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Tiger's Apprentice
a film by M. Trinh Nguyen
for Taro Root Films, 1998

Tiger's Apprentice is filmmaker M. Trinh Nguyen's journey to her native Vietnam to observe and document her great uncle's "old-country" folk medicine practices. Armed with cameras, questions, and intrigue lined with skepticism, Nguyen travels to the Mekong Delta village to learn more about about this part of her roots. Were her great uncle's treatment techniques and medicines for tumors simply "voodoo" as some of her relatives in the United States insisted, or was he one of the dying breed of folk medicine masters? Tiger's Apprentice affords us the opportunity - the privilege - to accompany Nguyen on her journey for answers.

The lessons of Tiger's Apprentice lie in its complexity. The film starts much like an American exposé for 60 Minutes or 20/20. Nguyen describes the difficulty of acquiring permission to leave Vietnam with her film footage without drastic censorship from officials. As the interviews with her great uncle begin, her questions reflect skepticism and doubt - almost as if she is trying to find a reason not to believe that what she is witnessing is legitimate medicine. But slowly through the course of the film - and the course of her stay in Vietnam - Nguyen's posture shifts from reporting to documenting to learning. Therein lies the complexity of Tiger's Apprentice. The question is no longer simply whether or not Nguyen's great uncle's practice is legitimate. Instead, the question becomes, from the perspective of the filmmaker, "Why is my tendency, and the tendency of my relatives in the United States, to doubt and show skepticism?" This film is as much about Nguyen's personal journey for internal answers to her questions as it is about her physical journey for external answers. As she documents her great uncle's work, she is also documenting her own spiritual development and internal eastern/western identity struggle.

Both of these journeys are a joy to watch. Viewers get a very close glimpse into the practice of Trinh Vinh Khiem who started studying folk medicine from his father at age twelve, but did not do it full time until 1979, shortly after the communist take-over. Much of the film consists of footage of interviews with Khiem, both at rest and while providing his patients with care for their tumors and other health problems. We watch as ingredients for the tumor-removing "pills" are bought from a local herb store, mixed together and cooked for several hours, then prepared for use. We hear Khiem talk about his practice with great honesty and humility as he works on patients in the family's eating area. We hear accounts from his patients, many of whom express intense fear for the medical establishment. Throughout the film, even while many of Nguyen's relatives appear to be vulnerable to her questions, exerting much effort to convince her that the treatments work, her great uncle's quiet confidence, personability, and good nature hold the convincing power. He quickly gained my respect, and this slowly overcame my questions regarding credibility.

But then, in my own internal process, I had to ask myself why he had to gain my respect and why my initial reaction was to doubt his credibility. What do I carry with me that would allow me to blindly trust a medical doctor in the United States, but not Khiem? I even question now whether descriptions like "alternative medicine" are accurate. My conceptualization of "medicine" is, to many folks in the Mekong Delta village, an "alternative" to their medicinal practices.

Even with the wonderful interviews and documentation of Khiem and his patients, the real gem of the film remains Nguyen's personal journey. A film that started like an American exposé transformed into a spiritual journey. Nguyen's questions began to sound more like those a student might ask a teacher. Her narration became more self-reflective. She started as a self-identified empirical researcher, and left as an informal apprentice. She followed in the recently emerging style of progressive personal ethnography, sharing not only a story about people, but allowing us to learn from observing how she changed in relation to the "subjects" of her film. In a wonderfully selfless way, Nguyen, the filmmaker, allowed herself to become the "filmed," immensely increasing the power of Tiger's Apprentice to be a tool to inspire introspective thinking and learning in its audience. And to me, it is that ability to make me, as a viewer, internalize the lessons of a film and challenge myself to think differently about something that is the measuring stick for a truly effective and valuable educational tool.

Thank you, M. Trinh Nguyen, for this wonderful contribution to the inspirational side of film ethnography!

Purchase price: $175 (including tax and shipping)

For further purchasing information, contact Taro Root Films
22-D Hollywood Avenue
Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ 07423

Email: taroorootfilms@yahoo.com
Web: http://www.tarorootfilms.com

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