An action/fantasy and a retelling of an old Vietnamese folk tale, Tấm Cám: Chuyện Chưa Kể has finally made its way to U.S theaters having been released in Vietnam last year. Everyone should watch it, whether or not you are Vietnamese.
There are subtitles. There are flying martial arts. If that hasn't convinced you, I don't know what will.
For those who grew up on Chinese martial arts series--and unashamedly learned all their Vietnamese from those terrible voice overs (“Đại ca ơi, đại ca…!” or “Ta sẽ trả thù!)— Tấm Cám is incredibly familiar, the kind of nostalgia you get when you come home to the scent of Má’s stinky cá kho tộ seeping out the cracks of windows, but better. It’s an action packed modern production with CGI, beautiful set, and fantastic costumes. All the đại ca’s (older brothers) have long, braided, sexy hair. All the tiểu nữ’s (maidens) wear Kentucky derby style khăn đóng. The costumes are pretty bad ass, so if you want to up your áo dài game or find inspiration for this year's Halloween, you need to watch this film.
In this modern but ancient version of Tấm Cám, director Ngô Thanh Vân or Veronica Ngo (who plays Tấm's evil stepmother and who also appeared in Star Wars: The Last Jedi 2017 ), dedicates a significant amount of time to the hoàng tử, the prince—with scenes of the typical defeated martial artist who randomly wakes up bandaged in a good samaritan’s home, vows to seek revenge on his enemies, and spends a period of time retraining himself to wield his sword in a secluded forest. In the original folk tale of Tấm Cám, Tấm’s Cinderella-esque story is at the center. While her story still takes precedence in Ngô’s adaptation, she becomes the supporting character to the prince.
Magic, reincarnation, soul suckers, monsters, and flying martial arts, how can a film like this go wrong?
For one, Tấm’s virtuous character is incredibly two-dimensional, as with all the other female characters. Tấm’s meekness is quite exasperating. She obeys, obeys, obeys—the ideal Confucian woman. She's not a woman of action who takes matters into her own hands; rather, she goes along with it, thanks to her fairy godfather who becomes her fairy godmother (gender fluidity is totally a thing back then!). She demonstrates very little agency, until the end where the viewer witnesses a moment where she somewhat breaks character but not really— (spoiler alert!) she saves the prince. Actually, she saves the prince’s life multiple times, but her actions toward the end of the film was most significant even if her actions did not include putting on an armor to get ready for battle, wielding her sword and kicking ass like Wonder Woman. In reality, the prince drops his sword, she suddenly appears in right time and place, and grabs it. She injures the prince’s enemy with one not-very-empowering stab, risking her life to save him. This virtuous act corresponds with her role as the dutiful, selfless wife, a tiring trope we see over and over again in film and literature with Confucian values.
And get this—the entire kingdom praises the prince as the hero, their savior, while she smiles beside him like a saint. There are no excuses as the film is a retelling, so why couldn't Tấm be a kickass queen? There were plenty of opportunities. Ngô's Tấm falls into the stereotype that women exist as selfless saints, and the most virtuous one gets the guy. Can't women be more than that?
Still, the new adaptation made some changes for the better. Where the original telling pit women against one another for a man's heart, Ngo toned it down a few notches, although it's still central to the plot.
The trope of the selfless woman is tiring, but wait for it! she’ll surprise you, breaking character once again in the final scene. Watch it and find out what she does! Oh Tấm, you sassy you.
So grab your friends and family, sit back and enjoy the film with English subtitles so you can practice your Vietnamese or laugh at the translations (cứng đầu ≠ pig headed), and munch on buttered popcorn—or maybe kettle corn evil nước mắm style. [Insert morbidly wicked laugh here] ...It’ll make sense when you watch the film.
Find out which theaters are showing the film here.
Reviewers for Tấm Cám: The Untold Story :
Ashley Phan, who attended weekend opening, writes, “I like the production. It felt modern and professional, different from a lot of the traditional Vietnamese phim bộ that we’re used to.
The acting was pretty good. I enjoyed some of the added humor, which I also felt like it’s may be more relatable to Vietnamese people, since some of the phrases are common phrases heard in a Vietnamese household.”
A craftsmxn, an activist, and a critic, Carolyn is a San José native who studied Literature at University of California Santa Cruz. She has a deep appreciation for Vietnamese American literature and the Vietnamese American community. Driven by her educational background in literary criticism, she seeks to empower those who are historically marginalized, underrepresented, and underserved through storytelling and social justice organizing. Her hobbies include woodworking, cuddling with her furry four-legged children, and watching films and series with kickass womxn.