Review: ‘The House of No Man,’ starring Lê Giang, Huỳnh Uyển Ân, Tran Thanh, Khả Như, Song Luân, Ngoc Rich and Việt Anh

March 10, 2023

by Carla Hay

Huỳnh Uyển Ân and Song Luân in “The House of No Man” (Photo courtesy of 815 Pictures)

“The House of No Man”

Directed by Tran Thanh

Vietnamese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Thu Duc area of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the dramatic film “The House of No Man” (also titled “Ms. Nu’s House”) features an all-Vietnamese cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A domineering matriarch/restaurateur (who lives with her mother, her two adult daughters, and her son-in-law) has various clashes with people in her family, especially her younger daughter who has very different plans on how she wants to live her life. 

Culture Audience: “The House of No Man” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in seeing a melodramatic but well-acted movie about how family issues and society’s gender roles can affect relationships.

Lê Giang in “The House of No Man” (Photo courtesy of 815 Pictures)

There have been plenty of movies made about overbearing matriarchs, but “The House of No Man” is one of the more memorable of these types of films in the early 2020s. Some of the characters’ shrillness can get irritating and repetitive. However, this drama about a female-dominated family gets better in the last half of the movie. Huỳnh Uyển Ân gives a standout performance as someone who learns lessons about life.

Directed by Tran Thanh and written by Tran Hoang Ngoc Huyen, “The House of No Man” (also titled “Ms. Nu’s House”) is a much better film than Tran Thanh’s 2021 movie “Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry),” which he co-directed and co-wrote. “Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry)” is another drama about a bickering family with an aspiring YouTube star. Whereas “Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry)” was mainly about father-son issues, “The House of No Man” is mainly about mother-daughter issues. Realistic scenarios and convincing performances make “The House of No Man” an interesting character study about control and growing pains within a dysfunctional family.

In “The House of No Man” (which takes place and was filmed in the Thu Duc area of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam), the household of the movie’s title is ruled over by Ngoc Nu (played by Lê Giang), a middle-aged divorcée, who is still bitter that her ex-husband left her and their two daughters several years earlier, when the children were underage. Her ex-husband has not been in the family’s life since he left them. Because of this bitterness, Nu has deep mistrust and hatred of most men. It’s mentioned later in the movie that she hasn’t been in a serious romance since her divorce.

Nu owns and operates a small, casual restaurant called Bā Nū’s (which means “Ms. Nu’s” in Vietnamese) that’s part of the apartment complex where she lives with several other family members. The restaurant’s specialty is crab soup cakes, which Nu prides in making herself. The movie opens with a close-up scene of Nu shucking crabs.

Working at the restaurant is one of the few things that seems to bring Nu a little happiness. She’s a tough taskmaster at work and at home. Her biggest personality flaw is that she has a nasty temper and will fly into a rage and get violent. There are several scenes of her slapping, punching, kicking, and inflicting other physical abuse on people inside and outside her household. She also frequently yells at people and is verbally abusive if she doesn’t get her way.

In other words, Nu is a nightmare to be around, more often than not. The family members who live with her in the same apartment unit are fearful of Nu. They can’t just leave, because she is the main source of income in the household, and they depend on her financially. Nu uses this power to her advantage to control people in the household and tell them how they should live their lives.

Nu’s elderly mother Ngoc Ivory (played by Ngoc Rich) is kind and compassionate—in other words, the opposite of Nu. Ivory is the only person in the household who isn’t a target of Nu’s raging tantrums and physical abuse. Ivory is usually the peacemaker in the household when Nu gets in a conflict with another member of the family.

Nu’s older daughter, Ngoc Nhu (played by Kha Nhu), who’s in her late 20s, is an aspiring YouTube star who does “influencer” videos about domestic activities, such as cooking, applying makeup and interior decorating. Nhu, who has a tendency to be vain and superficial, helps at the restaurant by being a server. Nu doesn’t approve of Nhu’s social media activities and thinks it’s all a waste of time.

Nhu is married to Phu Nhuan (played by “The House of No Man” director Tran Thanh), who is the only male in the household. To say that Nhuan is a “henpecked husband” is an understatement. Not only does Nhu constantly yell at Nhuan because she doesn’t like it when he wants to hang out in bars with his buddies, but Nu also berates Nhuan frequently because she thinks Nhu made a bad choice in marrying Nhuan.

