Drama Queen (Sắc Đẹp Dối Trá, Kay Nguyễn, 2020)

“I just changed my gender, I didn’t commit a crime” the heroine of Kay Nguyễn’s Drama Queen (Sắc Đẹp Dối Trá) answers after being publicly outed during a beauty contest. Sometimes people need a push to finally achieve their dreams, though witnessing a murder and becoming the target of shady gangsters is certainly an extreme motivation. Starring transgender pop star Huong Giang, Nguyễn’s playful drama is a win for representation as its steely heroine finds the courage to claim her space while keeping one step ahead of the mob and one step closer to beauty queen stardom. 

As the film opens, Duong (Huong Giang) is a lowly stuntman unexpectedly given the chance to shine when the lead actor goes AWOL. Unfortunately, Duong is a little too in love with the spotlight and can’t resist showing off his skills, effortlessly fighting off the ninjas who were supposed to despatch his character so he can finish his dance. In addition to irritating the crew, Duong’s improvements also result in the costume getting damaged, landing him a $500 bill he can in no way afford. The incident does at least introduce him to Hao, the actor who will be taking over. Unfortunately, however, the next time Duong encounters Hao he’s being stabbed in the street, later realising he’s been offed by Thien, the gangster who runs the stuntmen. Naively ringing his boss who turns out to be in league with Thien, Duong puts a target on his own back. Taking his friend Cutie’s (Phat La) advice and the money neighbour Ky (Puka) had been saving for a boob job he heads to Thailand for the gender reassignment surgery he always longed for but could never afford. 

The irony is that while Duong is getting her surgery, her father also falls ill and neither she nor her family have money to pay for his treatment having just spent it on her own. Though Duong’s mother had been extremely supportive, giving her all her savings and encouraging her to “get the best surgery and be beautiful”, Duong’s father disowned her on learning of her transgender identity and rejects her when she tries to visit him in hospital. Nevertheless, she remains determined to find the money to pay for his operation which is why she ends up entering the Miss Mother Earth beauty contest which admits only “natural” beauties who’ve achieved their good looks through hard work alone. 

While it might be assumed that taking part in a high profile beauty pageant when you’re meant to be in hiding from scary gangsters might not be the best idea, Duong is confident no one is going to recognise her, something that is more or less borne out by the fact that after a series of strange coincidences she ends up sharing a room with Ky who decided to enter to competition herself after catching sight of Cutie’s flyers and appears not to realise who she is. In it for the money more than the affirmation, Duong knows she has to keep her transgender identity secret or risk getting kicked out of the competition while challenged both by the idea of possible romance with sweet and handsome hotel man Tuan (Tuan Tran) and the presence of a gangster mole amongst the beauty queens after Ky in the mistaken belief that she maybe Duong. 

“Secrets make a woman a woman” Tuan unironically tells her, but Duong faces a series of very real threats because of her desire to live her truth. Publicly outed in the incident which opened the film, she grabs the mic to give a powerful speech, pointing out that before anyone mentioned the word transgender they all thought she was a hero for saving her friend’s life from a would-be-assassin, now all of a sudden she’s a criminal about to be manhandled off the stage. Yet in defiantly stepping into her own spotlight and claiming her space, she gains the confidence to be all of herself while forcing those around her to accept her as she is. Her new-found confidence inspires Cutie to pursue his own true self, as well as earning her a few fans of her own while the bad guys are forced into silence. A fairly surreal adventure encompassing everything from hitmen conspiracy to beauty pageant backstabbing, Drama Queen never takes itself too seriously but is rigorously sincere in messages of acceptance and the right of all to live their most authentic life. 


Drama Queen streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Rom (Ròm, Trần Thanh Huy, 2019)

“Life is built out of a mountain of sorrow” according to an ironically cheerful drinking song in Trần Thanh Huy’s gritty coming-of-age drama Rom (Ròm). Set on the margins of an increasingly prosperous city, Trần’s debut feature which draws inspiration from his 2012 short 16.30 spins a dark tale of displaced children, the persistent unfairness of life, gangsters and games of chance, but ultimately finds little hope save the perfection of the art of survival as the variously troubled denizens of a Saigon slum quite literally bet their lives on a slim chance for a better life with only the false promise of a better tomorrow to make their lives worth living. 

At 14, Ròm (Trần Anh Khoa) has been living alone on the streets since he was four, left behind by his parents after the slum they were living in was demolished. Drawing childish family pictures, Ròm still waits opposite the place where he used to live for his parents to return, pledging to find them when gets enough money. He is grateful to the people of the slum who have “allowed” him to stay mostly because he once gave someone a tip for a winning lottery number. Numbers haunt him, always looking for signs as he is. Meanwhile, he makes his money as one of a small number of runners for the illegal underground lottery, ferrying orders between customers and middlemen brokers praised when numbers he recommends come up but beaten when they don’t as if it were really his fault. 

