Monday, September 25, 2017

Veronica Ngo’s Tam Cam: The Untold Story

This Vietnamese fairy is a lot like Cinderella, but the slipper is golden rather than glass. There is also more death and reincarnation. As if that were not promising enough, Veronica Ngo (soon to be even more famous as the star of Star Wars: The Last Jedi) adds demons and Braveheart-style battles in her adaptation. The Cinderella step-sister has it particularly hard, but karma will do as it does in Ngo’s Tam Cam: The Untold Story (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select cities.

Poor Tam is bullied rotten by her nasty step-mother Di Ghe and vain step-sister Cam, but she gets encouragement from a Joel Grey-like Fairy Godfather. There will indeed be a royal ball, open to all, where the disinterested Prince (and acting Regent) will chose a bride. Di Ghe conspires to keep Tam away, but her Fairy Godfather gets her there in time to try on the fateful slipper.

Sadly, even after she marries the Prince, Tam is not allowed to live happily ever after. Prodded by the evil Magistrate, Di Ghe murders Tam and convinces the Prince to allow Cam to care for him, as Tam supposedly would have wanted. However, Tam constantly reincarnates as birds or trees to save the shockingly unintuitive Prince from the Magistrate’s assassination attempts. Unfortunately, all appears lost when the Prince’s trusted lieutenant betrays him in battle, but Tam and the Fairy folk are still looking out for him.

The original tale of Tam and Cam takes a turn that is grislier than just about anything you will find in Perrault, Basile, or the Brothers Grimm. Ngo is probably wise to file down that sharp edge, but she adds plenty of hack-and-slash action and demonic brimstone. Frankly, it is pretty impressive how many narrative balls she manages to juggle, thereby securing a number of featured roles for members of 365, the Vietnamese boy band she produces.

Actually, the boys aren’t bad hacking away at each other. Ha Vi certainly comes across as a sweet innocent as Tam, whereas Ninh Duong Lan Ngoc convincingly plays against type (she was the endearing lottery ticket seller in Jackpot) as the catty Cam, but nobody out vamps Ngo as the wicked stepmother. Forget about Jolie in Maleficent or Blanchett in the recent live-action Cinderella, because they pale in comparison to Ngo’s flamboyant villainy.

She can also direct. Ngo and Diep The Vinh capitalize on Vietnam’s stunning natural vistas (at least as seen from a drone’s eye-view) to give the film a real epic feel. Her war scenes have grit and the CGI is a little wacky, but still better than you would expect.

It is hard to dislike Tam Cam, because it is one of those kitchen-sink kind of film, where crazy stuff is constantly thrown in, for the sake of our entertainment. Arguably, the fact that it maintains a consistent sense of narrative logic is a tribute to Ngo. It is wild, tragic, romantic, melodramatic, sometimes a little goofy, and most importantly fun. Recommended for fans of fairy tales and Ngo, Tam Cam: The Untold Story opens this Friday (9/29) in Orange County at the Regal Garden Grove and in San Jose at the AMC Eastbridge.