ML Thao - There Was Once a Time When
Comments by Wong Lung Hsiang
Vietnamese Title:ML thao - Thoi vang bong
Director: Viet Linh
Year Released: 2002
Runtime: 107 min
From the prologue of the film, it looks set for the same old Vietnamese melodrama with conventional execution, but with perhaps a more literary script. Once the two major characters enter Me Thao Estate, flick!, it turns out to be one of the most haunting Southeast Asian films I have seen. The initial melodramatic story (based on a novel) becomes a metaphor of the eve of the fall of Vietnamese identity to French colonialization and so-called civilization in the early 20th century. The Vietnamese estate master's final resistence to foreign domination proves futile. Director Viet Linh's subtle craftsmanship is simply remarkable, with the sparing but effective use of the dan day music/vocal, percussion and environmental sound to create rhythmic moments all over the film. Towards the end of the film, a music/vocal performance-lover pair reunites for their last performance, which resembles the climactic scene of Im Kwon-taek's Sopyonje. I would say the Sopyonje scenes are more psychologically haunting, but Me Thao has a more complex subtext, as the performance is for healing another character's breaking heart. There is an enigmatic network of relationships in which you can derive three different but overlapping triangular relationships. In fact there may be an additional potential gay subtext which I did not even bother to explore, because that is probably not the point of the novel or the film!