As Ròm tells us, the slum dwellers are obsessed with the lottery because it’s their one opportunity to change their lives. They bet everything, even writing out “loan agreements” to go along with the ticket request staking their whole apartments with sometimes tragic consequences, an old woman hanging herself after learning her numbers didn’t come up and she may have lost her home. The other residents, however, later pray to her spirit and petition it to give them some tips from the other side, aware of the risks but playing anyway because this fragile hope is all they have. Meanwhile, times are changing. The slum is to be cleared, but there appears to be an ongoing dispute with the developers as to proper compensation for their relocation with many irate that they’ve been cheated by men in sharp suits who think they’re too stupid to notice. 

Eventually the slum’s problems begin to converge, youthful thugs in league with the ruthless developers contributing to the destruction of the world in which they live. Ròm finds himself at the mercy of an athletic rival, Phuc (Nguyễn Phan Anh Tú), who considers himself lucky in that both his parents are already dead so at least unlike Ròm he has no need to wait around for a return to a different life and already has his own kind of freedom. Their desperation forces them against each other, running and cheating in order to survive but the cocky Phuc eventually finds himself falling victim to a suave older gangster who suckers him in a poker game and then forces him into a debt he can’t afford. Not much older than they are, the petty gangster is perhaps a sign of things to come, a symbol of possible corruption in the legacy of violence that traps both boys in a vicious cycle of hope and futility. 

They are all, in a sense, displaced. The slum will be cleared, but only because the land is valuable not because anyone is very interested in improving the lives of those living in extreme poverty. Ròm continues to yearn for his parents, prepared quite literally to burn the world in which he lives in order to find them while accidentally bonding with an unexpected maternal figure who takes him in while facing desperation of her own in caring for a son with a terminal illness only to offer him perhaps false hope in the possibility of reuniting with his family but only for a price. Life is indeed an insurmountable mountain of sorrow, every relationship a potential betrayal and every hope ripe for the shattering. Ròm caused some minor controversy on its release, fined for having submitted itself to the Busan Film Festival without having first cleared domestic censorship, eventually passed only after cutting a few scenes depicting “social evils” of which there are still a multitude. An unforgiving view of modern day Saigon, Ròm leaves its hero perpetually on the run, a lonely child without hope or direction fuelled only by self belief and rapidly running out of road. 


Rom streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Song Lang (Leon Le, 2018)

Song Lang poster 1“How could the gods be so cruel” a ci lương performer intones, “Allowing us to be together yet worlds apart”. An achingly nostalgic return to the Saigon of the 1980s, Leon Le’s melancholy debut Song Lang is a lament for frustrated connections and the inevitability of heartbreak, taking its lonely heroes on a slow path towards self realisation only to have fate intervene at the worst possible moment.

An enforcer for the steely “Auntie Nga” (Phuong Minh), Dung Thunderbolt (Lien Binh Phat) has long been trying to take revenge on his unhappy life through the intense act of self-harm which is his way of living. A routine job, however, jolts him out of his inertia when he wanders into a theatre where a ci lương opera company is preparing for a performance. There he finds himself catching sight of the famous performer Linh Phung (Isaac), only to run away, in flight from the intensity of being woken from his reverie. Later he returns to claim the debt, threatening to burn the company’s precious costumes until Linh Phung arrives and interrupts him, proudly insisting he will pay the balance after the first performance. Dung leaves confused, refusing to accept the watch and necklace that Linh Phung offered in partial payment.

A second chance meeting confirms that the two men might have more in common than they’d first assumed. The lonely Linh Phung, eating alone in a nearby cafe, gets into a fight with some drunken louts who wanted him to sing a few tunes, but as surprisingly handy as he turns out to be quickly gets himself knocked out at which point Dung steps in to rescue him, eventually taking him home to sleep it off where they later bond through a shared love of violent video games. An opportune power cut allows the two men to enter a greater level of intimacy during which Dung begins to re-embrace his ci lương childhood through the instrument his father left behind.

The Song Lang, as the opening informs us, is an embodiment of the god of music delivering the rhythm of life and guiding musicians towards the moral path. That’s a path that Dung knows all too well that he has strayed from and is perhaps looking to return to. The central theme of ci lương is “nostalgia for the past” – something echoed in Linh Phung’s peculiar philosophy of time travel through people, objects, and places which seems to be borne out in Dung’s constant flashbacks to a more innocent age before his happy childhood ended in parental betrayal and sudden abandonment.

