An ex­clu­sive with Ngoc Thanh Tam, the star of The Way Sta­tion— win­ner of best film at the 2017 ASEAN In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val And Awards

Oi Vietnam - - Contents - Text by Michael Arnold Im­ages Pro­vided by The Way Sta­tion Pro­duc­tion

Win­ner of best film at the 2017 ASEAN In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val And Awards


by light come­dies, last month’s the­atri­cal re­lease of Hong Anh’s brood­ing di­rec­to­rial de­but The Way Sta­tion (Dao Cua Dan Ngu Cu, based on a short story by Danang writer Do Phuoc Tien) marks a poignant mo­ment in the emer­gence of home­grown Viet­namese art­house cin­ema. Awarded Best Film at the re­cent ASEAN In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, the movie is a densely con­cen­trated moral­ity play that ef­fort­lessly thun­ders its way through its heavy the­matic med­i­ta­tions on free­dom, jeal­ousy, con­trol, and the na­ture of the tra­di­tional sub­ju­ga­tion of women. While it may be con­sid­ered a touch ahead of its time by its lo­cal au­di­ences in a coun­try where fem­i­nism has a long road ahead, the movie’s sim­ple sto­ry­telling, tight cast and claus­tro­pho­bic set­ting in the en­closed court­yard of a dark and grimy restau­rant make for a richly dis­arm­ing para­ble that com­pels view­ers to face this coun­try’s tra­di­tional cul­tural bur­dens.

While the plot cen­ters around the em­i­nently like­able young male pro­tag­o­nist Phuoc (played by pop­u­lar singer Pham Hong Phuoc, who took out Best Ac­tor at the fes­ti­val for this per­for­mance) the film’s moral fo­cus rests on Chu, the crip­pled daugh­ter of the film’s un­named restau­rant owner— whose Con­fu­cian sense of shame com­pels him to keep her hidden from pub­lic view. For the most part locked away in her room, Chu is cheer­fully re­signed to her forced iso­la­tion and the vi­o­lent abuse she suf­fers at her fa­ther’s hand, find­ing a mea­sure of gen­uine free­dom in sex­ual cu­rios­ity, and even­tu­ally claim­ing her ul­ti­mate lib­er­a­tion as a will­ing par­tic­i­pant in her own mur­der. A model Sartrean pris­oner who ex­pe­ri­ences the full­ness of free­dom in her own con­scious­ness (rep­re­sented through­out the movie in dream­se­quences at the beach with her ador­ing but clearly trou­bled fa­ther) her char­ac­ter stands in con­trast to the im­po­tence of the film’s other roles, who are even more trapped by their gen­er­ally mis­er­able mu­tual de­pen­dence.

Ac­tress Ngoc Thanh Tam, who plays the role of Chu in the movie, was de­lighted to have been hand-cast by Hong Anh, re­port­edly on ac­count of her del­i­cate strength of bear­ing. De­scrib­ing her­self as a “su­per-fem­i­nist,” Tam’s rel­a­tively in­ter­na­tional up­bring­ing made it chal­leng­ing for her to ab­sorb her char­ac­ter’s pas­sive ac­cep­tance of male con­trol. It was some­what sur­pris­ing to her, then, that early re­ac­tions to the film showed a great deal of em­pa­thy for her char­ac­ter among young Viet­namese women.

“I didn’t ex­pect my role to be in­spir­ing any­one,” she ex­plains dur­ing our in­ter­view shortly af­ter the film’s pre­miere in Ho Chi Minh City. “To be hon­est, it’s a role that goes against what young women be­lieve in nowa­days, right? Even me, I don’t be­lieve that Chu should suf­fer like she does. Women in Viet­nam, we’re fight­ing ev­ery day for our rights, but un­der­neath the sur­face there has al­ways been an in­equal­ity that peo­ple can see and feel ev­ery day. So when you see their hidden pain, their hidden se­crets on screen, I think that’s how the view­ers feel connected to the char­ac­ter. Even though that’s against what they be­lieve in, they can con­nect, they can see it, wit­ness it in the women around them, from their moth­ers… I think the moth­ers in many fam­i­lies suf­fer from in­equal­ity and bad treat­ment from their fa­thers, so I guess that’s why young women out there can con­nect more to Chu than I would have ex­pected.”

Moral Ques­tions

In fact, The Way Sta­tion’s de­pic­tion of Chu is the film’s most pro­gres­sive fea­ture. While Chu’s car­nal­ity is grad­u­ally re­vealed over the course of the movie, there is ab­so­lutely no moral con­dem­na­tion of her sex­u­al­ity. There is no sense in which her death is a pun­ish­ment for her sex­ual be­hav­ior, a trope that would have been easy for the film’s di­rec­tor to have fallen into. Chu, quite clearly, does not de­serve death. She is nei­ther por­trayed as be­ing im­moral nor shamed in the sto­ry­telling for her sex­u­al­ity; she is not made to seem un­fil­ial, even though she fla­grantly dis­obeys her fa­ther's wishes. Chu is the most un­am­bigu­ously free char­ac­ter in this story, even though she is the most phys­i­cally con­strained—none of the other char­ac­ters ex­pe­ri­ence free­dom as acutely as she does in the way she has res­o­lutely fol­lowed her own choices in

spite of her lim­i­ta­tions. This de­pic­tion of a fe­male role is re­fresh­ing and pow­er­ful, par­tic­u­larly in the Viet­namese con­text.

