Knight in shining armors

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Film armor maker Pham Viet Cuong works on one of his latest samples which he says is for a general of the Tran Dynasty (1255-1400) who will wear it an upcoming 45-episode TV series

He came close to killing himself when he was unable to survive with the income he earned from dancing, an art he had formally learnt.

He spent months living under a bridge, surviving on instant noodles after his first wife kicked him out of her life.

But Pham Viet Cuong has overcome his circumstances, and has an armor that protects him from being downed by the economic vagaries of life he has become an armor maker for films.

Cuong's living room in a small house in an alley off Ly Chinh Thang Street in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, is crowded with all kinds of props, including a male mannequin wearing an ancient-style bronze plate armor.

The armor, Cuong says, is for a general of the Tran Dynasty (1255-1400) who will wear it an upcoming 45-episode TV series.

Then there is the torso of another mannequin wearing a bronze-colored hat, decorated with fake feathers that belongs to a Mongol soldier.

On the left side of the room stands a big round wooden piece, which the artist says is a lotus base for a lotus dance by renowned dancer Linh Nga next month.

One the right is a stuffed life-sized panther Cuong made for a rich man with real panther skin and two colorful Mahā-vairocana hats (mũ tỳ lư) for Mahayana Buddhism monks.

"The room is going to be empty soon after I deliver this stuff to my customers," said the 50-year-old man of many talents.

His current customers are the Bong Sen (lotus flower) Dance Theater, film director Tran Van Luong and a local pagoda.

The armor and the Mongol hat have a metallic and heavy look that make them a replica of the original ones that are made of metal and hardened leather, which are displayed in museums.

However, they are all made of rubber and plastic, and weigh around three kilograms, one fourth of the ones used in foreign movies and one sixth of genuine article, according to Cuong.

Cuong is the last of seven sons of a renowned shoemaker in the northern port city of Hai Phong. While no son has followed in the father's footsteps, all of them are engaged in the arts, in way or the other. They are dancers, puppet makers and film actors.

Shoes of both western and traditional styles made by Cuong's family were favored items in his hometown before their shop closed several years ago after their father's retirement.

"Though my brothers and I are artists, we all know the craft (of making shoes) and often helped our father when we were young."

Cuong spent seven years studying at the Vietnam Dance School in Hanoi before moving to the southern metro in 1995 and working with the Bong Sen Theater as a dancer.

Looking for peace

But Cuong, who also acted in several TV serials including Nguoi dan ba yeu duoi (The emotional woman), was not making enough money from dancing or acting.

After his first wife left him, Cuong's search for peace took him to a pagoda in HCMC's Hoc Mon District where he sought advice from the local monks.

He found more than the solace he sought. At the pagoda he saw a few damaged mũ tỳ lư belonging to the monks and he offered to make them new ones that are more durable.

Cuong used his skills to good effect, using rubber to make the hats' frame and covering it with cloth, which is more durable than the paper that the hats were originally made of.

Pleased with his work, the monks introduced Cuong to other pagodas for making the hats.

The hats set Cuong off on his new path, with regular orders from local pagodas as well as local theaters for various stage props.

Another turning point came in 2007, when he made a rubber armor replicating one worn by Roman Empire soldiers for his cousin to wear for his wedding.

This gave him the idea of making armors for Vietnamese martial arts movies, and it bore fruit thanks to an order from Vietnamese- American film director and producer Quan Lelan, who bagged the Columbine Award for the best film script for his screenplay "The Princess Concubine" at the 2009 Moondance International Film Festival in the US.

Cuong's first customer for armors was a man who spent six months traveling around the country looking for materials and artisans who could make armors for a Hao Hao noodle commercial videoclip in 2008.

Thanks to a suggestion made by stuntman Duc Thinh, Lelan ordered Cuong to make a set of 22 armors for the advertisement, which amazed local audiences who first thought the costumes were made in China.

"Rubber makes the costume light, durable, flexible and comfortable to wear, especially in fighting scenes, and the painted metallic and leather colors give the actors an imposing look," Cuong said.

His armors also include a layer of cloth to prevent heat from the rubber material from seeping through to the body. Each set of armor costs VND15 million (US$700), a bargain compared to getting it from elsewhere. 

Before Cuong, there was nobody in the country who made realistic looking armors, so those who needed them had only two options: borrowing costumes made of cloth and vinyl used in traditional opera plays like cải lương, chèo; or renting costumes from Chinese filmmakers at a high price.

"Cloth and vinyl fabric give a fake, weak look to soldiers actors. The stage can allow such looks, maybe, but the cinema cannot afford something that does not look very real," Lelan said.

National pride

Another good point about the rubber armors, said the director, is that they can be easily fixed or redecorated since they are made in Vietnam for Vietnamese movies by a Vietnamese man who has at least a basic knowledge of the local history and culture, whereas "Chinese armors have typical designs of Chinese culture."

"Viet Cuong has been very zealous in creating first the made-in-Vietnam armor," the director, who was the first Vietnamese-American graduate from the USC Graduate School of Cinema-Television and vice director for "The Quiet American", told the The Thao & Van Hoa (Sports & Culture) newspaper.

According to local culture expert Phan Cam Thuong, Vietnam, being a country that had been at war for centuries, has for certain developed weapons and martial arts, including armors for the cavalry  and infantry. However, except for a few pieces of Dong Son bronze armors dating back to 3rd-1st BC, there's not a single set from the medieval times that has been found undamaged so far.

For Cuong, it was not just the absence of relics, it was the fact that Vietnamese are not able to make armors for films when the country has a history of beating foreign invaders that "hurt deeply."

"Our ancestor could not have claimed victory with bare hands," he said.

In 2012, Cuong was asked to make 27 sets of rubber armors for a Vietnamese-American director's martial arts action fantasy Thien menh anh hung (Blood Letter), considered the first film of its kind.

Currently, he is busy making the mũ tỳ lư and stage props as well as sample armors for the upcoming historical series Phat hoang Tran Nhan Tong (Buddhist king Tran Nhan Tong). If his design is approved by the local board of sensors as well as the film producer, he will be busier.

"If my costume is selected, I will ask my brothers to work with me," he said. "I am neither a tailor nor a painter nor a sculptor, I just do what I can do for the local movie industry."

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