Tearing through the quiet monotony of a rural Vietnamese village, a drag queen on a motorcycle shouts through a megaphone, advertising the touring faire of the famous Madam Bich Phung. Her hair flies through the wind as she repeats her advertisement, and her purple sequin dress shines in the hot sun against the brown farming houses. The residents of the village know they’ll have good entertainment that night—but all with Madam Phung’s faire know that it will likely also come with trouble.
OVID.tv Film Explores The Story Of A Cultural Tradition
Director Nguyen Thi Tham remembers faires from her childhood, filled with colorful women, loud singing, and fast-paced gambling at stalls. Now, as an adult and a filmmaker, she returns to travel with Madam Phung’s troupe to several towns in rural Vietnam. She follows Madam Phung herself, as she grapples with her own gender identity, aging, and future—all while providing guidance to the band of misfits that make up her faire.
Madam Phung’s Last Journey is a dichotomous documentation of the lives of transgender women and drag queens in Vietnam. For many queer and transgender people in Vietnam, the only option to make a living is to join a performance troupe. In order to live as their true selves, those within Madam Phung’s troupe have run away from their families, mirroring Madam Phung’s own story. Life on a fairground provides stability, friendship, family, and fun for these gay and transgender individuals— but it is also riddled with violence, addiction, hardship, and poverty.
Nguyen Thi Tham displays this duality of transgender life in Vietnam by documenting both the performances and the personal lives of the individuals in Madam Phung’s troupe. During the faire, members of the troupe are allowed to show their true selves. Dripping in color, covered in makeup, and singing love songs to crowds of locals, performers don large smiles and interact with women, men, and children alike. The bright lights of the fairground cast rainbows around the dark greys and browns of the village in which the troupe is stationed, and the performers bring light to everyone’s lives. However, when the lights turn off for the night and performers retire until the next morning, life isn’t so colorful. Performers sleep in hammocks pitched under tents, and are often harassed in the middle of the night by local men. Young members of the troupe head out into the forest to fight off hostile locals. Madam Phung often wakes up to the sight of vandalized property and bruised teenagers. She preaches the high road, but her voice quivers with concern for her performers.
This is the reality of queer life in much of Vietnam. Madam Phung’s Last Journey shows every side of the complicated life of Bich Phung: a transgender woman, business owner, caretaker, and runaway. As she ages, she discusses her troubles with her own spirituality, and her worries about the future of her faire. While she maintains a tough exterior, speaking about business and money, you may find that behind her words is a genuine care and concern for the young people for whom she provides life.
Madam Phung’s Last Journey made this writer fall in love with Madam Bich Phung, as many in Vietnam already have. Through her successes and tragedies, Madam Phung maintains a character like no other- truly bringing the audience on a spectacular journey.
For more information or to view this film, visit the OVID.tv page for Madam Phung's Last Journey.
Images courtesy of OVID.tv
About the Author: Margaret Rose Smith
Margaret Rose Smith is an aspiring writer and museologist currently pursuing a BA in Creative Writing and Art History at the University of Chicago. Born and raised in Chicago, she’s spent a large amount of time in the halls of the Art Institute, both to study the history of art and to gain inspiration for future writing projects. In her spare time, Peggy enjoys sewing, collecting vintage Donald Duck merchandise, and petting her two cats.