Tam Cam: The Untold Story is ostensibly a straight-faced adaptation of a similarly titled traditional Vietnamese fairytale, which is essentially a variation of the Cinderella story. For this reviewer, underneath the film’s seemingly simple surface lies a level of corporate sophistication since the film relays the story while simultaneously serving as a calling card for director Veronica Ngo and a boy band she produces called 365. They all take on prominent roles in a new, untold side to the familiar tale cooked up by Ngo in her capacity of screenwriter to showcase the boys while making the story palatable for a contemporary audience raised on modern fantasy.
The film closely follows the original story by telling the tale of Tam (Ha Vi), a kind and beautiful woman who is stuck in a Cinderella situation. Cruelly mistreated after her father dies by stepmother, Di Ghe (Ngo) and stepsister Cam (Ninh Duong Lan Ngoc), she is forced to do all of the chores and is regularly punished for mistakes that are usually Cam’s fault. Like Cinderella, she has a fairy guardian watching over her. Or, in this case, an incredibly camp Fairy Godfather. Through his divine intervention and a few twists of fate, Tam eventually marries into royalty but finds that her step-mother is eager to get her daughter Cam on the throne.
This is where the film deviates slightly from the original tale as a host of new characters are introduced, most prominently an evil government minister who is actually a demon in disguise. This new antagonist persuades Di Ghe and Cam to murder Tam and the two attempt to do this as per the original methods and with same results seen in the fairytale. This is all integrated into a new plot thread as part of his plan to destabilise the kingdom and seize the throne for himself. Death does follow for Tam but, as in the original tale, she is reincarnated in different ways and helps her beloved prince, here given a beefier role and a new coterie of male friends (all portrayed by the K-pop-like group 365), rescue his kingdom as a neighbouring country invades and the Minister tries to perform a magic ritual which will grant himself all sorts of powers.
From the midway point of the film, Ngo’s highly competent script weaves the narrative strands of war and politics with the traditional tale of virtue and self-sacrifice. Everything proceeds at a fast clip as the original tale of fratricide flows seamlessly into new political intrigue. Politics, romance and jealousies are shown on screen through actors who are able to play the simplistic characters with conviction. It may be tempting to laugh at the pantomime villainy of the minister (who loves to cackle in an evil manner amidst montages of his evildoing) and the beatific vision that is Tam (never has a lead heroine looked as innocent and naive as Ha Vi), but the film has an alluring innocence to proceedings that will allow it to be easily swallowed by a broad audience.
The update does give some agency to Tam to control her fate and take part in some of the fighting but she remains rather uninteresting when compared to other characters and she isn’t missed when she is off-screen. Seemingly more important for director Ngo is promoting 365, who are allowed to show off their good-looks and rather decent acting chops in many scenes of well-shot wire-work, kung-fu action, and brotherhood drama. It’s a mix that will surely thrill their fans and introduce them to a new audience.
To this reviewer, it seemed that Tam Cam: The Untold Story served more as a stage for the abilities of its cast, especially Ngo who almost steals the show vamping it up as Di ghe. As cynical as that sounds, it is hard not admire her skill, which is on full display.
Ngo’s direction confidently utilises the locations and scenery of the Vietnamese jungles and a palace to great effect, providing a pleasingly beautiful stage for the action to take place. The set decorators and costumers go to town on various sets and create a Disney-like atmosphere in the interiors, while the colourful wardrobes dazzle. Everything looks sumptuous, far more so than one might expect from a Vietnamese film.
There is scale to the bloodless but entertaining battle scenes that makes them epic (especially with the use of CG to bolster the number of troops on screen). It looks like hundreds of extras were utilised and all in full costume and they are all cleanly captured through Ngo’s direction as she shows balletic battles and epic runs, ably keeping things coherent with the audience transported to the middle of the clashes through a camera that zooms around and editing that snaps from location to location as and when required. Even non-fans of 365 will enjoy the wire-work kung-fu.
There’s a sprinkling of CG fairy dust on this production that best works when used carefully. Tam’s many moments of reincarnation, from birds that sing to the prince to tall trees growing to cushion him from an epic fall, are beautifully composed and rendered. The CG falls flat when it is used in full-on monster frenzy battles where the models on screen look terribly out of place, the lighting on the bodies looking way off and their movement far from smooth. This fighting finale does detract from the film a little but doesn’t stall the momentum while every other aspect of visual design holds up.
It is admittedly hard not to speculate about all of the commercial interests in this film such as pushing a boy-band, but it is still entertaining and marks Ngo out as a really confident director. If I were to make a glib comparison, Tam Cam is somewhere between the recent faithful retelling of Cinderella (2015) and the more action-packed and feminist Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), only it is the guys who get most of the action glory here. Still, the film is an exquisitely shot fantasy that is sure to please a wide audience.
Tam Cam: The Untold Story will be shown on March 8 and 10 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2017.