the stage; exhorting the crowd to buy raffle tickets and play games; putting on a show. But the people we meet in MADAM PHUNG'S LAST JOURNEY are not your ordinary fairground workers.
This verite documentary takes us on a year-long ride with an itinerant troupe of cross-dressing performers, led by Madam Phung, as they travel the remote southern regions and central highlands of Vietnam.
MADAM PHUNG'S LAST JOURNEY also captures its subject at a critical moment in her life. Now 40, she is haunted by fears of ageing, concerned with fixing bad karma, and worried about what might happen to her troupe after she is gone.
From change rooms, to on-stage performances, to time spent in tour buses, filmmaker Nguyễn Thị Thấm develops a remarkable rapport with the performers. They share their fears, expose their vulnerabilities, and talk about the challenges of being gay in Vietnam: including employment discrimination and dealing with audiences who might just as easily throw rocks at the performers as try to hit on them during the show.
"Madam Phung is, at 40, a star, an impresario and a protector of a collection of slim-hipped boys with glittering eye shadow, extreme false lashes and marabou headpieces." —The New York Times
U.S. Premiere, 2015 Margaret Mead Film Festival (New York)
2015 Film Festival, Western Psychological Association (USA)
Cinema du Reel Documentary Film Festival (Paris)
DOXA International Documentary Film Festival (Canada)
European-Vietnamese Film Festival of Hanoi (Vietnam)
"Director Tham Nguyen Thi achieves an impressive degree of intimacy with her subjects, many of them queer or transgender, as they drink, bicker, and explain how much trouble LGBT people have... This is a lively film but also a sad one." —Chicago Reader
"4/4 Stars! A visionary film; never loses track of the human condition, remaining visually attentive to how each member moves, gestures, and imparts thoughts." —Slant Magazine
"A tender story of aging, carnival-style." —The Village Voice
"Sneaks under your skin." —Film Journal International
"An amazing piece of cinema verite that explores a rarely glimpsed side of Vietnam. The film is excellent material for cultural studies and what homosexuality looks like in another part of world. Recommended!" —Educational Media Reviews Online