Me Thao–Once upon a Time (Mê Thảo Thời vang bóng)

Me Thao image
Wednesday, 28 April
6:30 p.m. – Korean Studies Auditorium

Viet Nam, 2002 (107 min)
Vietnamese with English subtitles
Director: Viet Linh
Cast: Duong Don, Dung Nhi, Trang Minh, Thuy Nga

Early 20th century, northern Viet Nam. Nguyen (Dung Nhi), a westernized nobleman and landowner, befriends Tam (Duong Don), a “dan day” (three-stringed instrument) player after the latter is accused of murder. Nguyen hides him in his estate, making him a supervisor and a confident, but in doing so, Tam is forced to leave his lover, the singer To (Thuy Nga). A life-changing event forces Master Nguyen to turn 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.

Mê Thao is 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; 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.

There are many impressive scenes in this movie including a stunning visual where dozens of giant lanterns are lit and set free in the night sky, a tradition re-invented for the movie by the superb director Viet Linh (The Traveling Circus). Also remarkable is the “cat tru” chamber music, a thousand-year old art that plays a decisive role in the film, and sounds like a Vietnamese version of the Blues, as harsh, plaintive and moving as its American counterpart. -Gilles Tran
Movie excerpt:


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