Her death is a dif­fi­cult scene in the film that raises some of its most com­pelling moral ques­tions. En­raged by the dis­cov­ery that Chu has been vis­ited in the night by the young men on his staff, Chu’s fa­ther bru­tal­izes her be­fore vi­o­lently rap­ing his wife for hav­ing been com­plicit in Chu’s de­cep­tion all along— al­beit for her equally prob­lem­atic and tra­di­tion-con­strained be­lief that Chu must bear a child. With the delu­sion of his ab­so­lute con­trol fully re­vealed, the fa­ther meekly de­liv­ers death to his own daugh­ter in the form of a bowl of poi­soned noo­dle soup, which Chu seems to take vol­un­tar­ily.

“She nod­ded, like yeah, you can kill me, Let me go,” says Tam. “I think that’s also an act of fem­i­nism. Hav­ing the free­dom of your life, to have the choice... Be­ing a fem­i­nist is let­ting a wo­man have a choice, even if it might be a neg­a­tive one—and here, the choice is death, but at least it’s a choice that Chu gets to make.”

One of the cu­ri­ous things about the movie’s non-judge­men­tal stance is in its mis­lead­ing pre­sen­ta­tion of Phuoc as a nar­ra­tor whose char­ac­ter pro­gres­sion seems to lead him to a morally va­cant con­clu­sion. Af­ter be­com­ing en­am­ored with Chu, he is in­censed at the dis­cov­ery that she is se­cretly sex­u­ally in­volved with Mien, his rogu­ish bunk­mate at the restau­rant. While he works through his jeal­ousy and re­turns to Chu, even­tu­ally suc­cumb­ing to her ap­peal and be­com­ing

her lover also, his reaction to her mur­der is es­sen­tially lim­ited to feel­ing sorry for him­self. The film closes with a scene on the beach where Phuoc laments “Never again in this life will I taste hap­pi­ness, never,” ren­der­ing Chu’s death some­thing that’s all about him. Phuoc’s flac­cid moral jour­ney im­plies that vi­o­lence to a wo­man is wrong be­cause of its im­pact on the path of a man; The Way Sta­tion has teased the au­di­ence with a tale that em­pow­ers women but then in­ter­prets in­jus­tice to­ward them from a male per­spec­tive.

“I also be­lieve that the movie is about male dom­i­nance in so­ci­ety,” com­ments Tam. “This is set 20, 30 years ago. Every­one says ‘poor Chu,’ but no­body does any­thing about it. My co-ac­tor, I think he has a re­ally good ex­pla­na­tion— it’s be­cause every­one re­ally de­pends on each other in the restau­rant, every­one is based on each other to sur­vive. So no one ac­tu­ally has the free­dom to do any­thing. If they had the free­dom, I guess some of them would have saved Chu. But they don’t even have free­dom for them­selves. Every­one is treated badly in that restau­rant. But they stay, be­cause they don’t have any­where else to go. The Viet­namese name of the movie is Is­land of Im­mi­grants. An is­land is sur­rounded by wa­ter, it means that you don’t have any­where to go, you’re stuck there. Every­one suf­fers, every­one lives in their mis­ery, no­body does any­thing to free them­selves.”

The film’s fem­i­nism is un­sur­pris­ing from a di­rec­tor whose own ca­reer as an ac­tress has fre­quently dealt with the suf­fer­ing of Viet­nam’s ru­ral women. Since tran­si­tion­ing into pro­duc­tion a few years back, Hong Anh has been ded­i­cated to ad­vanc­ing Viet­nam’s art cin­ema through her com­pany Blue Pro­duc­tions; she has also been busy par­tic­i­pat­ing in so­cial ac­tivism for is­sues such as wild an­i­mal pro­tec­tion and LGBT rights. She has shot The Way Sta­tion as a com­plex film with mul­ti­ple lay­ers and a rich sym­bolic ta­pes­try that aids in the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of its dra­matic themes (read­ers can pon­der for them­selves what is rep­re­sented by the goats, the Zippo cig­a­rette lighter, and the Mus­lim char­ac­ter in the film)—and in hav­ing made such a strong of­fer­ing in this work, all ex­pec­ta­tions are that both Blue Pro­duc­tions and Viet­namese art­house cin­ema in gen­eral will see many more thought-pro­vok­ing cin­ema pieces to come.

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