Behind The Scenes With Two Vietnamese Actresses

Actress Kim Cuong. Photo: VnExpress

Kim Cuong , whose real name was Nguyen Thi Kim Cuong, was born in 1937 in Saigon. Her father was a theater troupe manager, and the young girl followed her parents on theater tours all over the country. In 1948, her father died of a terminal illness, and the theater troupe was dissolved. In 1954, she became a major performer in her aunt's troupe, making her name as an outstanding young actress. From the late 1950s, however, she turned to writing, producing a record number of theater plays and screenplays. She spoke to presenter Phuong Anh :

“I was born and grew up in a family who were theater performers going back four generations. I knew nothing but acting. Since 1954-55 I become well-known for my performances in the 'cai luong' operatic tradition, and I was given the special title of “Super-actress” by reporter Nguyen Ang Ca of the theater press of Saigon at that time. However, by 1960 I found that my performing skills were more suited to Western-style theater, and this I increasingly chose to do.”

“And I must confess that I didn’t sing very well at all. Moreover, because I was more suitable for talk plays, I noticed that talk plays could depict closer-to-reality social problems, while 'cai luong' plays had their own interesting points and love-story features. However, talk plays could tackle the sharp points of society. So I shifted to the field of Western-style theater and movie-making.”

“During the years of 1960-61, spoken theater hadn’t yet made its debut in Saigon, apart from some supplementary artistic shows…In that time, the Kim Cuong Troupe and the Van Nam Troupe were the first two groups to produce longer stage plays. The first roles of mine to be popular with audiences were in Lam Huong Xuan Nuong, and A Virgin’s Dress. Later when I wrote the scripts with my penname Hoang Dung, my other well-loved roles were in The Female Camellia, The Durian Leaf, My Child’s Tears, and I Am a Mother. And so far I have written quite a lot of scripts of talk plays, about 70 or 80."

Stayed behind for fans

The price you have to pay is very, very bitter…It’s really not all applause and certificates of recognition.

“A person’s lifetime cannot be chopped up. Each period of our lives makes a different contribution. In one period we may have more financial means, and in another we may enjoy better health. Or another time may not turn out so well for our job situation. However, I think that I will keep a small footing the hearts of Vietnamese audiences nowadays because of my contributions to the art of theater, and my charitable activities. These two elements mingle to make up Kim Cuong of today. That’s why it’s impossible to say that this period is better than that one.”

“I chose to stay in Vietnam first and foremost for family reasons: my mother was old, so she wouldn’t leave anyway. Secondly, I loved my audiences. I thought that once we went abroad, our life might become more materially secure, but I wouldn’t have as many fans as I do in Vietnam…I had a long study stay in foreign countries. I studied in France for four years… And I noticed that I could not stay in any place other than Vietnam. Therefore I have decided to stay, but it was not true that I stayed here because I was a colonel in the department of national security!”

“I knew how to act before I knew how to speak. In my babyhood, when I was just over 10 days old, my family brought me up to the stage in the role of a child of Quan Am Thi Kinh. They wrapped me up in a fur blanket…So from childhood to womanhood I have been living in a theatrical atmosphere... The two people with a very big influence on me were my mother, Mrs. Bay Nam, and my foster mother; also my aunt, Mrs. Nam Phi. From girlhood to adulthood I lived with these mothers of mine in my family. Therefore they have completely influenced me, my way of acting, my ideas about the theater, and, generally speaking, my soul.”

Never a wife in real life

“I have played a great many roles; those of a child or an older sister. I have served as the leader of a theater troupe and as an actress. On stage I have played both wife and husband; and yet I have failed to be a wife in my real life. I have been unmarried for almost twenty years…Probably thanks to this unmarried life, I can devote more time to the stage and to charitable activities. I think that this is simply the divine law of compensation. It is impossible for someone to fulfill both theatrical and social roles, and therefore such a woman must suffer in her intentions of marriage.”

“If someone asked me if I regretted my actress’s life, I would say that I did not regret it, and that I would volunteer to work as an actress after reincarnation following my death. However, if I had a child, especially a daughter, I would certainly not allow her to follow an actress’s career because the price of the success in such a life is very high, especially for a female. The price you have to pay is very, very bitter…It’s really not all applause and certificates of recognition.”

