In “Fated Vocation,” the infighting and financial travails of a touring opera company are used to debate cultural-vs.-social priorities in modern-day rural Vietnam. Despite its obvious political agenda, pic has melodramatic subplots aplenty and proves surprisingly accessible. Specialty houses should consider bookings, especially if they cater to sizable U.S.-Vietnamese clienteles.
Working from a short story by Luu Son Minh, veteran helmer Nguyen Vu Chau focuses on the company’s two lead actresses, whose friendship is threatened by romantic entanglements and front-office chicanery. Along the way, Vu Chau debates relevancy of the old, less popular “Cheo” operas and the role of the entertainer during times of economic upheaval. He concludes that Vietnam’s cultural past will take care of itself; more important, at least for now, are the day-to-day needs of the community. In short: It takes a village to keep an opera company going.
In contrast to recent government-sanctioned pics from China, contempo Vietnamese cinema appears OK with rigorous self-inspection. Considered here are such taboo topics as abortion, gambling, adultery, poverty and spousal abuse.
Tung Thuy stars as Lanh, a kindhearted young actress whose return home rekindles unresolved conflicts. Minh Hoa plays Xoan, company’s ill-fated leading lady. Lanh, cast as “the flirt” in drama-within-the-drama, rendezvous with her old boyfriend, the now-wed Phong (Le Thanh Tung). Xoan also has boyfriend problems: She’s pregnant and about to replaced by an understudy. “That is the fate of women,” nods Lanh’s mother, a former headliner herself.
“Fated Vocation,” with its echoes of Renoir and Marcel Carne, feels remarkably Western in tone. Like others who have worked this format, Vu Chau uses parallel stage/reality construct to point up hypocrisies of the players and company leader. The crowning irony is that the troupe takes its lumps for staging old-hat productions, but, through its art, foments change and dissatisfaction.
Pic’s pageantry and production numbers showcase festive costumes by Phuong Khanh and striking makeup by Lan Anh. Village tableaux and country backdrops are equally striking, thanks to lenser Nguyen Thuy Binh. The evocative rice-drum score is by Pho Duc Phuong.