Nu thinks Nhuan is a loser because he doesn’t seem interested in having a career or a job that pays enough to support him and Nhu. Nhuan works as a delivery person for Nu’s restaurant, but he’s not very good at the job. He’s prone to make mistakes or make late deliveries. Nhuan is unhappy in his marriage because he can’t seem to do anything right to please his wife and mother-in-law.

Nu’s younger daughter, Ngoc Nhi (played by Huỳnh Uyển Ân), is in her late teens. Nhi is very sensitive, creative and intelligent. Nhi dreams of being a maker of pottery and other handmade crafts. Nu thinks it’s a foolish goal, so she pressured Nhi to take banking classes instead. (The banking classes part of Nhi’s life is not shown in the movie but is talked about in the film.) Nu thinks Nhu is a lost cause, but Nu has high hopes that Nhi will be a success. And that’s why Nu is extra-controlling and critical of Nhi, who inevitably starts to rebel.

How controlling is Nu? When Nhi goes to a nightclub where her best friend Lan (played by Phuong Lan) is having a birthday party, Nu won’t give Nhi permission to go. Nhi goes to the party anyway. And when Nhi gets home, she is scolded by Nu: “No more friends named Lan! No more friends whose name that starts with ‘L’!”

Lan is very bossy with her on-again, off-again boyfriend of six years, whose name is Bộ Của Lan (played by Phan Đạt), but she is a loyal and understanding friend to Nhi. Lan encourages Nhi to follow her dreams and not let Nu bully her. Lan’s group of close friends also includes a platonic male pal named Quynh Ly (played by Li Hao Meng Quynh), who is mild-mannered and a little shy. Ly has a crush on Nhi, and he is usually at social gatherings with Lan, her boyfriend and Nhi.

It’s at this birthday party that Nhi meets one of Lan’s friends who will change the course of Nhi’s life. His name is John (played by Song Luân), whose full Vietnamese name is Banh Kem. John, who is about the same age as Nhi, is a rich guy who has recently moved back to Vietnam after living in the United States to attend an unnamed school. It’s infatuation at first sight for John and Nhi, who have immediate romantic sparks with each other from their first conversation.

Nhi and John begin dating each other, to the disapproval of their families. Nhi knows that her controlling mother doesn’t want her dating anyone, so Nhi keeps her relationship with John a secret from her mother for as long as possible. But man-hating Nu eventually finds out and gets angry about this young romance, because she says that John will just use Nhi for sex.

John’s father Dai Phat (played by Cong Ninh) owns several factories (what is made in those factories is never mentioned in the movie), and he wants John to eventually take over the business. John’s mother (played by Ngan Quynh), who doesn’t have a name in the movie, agrees with whatever her husband says. John’s parents are snobs, so it should come as no surprise that they don’t approve of John dating Nhi, because they think Nhi comes from a gold-digging, trashy family.

John and Nhi continue to date each other, despite the objections and disapproval from their parents. John doesn’t want to go into his family’s business. He wants to open a cafe with Nhi, and they plan to sell Nhi’s pottery and other craftwork in the cafe. Certain things happen that dramatically alter John and Nhi’s relationship in the last half of the movie, which is the best part of the “The House of No Man.”

Two characters in the movie don’t get a lot of screen time, but they play significant roles in how the story develops. Nu’s middle-aged landlord Liem Van (played by Việt Anh) is an easygoing and calm person who witnesses a lot of the turmoil in Nu’s family. Someone else who knows what’s going on with the family is a YouTuber/social media influencer in his 20s named Le Minh Tiger (played by Le Duong Bao Lam), who likes to do a lot of livestreams at the restaurant. Tiger, who is a nosy gossip, tells a curious John about Nu’s divorce, in order to explain why Nu is the way that she is.

“The House of No Man” is at its best when it’s about the relationship between Nhi and John. For all of Nu’s domineering ways, Nu is often a one-note character, who only shows another side of herself much later in the movie. Nhi is by far the most interesting character in the movie, made all the better because of Huỳnh’s terrific performance. Viewers get to see Nhi mature during the story, which takes place during the course of about two years.

