Early 20th century, North Vietnam. Nguyen, a westernised nobleman and landowner, befriends Tam, a "dan day" (three-stringed instrument) player. When the latter is accused of murder, Nguyen hides him in his estate, making him a supervisor and a confident, but Tam is forced to leave his lover, the singer To. Later, Nguyen plans to marry a city girl. On her way to see him, she dies in an accident, in the same car that he gave her as a present. Grief-stricken, Nguyen then turns his back on everything modern, burning his own Western furniture and clothes, and forcing his villagers to destroy their few modern possessions, including tools, books and toys. Tam, seeing the land sliding into misery and his master retreating into madness, tries to help him and his people. Meanwhile, the French colonists want to build a train line right through Nguyen's land.
Vietnamese cinema is, for Westerners, one of the last terra incognito of Asian film-making. While Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai movies have become almost mainstream for Western film-goers, Vietnamese films are a rarity on European and American screens. In fact, several of the successful Vietnamese films shown in the West are from French-Vietnamese directors such as Tran Anh Hung (Scent of the Green Papaya) or American-Vietnamese ones such as Tony Bui (Three seasons), and while those are very good movies, their point of view remained an expatriate's one, not unlike Scorsese or Coppola directing a Italian movie.
Mê Thao (The glorious time of Mê Thao) is a purely Vietnamese movie and is as such already interesting for what it tells us about Vietnamese culture and Vietnam's perception of itself. There are many themes in this movie: the conflict between modernity and tradition seen from inside (some of the autodafe scenes echo Tsui Hark's Wong Fei Hung movies where the hero has also a love-hate relationship with the West), the complexity, rigidity, and violence of traditional class relations, the ambiguous role of the colonists (both seen as oppressors and as liberators), and a repressed sexuality. The main melodrama is perhaps the less interesting part of the movie: the love stories that are central to it are too idealised and mostly take place before the movie's time frame so it's not easy to empathise with the characters. Of course, this may appear different to someone who speaks Vietnamese and can understand the subtleties of the original version.
There are many impressive scenes in this movie: a group of westernised Vietnamese bourgeois forced to disrobe and put on traditional garments to please the master of the land, a man so lovesick that he ends up carving a wooden statue of his fiancée and making love to it, a mute servant trying to make herself prettier by rouging her cheeks with betel juice, a colourful travelling show about and old man and his young wife, and the beautiful one where dozens of giant paper lampoons are lit and set free in the night sky, a tradition re-invented for the movie by the director Viet Linh. Also remarkable is the "cat tru" chamber music, a thousand-year old art that plays a decisive role in the movie, and that sounds like a Vietnamese version of the Blues, as harsh, plaintive and moving as its American counterpart.
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