The accoutrements of traveling carnivals are always poignant: the pennants and banners that get rolled up and toted from place to place, the cheap-and-glitzy sequined costumes, the rickety amusement rides.
Nguyen Thi Tham’s tender and low-key documentary Madam Phung’s Last Journey tells the story of a troupe that treks, like citizens without a country, through the small villages and towns of Vietnam, making a living by performing, running low-stakes lotteries, and hosting fairground games of chance (like the one in which the audience is invited to place bets on the direction in which a penned guinea pig will run).
This troupe is made up mostly of gay and transgender individuals, most of whom can’t easily find jobs doing anything else. Their leader, Madam Phung, is both taskmaster and den mother, lecturing her charges about the dangers of gambling, drinking too much, and getting involved in fights. Tham is discreet about how she films these women: When we see them changing backstage, or slipping wigs over their cropped or pinned-back hair, their grace and decorum always comes to the fore — even though they make very little money, these workers and performers are anything but tawdry carny types.
Most moving are the women’s ruminations about suffering for love. At one point the fortyish Madam Phung, who has been alone since her husband was sent off to prison, confides to a colleague, “I’m not scared of dying but of aging,” adding that “when real women age, it’s normal” — an explanation that, even in its impressionistic vagueness, makes perfect sense.
Madam Phung’s Last Journey
Directed by Nguyen Thi Tham
Opens November 12, Anthology Film Archives