“The House of No Man” is a story about mothers and daughters, but it’s also a story about the highs and lows of a first serious romance. There are also issues of social class and family legacies that are told effectively in this movie. Some of the plot developments in “The House of No Man” are very melodramatic, but there’s nothing unrealistic about this movie.

The movie’s depiction of violent abuse coming from a woman puts a spotlight on the harsh reality that there is often a double standard when it comes to this type of abuse. Nu does a lot of violent harm to people (male and female) that she probably would have been arrested for if she were a man. The movie doesn’t try to pass judgment on Nu’s violent abuse, but the movie seems to be saying that how you react to this violence says a lot about what you think about gender roles in society.

“The House of No Man” shows issues concerning generational trauma and how children who think they won’t be affected by it are actually affected by it so much, it becomes part of their personality. Nhu has a love/hate relationship with her mother, but Nhu doesn’t really see how much she is turning into her mother, in the way that Nhu disrespects and abuses her long-suffering husband Nhuan. “The House of No Man” is not an indictment or condemnation of households led by women. Rather, this drama demonstrates in poignant ways how any angry and abusive household can take a damaging toll on the people who live there, and what it might take to heal some of those emotional wounds.

815 Pictures released “The House of No Man” in select U.S. cinemas on March 3, 2023. The movie was released in Vietnam on January 22, 2023.

Review: ‘Children of the Mist,’ starring Má Thi Di

December 31, 2022

by Carla Hay

Má Thi Di in “Children of the Mist” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

“Children of the Mist”

Directed by Hà Lệ Diễm

Hmong and Vietnamese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2018 to 2021, in an unnamed mountain village in northwestern Vietnam, the documentary film “Children of the Mist” features an all-Vietnamese group of people representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: From the age of 12 to the age of 15, a Vietnamese girl name Má Thi Di is filmed, as she becomes increasingly likely to become a victim of child bride kidnapping, a frequently committed crime in her culture.

Culture Audience: “Children of the Mist” will appeal primarily to people interested in documentaries about rural Vietnamese cultures and the injustices of child exploitation.

Thào A Vàng and Má Thi Di in “Children of the Mist” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

The documentary “Children of the Mist” is a riveting and emotionally painful look at how an underage teen girl can become a victim of the rampant child bride kidnappings in Vietnam. It’s an unforgettable story of dreams and potential destroyed by sexism. Although the documentary tells the story of one girl, there are countless other girls who have experienced and will continue to experience the same devastating fate.

From 2018 to 2021, “Children on the Mist” director Hà Lệ Diễm documented the life of a Vietnamese girl named Má Thi Di, beginning when Di was 12 years old. In the documentary, which is shown in chronological order, Di lives with her parents and younger brother in an unnamed rural village surrounded by misty mountains in northwestern Vietnam. She starts off as playful and carefree, but over the years, Di grows increasingly apprehensive about the possibility that she will be kidnapped and forced to marry someone before she turns 18. In Vietnam, the minimum legal age to get married is 18 years old.

Di and her family live among Hmong people, an ethnic minority in Vietnam that has longtime cultural traditions that conflict with Vietnam’s laws. One of these conflicts is that it’s acceptable in Hmong culture for underage girls to be kidnapped by men or teenage boys who want to “marry” these girls. These kidnappings are such a “tradition” in the culture that it has become prevalent and expected, especially close to the Lunar New Year holidays.

In the production notes for “Children of the Mist,” director Hà (who is originally from the Tay community, an ethnic group in northeast Vietnam) comments in a statement: “I knew for a long time about ‘bride-knapping,’ but I used to consider it like a folkloric tradition. I didn’t realize that most of the parents were favorable to early marriage for their daughter, as they don’t trust in social promotion through school.

The statement continues, “Almost every family in these communities has once suffered abduction. As a consequence, sexual abuse and violence are very common in this region. Since I started to shoot, two schoolmates of Di were raped on their way to school. One of them was murdered. While becoming teenagers Di and her friends had fear growing in them.”

