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On the Road With One of Vietnam's Last Traveling Cải Lương Troupes

Most Saigoneers know cải lương as a form of television entertainment usually enjoyed by their parents or grandparents, but not many are aware of the art form’s important role in the nightlife of residents of the Mekong Delta.

Setting up the stage and putting on makeup before a show.

The golden age for cải lương troupes, who traveled from town to town to set up special soirees for local residents, was before the advent of television. Artfully painted makeup, vibrant flags, and incredible live background music — these performances were usually must-see events on the delta’s social calendar.

A banner advertising a show performed by Phương Ánh in Can Tho.

Today, cải lương shows are no longer the profitable spectacles they once were, and troupes have mostly traded traveling for television recordings. In Doan Truong Vinh Hoa (The Glorious Pain), an upcoming documentary directed by Lê Mỹ Cường, filmmakers tagged along with one of the Mekong Delta’s few remaining cải lương ensembles, Phương Ánh Troupe, that still performs often at village temples on special occasions, like the Ky Yen Festival.

Showtime!

According to folk traditions, every village in southern Vietnam establishes a central temple (đình Thần) to worship village deities. The temple courtyard also doubles as a community space for gatherings and performing art shows like tuồng and, later, cải lương. Ky Yen is a major festival that takes place every year at village temples when the planting or harvest seasons begin to pray for a bountiful harvest and peaceful year.

Outside of the festival season, members of Phương Ánh are scattered across delta provinces, but they gather every year at the temples to put on incredible cải lương nights based on stories from folk tales and historical figures.

The documentary's official poster.

To create Doan Truong Vinh Hoa, the production crew followed the troupe for 18 months, from March last year to this August, distilling 100 hours of footage into 50 minutes for the documentary, which will premiere in October with three public screenings in Hanoi, Saigon and Can Tho. The film was produced as part of the VTV Special project with financial assistance by the British Council’s FAMLAB fund, and will be broadcast on national television in November.

Over the span of months, crew members and troupe artists lived and worked together.

A crucial character who carries the emotional gravitas of the film is Phương Ánh, after whom the troupe is named. An impassioned cải lương artist, Ánh has spent every minute of the last 40 years trying to manage the collective and ensure its survival.

Crew members and Phương Ánh artists posing for a group photo.

“The crew was on the road with the Phương Ánh Troupe as part of their work and life,” the team writes. “It gave us a special sense of joy to be able to live and eat with them and to bear witness to the events surrounding their passion for theater in the most authentic, close-knit way.”

Watch Doan Truong Vinh Hoa's first teaser below:

At the time of writing, the exact dates for the premiere nights have not been announced yet. For more details, visit the project's website and Facebook page.

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