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Spellbound In Vietnam

Linh Viet's 'Once Upon a Time' dances to a different lute

By Richard von Busack

DAN DUONG, a leading light of Vietnamese cinema, lives in the San Jose suburb of Evergreen in what he hopes is temporary exile from his own country. Doung was forced out after acting in the Mel Gibson Vietnam war feature We Were Soldiers.

Doung gave a quick interview at downtown San Jose's Botown restaurant. He is a commanding middle-aged actor in his William Holden years, with a sense of bemused gravity. Today, this pharmacist-turned-actor makes a living as a small investor in real estate. Meanwhile, he waits for a new role. He has turned down three films since his arrival. "None of the roles were suitable for me," he said.

He is also hoping for a part in former Sunnyvale filmmaker Tony Bui's latest film. He previously starred in Bui's story of the Vietnamese arrival in mid-1970s California, Green Dragon, as well as in Bui's Three Seasons.

Duong's newest release is called Once Upon a Time, but its proper title is Me Thao Thoi Vang Bong (The Glorious Time in Me Thao Hamlet). The 2002 film is based loosely on a novel by Nguyen Tuan (1913-) titled Chua Dan, or "Dan Pavilion."

Around the year 1900, Lord Nguyen (Dung Nhi), a proud aristocrat, is searching through Hanoi for a present for his fiancee. As the best jewelry isn't good enough for him, Nguyen takes his servant's idea to present the lady with a Western novelty: an automobile.

While in town, Nguyen goes to a music recital in an unsafe neighborhood. The performers are Tam (Duong), a player on the three-stringed dangyuet or dan day ("moon-shaped lute").

He accompanies the singer To (Nga Thuy). It is an open secret that these two musicians are in love, despite To's marriage to another man.

During the show, a drunken playboy wanders in and picks a fight. In the scuffle, Tam accidentally shoots the assailant, who turns out to be politically well connected. Nguyen decides to shelter the lute player at his estate, outside the reach of the police.

A month later, Nguyen waits for his fiancee to arrive, but he learns that she has died after running her new car off the road. Nguyen goes into deep mourning. Since his beloved was killed by a Western invention, he orders his people to destroy all European machinery on his lands. The local farming and silkworm-raising fall into decline as Nguyen's fanaticism increases. The lord spends his days in adoration of his betrothed's wedding dress. Eventually, he carves an idol of the woman.

Only two people can help him. One is his devoted servant Cam (Trang Mohn, pantomiming her part), whose loyalty is spurned and abused. The other is the musician Tam, who desperately tries to convince his retired partner, To, to return for one last performance in hopes of restoring Nguyen to sanity.

On one level, Once Upon a Time is a story of decadence, akin to Satyajit Ray's films about well-born futility in the face of the rising power of colonialists. Once Upon a Time would fit in next to Devi or Jalsaghar as a story of romantic delusion that blinds—or, rather, cripples—an aristocrat.

But another angle of the story suggests supernatural love. That accounts for the fairy-tale American title. Director Linh Viet bypasses a key scene of a dying husband's curse. Thus the supernatural ending seems disconcerting, providing a second meaning to everything we've seen. If Lord Nguyen is rotting from the inside, his story is of the failure of a class. By contrast, if he's enchanted, cursed from the outside, then it's fate, not his character, that nearly destroys him.

Once Upon a Time has played in France already, but it has only been barely released in Vietnam. Because it is a story of a ruler forcing his peasants to make a great leap backward, perhaps the government thought it alluded to the moldier side of their doctrinaire communism?

For contractual reasons Once Upon A Time isn't being screened through the American film festival circuit. And to make matters worse, director Viet is currently recovering from a stroke. While the budgetary constraints show in her film, the landscapes and customs are an eyeful—such as a "celestial lantern" omen, in which flaming balloons are sent to the skies.

Duong's restrained romantic-lead acting complements the exotic story. The actor spent three months learning the lute, and the two performances of traditional ca tru music are the most exciting moments in the film. Nga Thuy's singing sounds to Westerners like nothing less than Nina Simone at her most doom laden. Fans of ethnographic music must hear these songs. And the many immigrant Vietnamese locally aren't going to want to miss Linh's images of their fatherland.

Once Upon a Time (Unrated; 107 min.), directed by Linh Viet, photographed by Nam Pham Hoang and starring Dan Duong, Dung Nhi and Trang Minh opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the May 4-10, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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