There is no sexual assault shown or even discussed in “Children of the Mist.” However, Di’s increasing fear has that it will happen to Di is visible in the documentary. That’s because, as it’s eventually revealed, Di’s feisty mother Châu Thi Kay and Di’s older sister Má Thi La were both victims of these kidnappings. At one point in the documentary, when Di is almost 15 years old, it’s mentioned that La is 17 years old when La is the mother of an infant and pregnant with La’s second child.

Di describes the anguish that her mother and other family members had when La “dropped out” (disappeared) when La was 15 and was kidnapped by the man who forced La to be his wife. (La’s husband is not shown in the documentary when La goes to visit her family.) Di comments about La being forced to marry at an illegal young age: “She wanted to have fun, but that was the end of her childhood. I won’t be that naïve.”

Still, “bride-knapping” is so ingrained in the culture, an early scene in the movie shows Di and some female friends playing a chase game called “Catch the Bride,” in a field where one of the girls has been chosen for playing the role of the person who’s supposed to be kidnapped. In another scene, Kay half-jokingly tells Di what she thinks about Di’s chances of being kidnapped: “You’re not Hmong, so they can’t force you.” At 12 and 13 years old, Di has a lot of bravado that she will never be kidnapped. As she gets older, that confidence diminishes.

Di is a bright and outgoing child who likes school, which she also uses as a refuge to her oppressive life at home. The movie has some scenes of Di and other students in their classroom. Her parents have a very small farm, where Di is expected to help out as much as possible. There are several scenes of Di, her mother and some other relatives doing harvesting activities in the nearby rice paddy fields. It’s also Di’s responsibility to help feed the animals on the farm.

In the early part of the documentary, Di is shown doing karaoke with two girls who are about the same age. As she gets older, her activities and conversations with her friends and relatives revolve more around dating boys and her family’s expectations on when she should get married. Di and the other teens in her social circle rely heavily on their phones to communicate and find out what’s going on with each other.

A scene in the movie shows Di, at about age 13 or 14, shyly flirting on her phone with a man who calls himself Pao. He wants to meet her in person, but Di is reluctant and at first won’t tell him her real named. Di never goes to meet him, and his identity is never revealed, but the phone conversation looks like a case of an older man preying on an underage teenage girl.

“Children of the Mist” shows that the family goes to community festivals and parties, where the adults often get drunk. Alcohol abuse is mentioned numerous times throughout the movie as having a negative impact on family life. Kay bitterly complains about her unhappy marriage and says that her husband Má A Pho is a drunk who often verbally abuses and beats her and Di. (This alleged abuse is not shown in the documentary. Pho is shown stumbling around a lot and acts like happy drunk.)

Meanwhile, Kay (who admits to getting drunk on occasion) has this to say about her husband: “The man has no dignity. Even our son-in-law hates him, but he still thinks he’s the king.” Pho overhears her complaints about him, and he replies, “I know you’re cheating on me.”

At 14 years old, Di tries to tune out her parents troubled marriage, and she’s preoccupied with problems in her own love life. She gripes to a friend about how an ex-boyfriend dumped her for another girl, but Di says that she doesn’t love this guy anymore anyway. Still, she cares enough to discuss at length what this ex-boyfriend’s social media activities. And when he contacts Di to try to get back together with her, Di and her friend agree that it’s best for Di to ignore him.

The documentary takes a turn when Di starts dating a teenager close to her age named Thào A Vàng. It quickly becomes apparent that Vàng is much more smitten with Di than she is with him. She doesn’t want to break his heart, but she doesn’t want to marry him either. What happens during this courtship will define what type of woman Di wants to become, which might not align with other people’s expectations.

“Children of the Mist” presents an interesting sociological portrait of how teenagers who live in a relatively isolated rural areas are often caught in a world of being required to follow ancient traditions, but they have access to the modern world through technology and are keenly aware that these old traditions aren’t forced on people in other communities. In other words, Di is very aware that she can and should have options on what she wants to do with her life.

Di talks about wanting to finish her education and get a job so that she has enough money to travel with her mother, who has never traveled outside the village. The relationship that Di has with her mother is an example of how a mother wants the best for her child but is also fearful that her child will make the wrong decisions or will be trapped in the same harmful circumstances. Di says she’s not ready to get married at this time in her life, but how much will that decision be respected by other people?

