Serves as a reminder of how interconnected global cinema has become, disparate locations pulled ever closer together, the world growing smaller every day.
While not quite a fair standard of comparison, I now find it impossible not to judge fantasy action spectaculars against the high standard set by Baahubali, S.S. Rajamouli’s as-yet-peerless South Indian tale of epic imperial intrigue. Topping out over six hours split across two volumes, the movie is a bingeable event in itself, a feast for the senses pumped up with all the hallmarks of the modern special-effects blowout, but burdened by none of its rules. Familiar in form and pacing yet possessed with a hallucinatory creative abandon utterly alien to most American blockbusters, it’s exactly the type of liberating experience many viewers are seeking when streaming something unknown, taking a chance on an exotic change of pace from an unfamiliar film industry.
With streaming services now offering up the alluring fruits of so many underexplored regional genres, it’s hard not to keep chasing this kind of rare high. It’s that search which led me to Tam Cam: The Untold Story, a 2016 Vietnamese fairy-tale extravaganza, based on an antique saga of palace intrigue and familial betrayal. While not exactly stellar, the film offers a pleasant sort of double diversion, untrammeled spectacle filtered through the lens of a foreign culture’s views on how such spectacle should be conducted. In this case, that mostly means great costumes, soaring landscapes and vivid colors, national pride reimagined as cinematic grandeur, in a story that unfortunately courts stately seriousness instead of pursuing the full-on gonzo possibilities of the pulp format.
This may have something to do with the fact that big-budget Vietnamese cinema apparently tends to hew closer to the Chinese national variant than the free-form experimentation of Hong Kong or India’s multifarious output, with a heavy focus on historical source material as a reliable narrative well and confirmation of a deep cultural history. Tam Cam accordingly follows a fairly standard Wuxia template, with filial values affirmed amid the rushing onslaught of high-wire stunt theatrics and sweeping forestial battles.
The story here concerns Tam (Ha Vi), and her struggles against her duplicitous stepsister Cam (Ninh Duong Lan Ngoc) and sinister stepmother Di ghe (Veronica Ngo, also directing), as they attempt to separate her from the noble prince whose heart she has captured. At first identical to Cinderella (the two likely share the same ancient root, in the Greek tale of Rhodopis), the story quickly departs on several tangents involving reincarnation and supernatural villainy, leaving that familiar story far behind. The twisting thrill-ride that results is a good reminder of the importance of checking expectations and approaching each filmic context with fresh eyes, even when a movie seems to be sticking close to a well-established formula.
One example is the disorienting way Tam Cam mixes humor into otherwise stiffly serious costume drama, in a way that often makes it seem like it’s parodying itself. It isn’t, yet the apparent camp of these moments, paired with certain characters coded in a way that to might seem to indicate homosexuality to American audiences, creates a false sense of security that requires a little work to be bypassed. Conversely, there are large swaths of the movie whose effect is just as dull and tired as they seem, although that effect might not be the same for Vietnamese audiences, watching stupendous special effects transposed onto an indigenous legend for the first time. The ending, in which a scorpion man fights an ape man for what seems like 15 minutes, would likely play as flat either way, collapsing into the chaotic mishmash of green-screened incoherence well known to anyone who’s seen a Marvel movie.
It’s this kind of deadening beat-em-up pummeling that punctures the illusion of seeing something new. The experience is therefore a mixed one, those accents of novelty and ingenuity ultimately flattened by the same rote action and crude moralizing on display everywhere else. Clear-cut distinctions of good and evil are confirmed across speaker-rattling battle scenes, individuality ironed out by the dictates of filmmaking by software. The original fairy tale, by comparison, ends with the beyond-Brothers-Grimm-style touch of the stepmother eating her daughter’s corpse boiled into a fish-sauce like paste, then dying of shock upon discovering her skull at the bottom of the jar. Such a dark finish would make for a wicked grace note, yet it’s of course elided in place of a romantic conclusion that’s more concerned with uplift than dramatic consequences.
None of these negatives cut deep enough to fully invalidate the film’s viability as a diverting viewing experience, especially considering the inherently low buy-in cost of streaming. At minimum, Tam Cam is worth watching as part of a continuing survey on how the disease of the mainstream Hollywood blockbuster is spreading across the globe, particularly when cross-bred with the specific eccentricity of Chinese wire-fu. Despite this spreading pall of sameness, dazzling divergences still exist, and even the leaching away of regional differences at least leaves some fascinating residue. A snapshot from one of countless burgeoning local industries, Tam Cam serves as a reminder of how interconnected global cinema has become, disparate locations pulled ever closer together, the world growing smaller every day.