Mai Tram played communist heroine

Hoang Khoi Phong, who interviewed movie actress Mai Tram , recalls the summer of 1956: “I was a Northern student who evacuated from North Vietnam to South Vietnam as a refugee. Excitedly I walked with my father into Dai Nam Movie Theater to see a movie entitled ‘We Want to Live’. This film was directed by Vinh Noan. The background of the movie was the war between the Viet Minh Front and the French in 1952 in North Vietnam. In this film were scenes of a people’s court in the “land reform” campaign of the Vietnamese communists, which haunted audiences in South Vietnam, especially those Northern refugees who had direct experience of this barbarity.” Almost fifty years later, in 2002, the movie was released on DVD and distributed among Vietnamese communities overseas. Only a few months after having completed the book and the DVD version of this movie, Director Vinh Noan passed away in Orange County, California, at the age of 76. Mai Tram was the leading lady of that film :

"As a former employee of Air Vietnam I used to have the chance to contact a great many people. The Tan Viet Movie Company sent its representative to me to invite me to play a role in the film. I felt timid and hesitant; however, after the high-ranking officials of Air Vietnam encouraged me to play a role in this anti-communist movie, and allowed me to get back to my job after the completion of this film, I accepted the invitation."

"Though I had never eye-witnessed or attended a people's court, I had heard stories of such things related by many fellow countrymen from the North. They had been victims of such people’s courts. The scenes set up in this film were faithfully recreated as replicas of the real events that occurred."

In my opinion every society has several classes of people: the rich, the poor, the noble, the ordinary, the intellectual or the illiterate. No social class can destroy another social class.

"All the scenes that described the battles in which there were tanks, aircraft and machineguns were re-created with the support of the Department of Defense and the troops of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces. When Director Vinh Noan researched this film, he aimed at providing a document that could record a painful period of our history, he volunteered to live for a period together with refugees in the camps near Nha Trang. So the movie company hired them to play the minor roles when it needed them. They acted very well and their acting was very lively."

"At that time we were very surprised and proud when 'We Want To Live' was shown to the public with its scenes of the people court denouncing and accusing the couple of landlords named Mr. and Mrs. Long. The local people who sat to watch the film were so much shocked by the injustice and tyranny of the Communists. They suddenly became furious and unanimously stood up to shout out 'Down with the Communists! Down with the Communists!'”

Love turned to marriage

"In my opinion every society has several classes of people: the rich, the poor, the noble, the ordinary, the intellectual or the illiterate. No social class can destroy another social class because the divine law is that heavenly pre-destinations happen to come and go, then come back again..."

"When I participated in the making of 'We Want To Live,' I saw that director Vinh Noan and I had the same purpose in life: our love for our people and our thirst for freedom. We attained a mutual understanding and gradually became friends. Warm romantic love bloomed little by little, and later ended up by our marriage. And we lived together in perfect happiness and mutual respect for an entire lifetime…"

"The film tells the life story of a company commanding officer named Vinh, who was a patriotic nationalist young man. He fought against the French colonists to regain independence for his native country. Due to the land reform policy, his parents, landowners surnamed Long, were buried alive. He was finally not killed, but he was sentenced to a lifetime term of hard labor. Female communist cadre Lan, Vinh’s lover, devotedly sacrifices herself for her Party. However, after witnessing several tragedies under this unsuitable and tyrannical regime, she experiences an awakening just before leaving this life forever."

"Let me repeat that the movie titled 'We Want To Live' recorded a painful and tragic period in the history of the Vietnamese people, when the Communists carried out their land reform policy. Now, though half a century has passed, our fellow countrymen still remember those cruel and brutal policies that killed very many innocent people. The actions presented in the film were the moaning and heart-rending cries of the victims that had been fiercely repressed to the extent that they had no more land to live in."

Boat people crisis

"After the exodus of boat people became something very dangerous for our fellow countrymen, Director Vinh Noan contacted the government officials, U.S. congressmen and senators, and requested them to support him to improve the situation. These officials agreed to his plan and made arrangements for him to come back to Vietnam to struggle for the freedom of travel of our people. When our people were allowed to travel freely, they were not compelled to escape or flee their native land, or to brave the ocean as boat people, be captured and imprisoned or be exiled in several foreign countries."

"When my husband went back to Vietnam, I stayed behind in the U.S. because, supposing something happened to him, I would do the duty of a mother taking care of our children here. However, when he reached Vietnam, nobody there talked about the issues relating to the film 'We Want To Live.' He was able to contact the leaders of the government there, and he was told that they would present his request and discuss it … at the 7th Party Congress, and we waited for a while after that. One year later, in 1993, the request was approved, and the people’s freedom of travel was approved and granted by the government."

Original reporting by RFA's Vietnamese service. Vietnamese service director: Diem Nguyen. Translation copy-edited by Stefanie Carr. Produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han. Please continue to send contributions to RFA's Women in Their Own Words project to this address:


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