In a very telling scene that shows the family’s dynamics, Di has stayed out past her curfew, and it’s assumed that Di is with Vàng. Kay’s attitude changes from slight annoyance that Di hasn’t been returning phone calls and messages to Kay expressing so much fear that she starts crying. Her husband Pho isn’t so worried and reminds her Kay that she used to break her curfew when she was Di’s age too, and it was how Pho was able to kidnap her. This reminder gets Kay even more distressed and worried about what happened to Di.

“Children of the Mist” offers an up-close look at many aspects of Di’s life. If there’s any flaw in the movie, it’s that it doesn’t really address the alleged abuse. Viewers are left to wonder if “Children on the Mist” director Hà had footage of this abuse but purposely chose to leave it out of this cinéma vérité-styled documentary. In addition, Hà says in the documentary’s voiceover introduction that she became friends with Di—perhaps inevitable, considering the intimate nature of this documentary, but still calls into question if this close friendship compromised the director’s judgment as a documentarian.

Even with so many unanswered questions about Di’s family life, “Children of the Mist” is still a very engrossing film that shows a poignant story about what child bride kidnapping can do over time to individuals, families and communities. It’s a real-life horror story that some people have become so numb to, it’s become accepted in the culture where Di was raised. Unlike a horror movie, there’s less likely to be a “final girl” happy ending.

Film Movement released “Children of the Mist” in select U.S. cinemas on December 16, 2022. The movie will be released on digital and DVD on February 14, 2023.

Review: ‘A Hundred Billion Key,’ starring Kiều Minh Tuấn, Thu Trang, Anh Tú and Jun Vũ

November 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

Thu Trang and Kiều Minh Tuấn in “A Hundred Billion Key” (Photo courtesy of 3388 Films)

“A Hundred Billion Key”

Directed by Võ Thanh Hòa

Vietnamese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in Vietnam, the action film “A Hundred Billion Key” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: An aspiring actor steals the identity of a wealthy man with amnesia, but then finds out that the man whose identity he stole has a secret life as an assassin.

Culture Audience: “A Hundred Billion Key” will appeal primarily to fans who don’t mind action movies with plots that get ridiculous and have ill-placed comedy.

Anh Tú and Jun Vũ in “A Hundred Billion Key” (Photo courtesy of 3388 Films)

“A Hundred Billion Key” is an action flick that starts out promising but then turns into a heaping, nonsensical mess that mostly fumbles its attempts at comedy. This hyperactive movie about assassins and fake identities crams in too many surprises that become increasingly far-fetched. The film’s very absurd last 20 minutes look like the filmmakers couldn’t think of any believable ideas on how to end the movie.

Directed by Võ Thanh Hòa, “A Hundred Billion Key” is a Vietnamese remake of the 2012 Japanese film “Key of Life,” which was directed by Kenji Uchida. “Key of Life” was also remade into the 2016 South Korean film “Leokki (Luck-Key),” directed by Lee Gae-byok. “A Hundred Billion Key” is the least appealing of the three movies because of how it bungles this intriguing story that is supposed to have some intentional comedy.

The opening scene of “A Hundred Billion Key” (which takes place in an unnamed city in Vietnam) shows an assassin in his 30s named Phan Thach (played Kiều Minh Tuấn) disguised as a hotel waiter delivering room service to a man who’s a hotel guest. The cinematography in this scene is quite artistic, as the camera remains focused on the table being wheeled into the room without showing the assassin right away. As soon as Thach is in the room, he kills his target.

The murder victim put up a fight, which caused a big commotion. Hotel security is alerted to the disturbance in the room, the body is found, and the hunt is on in the hotel for the murderer. However, Thach escapes by shedding his waiter outfit and pretending to be a sanitation worker at the hotel and then slipping away into the night.

The movie than shows a 24-year-old man whose life will soon intertwine with Thach’s life. Cao Chí Dũng (played by Anh Tú) is an aspiring actor who hasn’t had much luck finding work. Dũng’s father immensely disapproves of Dũng’s chosen profession and pesters Dũng to get a “real job.” Dũng lives in an apartment and is five months behind on his rent.

When his landlady shows up with three men to demand the payment, Dũng is about to hang himself with a noose. This attempted suicide scene is played for laughs, in one of the movie’s many comedic scenes that are poorly done or in very bad taste. When the landlady and her three cohorts break down the door, Dũng changes his mind about killing himself and escapes out of a back window.

