We’re seated before the show, and a very loud voice is yelling at us:
“What if the performer does a good job? Clap your hands. What if the performer does a not-so-good job? Clap your hands!”
The audience is split into cheering sections, each pulling for one of the finalists. We’re on the stage proper, seated among the friends of the finalists and celebrity judges. To our right — stage-left — crowds of performers are assembled, wearing ao dais and hair-bows and little red stickers on their cheeks to symbolise their good cheer. Women in traditional dress (one of whom is actually a man, as the photog seated next to me says — “I have his Facebook”) practise their songs sotto voce, as jets of fire and smoke are given test runs. It’s like a demented version of The Ed Sullivan Show.
Little girls dressed from the Arabian Nights section of the fancy dress market twirl around, shirtless men hold each other in the air and climb metal poles. The celebrity judges come out, singing little ditties about “voting for your favourites”. The pretty young MC — who I’m sure is also famous — gives them a brief intro, the stage curtain maybe collapses, maybe is just disassembled in a super fast and violent way, and we’re off!
Emotions Run High
A group takes the stage in jean jackets and Chucks, and does a synchronised dance routine to traditional music-tinged EDM.
Those guys already lost, but now another mess of people are on-stage, part of the song-and-dance intro. They’re choosing the finalists in real-time, and the tension is building.
The parents of the effeminate-looking guy who climbed the pole before coming onto the big screen at the back of the stage — his robust father looks like a truck driver or an orthodontist — say “we support you” over and over. Then he gets eliminated.
Three of the final groups selected are composed of child performers. Cute child hugs are exchanged among those who survived the cuts. Who could vote against that?
I message David Murray, the American semi-finalist of last year’s edition, who invited me tonight. He’s nervous. “They want me to sing a Vietnamese song and I totally don’t know it.” Crying emoji. “Oh well, it’s just for fun.”
There’s a commercial break, during which the judges ham it up for the photogs. Then they yell “one more minute!” and we all scurry. The performances are starting.
There’s a man with a fabulous torrent of greyish-white hair, arched salt-and-pepper eyebrows and a full-on silver beard. He’s space-evil, a George Clinton fever dream of a Buddhist demon. At the end of the comedy-opera that takes place around him, he gets turned into a vacuum cleaner.
The famous songwriter-judge says something along the lines of, “It wasn’t what I expected. I expected it to be much better. But anyway you’ve made it to the final round, so you’re famous now.”
Greybeard is still smiling his devilish, slightly seductive smile.
There’s a little girl who dressed like Michael Jackson in the opening rounds. Now she comes out dressed like an old woman. “Oh my god,” says translator Suong, “it’s so cute!”
Seated next to two traditional musicians, she hits all her diphthongs. Then the inevitable rock-and-roll breakdown comes, the people in the animal costumes come out, and the girl changes clothes behind a cardboard tree three times to complement the four musical shifts. Suong loses her s***.
Later, the judges also do. “If we had another final round, you could show even more. Your talent is unlimited.”
The second-to-last group, two more child performers, come out and do a fun choreographed number. To be honest, it’s a little sloppy. But then again, they’re children, without the years of muscle memory that go into the finely-tuned performances of adult dancers.
More suspect is a national talent competition where three-quarters of the finalists are children.
But the last contestant gets around my ageist bias, dressing as a young wife carried on the back of an old, papier-mâché man. Some young bucks come up to flirt while the old man barks, which our young competitor accomplishes with a fan to his face. The child-centaur hops around to traditional music, performing a careful ballet that has been enacted in different forms through the centuries, and not always as well. When it’s over, one judge calls him a genius, while another says, “I’m scared of your talent.”
Famous comedian-judge Thanh Loc — the Simon Cowell of the Vietnamese edition, in a futuristic grey cloak that falls like a loincloth down to his black stormtrooper boots — sits in the green room after the confetti has fallen, answering questions. But he doesn’t even wait for the first one to be asked before he ventures, “This year many children got to the final round, but it’s nothing unnatural. They got there because they’re talented.
“I’ve seen many talented children, but this one is the first I’ve seen perform this sort of art,” he continues, gesturing at nine-year-old winner Nguyen Duc Vinh, who’s uncertain but shining, his makeup smeared by all the tears. “What he can do is really valuable for Vietnam.”