In the last 10 years , the performance space for ancient Cai Luong and Tuong (traditional Vietnamese art forms) has increasingly become narrowed , thus , the village communal house has become the “holy land” for the arts.
The crew who made the documentary film The Glory and Pain came to know of this form of performance arts through a series of photos published in Tuoi Tre newspaper featuring an ancient Tuong troupe who perfomed l at a Southern communal house during Ky Yen Festival. The cultural and artistic features of Tuong, then appeared somewhat “foreign” to those living in the North, sparked our curiosity and interest, prompting our southbound journey. With the photos as our first clues, we started the journey.
Ky Yen (means pray for peace, pray for good weather, and bless the royal city)
Ky Yen is the biggest festival in the year which take places at the communal houses in the Southern provinces. From the full moon of January to the end of the second lunar month, many communal houses in the South in general, and in Ho Chi Minh City in particular, hold the Ky Yen ceremony. This is also the occasion when the people (audience or artists?) of hát bội (a traditional Vietnamese art form) – later with ancient reformed opera (tuồng cổ) – have the opportunity to re-enjoy the exemplary works.
The performance arts “Hát bội” and “Tuổng cổ”, collectively known as hát chầu, are essential parts of ceremony at every special Ky Yen ceremony. Hát chầu is perfomed as part of the ritual of worshiping the king and as a form of entertainment for the villagers. Depending on the financial ability of each communal house, hát chầu will take place every year, or at least once every 3 years. When performing hát chầu, the artists must act with respectful and solemn attitude, because one who sings for the royal worship ceremonycan not be negligent, through loudspeaker. While other forms of performances at informal venues can involve improvisations, hát chầu performance mustrespect the traditional form, because there is a profession God witnessing.
THE PROCESSION GOD
The profession God or ancestor is highly regarded by the artists in the troupe with respectful and holy attitude.
In the past, when canoes was the primary methods for commuting between the performance sites, when the boats were still from far across the river bank, the communal house on the arriving side of the river had to perform a welcoming practice using drum and open flags. At this point the patriarchs and everyone in the clan were ready to get dressed and prepare for the ceremony to welcome the ancestors to the communal house for the singing festival.
According to the grandparents, the ancestors also loved singing. Legend has it that the ancestor went with the troupe to sing, watched, and then died in the singing group. He loved singing so much that when the funerals passed by the troupe, everyone had to light an incense and pray for him to stay, otherwise the ancestor heard the sound of the funeral, he would leave the troupe. Therefore, burning incense to the ancestor’s altar before singing has become an indescribable ritual for the artist, as they pray to the ancestors that the show will be successful, and that the ancestor will give blessings so that the artists can play the role and not forget their lines during performance.
However, not everyone in the troupe is allowed to pray for him; this honorable task is reserved only to the senior artists, who are often 50 or older and , who play an important role in the troupe. Younger artists, who are yet to achieve proper status and recognition , will not be allowed to come near the altar of their ancestors.
Throughout our crew’s journey the ancestor was also an important figure accompanying the crew. We ask for his permission everytime when we arrived, , before every shooting and say goodbye to him when the stage lights are down.