Linh Phung, meanwhile, is nursing his own wounds. His mentor tells him that though he is popular his performance lacks depth because he lacks life experience while his co-star mocks him for never having been in love. Rooting through Dung’s belongings, he discovers a book he’d loved in childhood about a lonely elephant taken away from his jungle and sold to a circus. Both men are, in a sense, exiles from their pack walking a lonely path of confusion and despair but finding an unexpected kindred spirit one in the other as they search for new, more fulfilling ways of being. Bonding with Dung opens new emotional vistas for Linh Phung which allow him to perfect his art, while reconnecting with his childhood self through Linh Phung’s music gives Dung the courage leave his nihilistic life of shady moral justifications behind.

Fate, however, may have other plans and karma is always lurking. Linh Phung’s claim that an artist must know great grief proves truer than he realised, but it’s another passage from the book with which he eventually leaves us, affirming that it’s best to learn to enjoy these present moments rather than lingering in an unchangeable past. Yet the art of ci lương is itself steeped in nostalgia, perfect for a “time traveller” like Linh Phung returning to his sadness through his art, proving in a sense that the past is always present and wilfully inescapable. A melancholy, romantic evocation of Saigon in the 1980s, Song Lang is also a beautifully pitched paen to a fading art form and an  “unfinished love song” to lost lovers in which two lonely souls find an echo in each other but discover only tragedy in the implacability of fate.


Song Lang screened as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Vietnamese subtitles only)

Lôi Báo (Victor Vu, 2017) [Fantasia 2018]

Lôi Báo posterThe world can be a strange place. Tam (Cuòng Seven) felt safe in his small town surrounded by his wife and son who were determined to support his artistic dream despite its long genesis, but a dark shadow is about to be cast over his otherwise pleasant existence that will threaten to destroy everything he has built. Victor Vu’s Lôi Báo is perhaps Vietnam’s first superhero movie but it’s also a familiar tale of a conflicted man entering middle-age learning to reaccept his responsibilities, both to his wife and son and to his society as he attempts to balance his desire to help others with that of protecting his family. With great power comes great responsibility as the saying goes and Tam is a responsible guy but the past is calling him and he’ll need to face it head on if he’s to put his fracturing family back together.

Six years after his critically acclaimed graphic novel Descendents of the Crossbow, comic book artist Tam has just come out of a period of writer’s block and is working on a new project – an American-style Superhero book about a pure hearted warrior for justice with intense fighting skills and extreme athletic ability. Not many people are convinced by Tam’s desire to create a Vietnamese superhero, but his family support him and that’s all that matters. In fact, they literally support him because his wife Linh’s (Tran Thi Nha Phuong) coffeeshop is the family’s sole source of income. Tam has a tendency to get lost in his work, which is one reason he’s been putting off seeing the doctor about a serious cough that just won’t go away. When he finally decides to get it checked out it’s already too late – he has terminal lung cancer and only a few months left to live. It’s at this point that his life starts to take a strange, unexpected turn. Uncle Ma (Huàng Son), an older man Tam thought was a farmer, is actually a secret mad scientist who has a hidden laboratory in his garden where he continues to research human head transplants. The obvious conclusion presents itself – Tam decides to undergo experimental surgery to abandon his cancer ridden body and move into a nice new model.

Lôi Báo is the latest in the long line of movies indulging in the thoroughly B-movie science of “Cellular Memory”. Illegal head transplantation is already somewhat unethical, but Tam and Ma acquired their donor body through less than ethical means by grabbing a guy who was mysteriously gunned down in a forest where Tam had just tried to commit suicide out of total despair. Of course, the dead “gangster” came with his own share of baggage which leaves Tam feeling much more impulsive had than he had done before and though he seems to have lost the ability to draw, Tam is thrilled that his new body seems to be a much stronger, faster model than his old one. Not quite able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, Tam can now scale them with little difficulty and lift heavy vehicles all alone. Now he no longer needs to draw superhero stories, he can be a hero for real fulfilling his lifelong dream of being able to save lives and protect the vulnerable from evil.

Only, his new body is not quite so altruistic as he once was, and Tam begins to get off on the fame his newfound heroism is bringing him even while it puts his family danger should anyone find out about all the illegal head transplantation action that’s been going down at uncle Ma’s. He also finds himself strangely drawn to a pretty young doctor who might have been something to the dead gangster, further distancing him from Linh and his son Bu. As expected, there was a little more to the gunfight in the woods than a gangster squabble and Tam will have to learn to put body and soul back together while also dealing with the ghosts of his past and a latent discomfort with the idea of being a husband and father which betrays a lack of faith in the idea of “family” itself.

With plenty of high octane action scenes, Lôi Báo more than does its home genre justice, creating a notably mature origin story for a new kind of superhero who accepts that perhaps he’s not the hero in this story after all. Justice is served, the family repaired, the past laid to rest and there might even be a new book in it too. It has been a busy a few months for Tam, but at least he’s learnt the true meaning of heroism – something which will place him in good stead during his eagerly awaited further adventures!


Lôi Báo was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)