Sunday, 22 November 2020

The Glorious Pain | Hát Tuồng

Here is an interesting cultural -and possibly - less known art form which still exists in Vietnam, albeit on its last legs. 

Hát Tuồng is one of the oldest art forms in Vietnam, and is said to have existed since the late 12th century. It’s believed to be influenced by Chinese opera performance techniques, but subsequently evolved and changed into a new form embodying Vietnamese characteristics and nature.

Per Wikipedia, the origin of tuồng is still unclear but is believed to have been imported from China around the 13th century when Vietnam was warring against the Mongol Dynasty. It was initially adopted by the Vietnamese imperial court, then trickled down to the peasantry through traveling troupes.

The Glorious Pain is a documentary film which tracks the journey of a small classical Vietnamese opera (tuồng) troupe and one of the very few still surviving, as it travels and performs through the Vietnam countryside. The characters who -in contrast to their royal roles behind the closed curtains, are commoners and peasants who struggle to make ends meet. The troupe is on the verge of disbandment with the main artists are facing penury. The future appears very bleak and will this art form disappear as many other traditional art forms have?

Having devoted a significant amount of time in documenting Chinese opera in its various forms and producing the photo book Chinese Opera of the Diaspora, it's almost a certainty that classical Vietnamese opera will not survive unless the Vietnamese government provides much need assistance in terms of funding, subsidy and providing its artists with employment. This is what the Chinese government has done, and its opera has - in most of its forms - survived and even flourished.

I came across Hát Tuồng for the first time in Hanoi (2012) during a photo expedition. The performance was held in an elegant theater near Hoàn Kiếm Lake, but the audience was embarrassingly sparse, and consisted of foreign tourists.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved

The Glorious Pain is produced by the Vietnamese Department of Entertainment Program and is part of a prominent documentary series of the Vietnam Television aired monthly during prime-time on VTV1 Channel. The Glorious Pain is also among the projects covering traditional culture of Vietnam which receive funding from the Film, Archive and Music Lab (FAMLAB). 

I was alerted to this documentary by Nguyễn Thị Hồng Ngọc; a friend and a freelance photographer based in Hanoi.

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