“One Billion Key” then abruptly cuts to a scene showing assassin Thach in the shower at a public bath house. He accidentally slips on some soap, falls down, and hits his head so hard, he becomes unconscious. Dũng happens to be nearby in the shower, and he sees that this stranger has accidentally dropped a key, but no one else notices. Dũng takes the key, while other people nearby rush to help this unconscious stranger.

A rideshare service is called to take Thach to the nearest hospital. The rideshare driver who shows up is a woman in her 30s named Mai Mai (played by Thu Trang), who is understandably stressed-out over this situation, since she’s the only person accompanying this stranger to the hospital. Viewers have to suspend disbelief that an ambulance wasn’t called in this emergency medical situation.

Mai doesn’t want to stay at the hospital, but she’s forced to do so because she’s the only person at the hospital who can tell the medical professionals what she saw when Thach was put in her car. Thach left all of his identification and his clothing at the bath house. And his wallet, clothing and ID have been stolen by Dũng, who has quickly figured out that Thach is wealthy, based on Thach’s designer clothes, credit cards and home address. Dũng leaves his own clothing and ID behind, in the hope that people will think Thach is Dũng, even though the two men aren’t close in age and don’t look alike.

Dũng uses the key to gain entry to Thach’s house and sees that Thach lives alone. Dũng figures that he can get away with this identity theft as long as Thach is in the hospital. And so, Dũng goes on a spending spree that includes a lot of partying and buying of luxury items. He also uses some of Thach’s money to pay the rent that he owes his landlady. Dũng’s identity theft lasts longer than expected when he finds out that Thach has amnesia, and people have told him that Thach’s name is Cao Chí Dũng.

This flimsy concept is the shaky basis for “A Hundred Billion Key,” which wants viewers to believe that this identity switch is plausible. A huge plot hole that’s never addressed is how two men who don’t look alike, who are years apart in age, and who had photo IDs before this identity switch could be mistaken for each other. The movie’s not-very-believable explanation is that Thach is a loner assassin who is a master of disguises, so his clients don’t ever really know what he looks like. It’s even less believable that Dũng can hide his true identity, in order to steal Thach’s identity.

As soon as Dũng finds out that Thach has taken on Dũng’s identity and is about to be discharged from the hospital, Dũng rushes to his apartment building and tells the landlady that someone else will be living in his apartment unit for a while. Dũng tells the landlady not to bother this new tenant. Back at Thach’s home, Dũng finds a secret room filled with surveillance equipment, walkie talkies and disguises. Dũng incorrectly assumes that Thach is an undercover police officer.

Dũng also finds out from the surveillance cameras that Thach has been spying on a pretty young woman named Hồ Phuong (played by Jun Vũ), who lives nearby. The more that Dũng observes Phuong, the more he’s attracted to her. Eventually, Dũng comes up with a plan to meet Phuong, and he charms her into going on a date with him. You know where this is going, of course, because Dũng can’t keep up his charade forever.

Meanwhile, Mai takes it upon herself to help Thach, who thinks he’s Dũng, in order to get his life back on track. They find out that Dũng is an aspiring actor who has been called to audition for a small role in an action TV show. Guess who’s going to the audition instead of the real Dũng?

This part of the movie is just one of a minefield of plot holes in “A Hundred Billion Key.” This movie takes place at a time when Internet searches can easily be done, so it makes no sense that Mai and people at the hospital don’t try to find out what Dũng looks like before putting his identity on this amnesiac stranger who looks nothing like Dũng. There’s also no explanation for how Dũng’s identity as an actor could be replaced by someone who doesn’t look like him.

Mai has another job besides being a rideshare driver. She works at a fast-food restaurant owned by her meddling mother (played by Kim Xuan), who is upset that Mai is in her 30s and still not married. Mai has a younger sister (played by Puka), who also looks down on Mai for being a spinster of a certain age. Expect to see a lot of stereotypical family bickering between these three women.

Mai helps Thach/the fake Dũng get a job at the restaurant. A running gag in the movie is that this cold-blooded and confident killer is now an insecure fast-food server who is an aspiring actor. It should come as no surprise that Mai, who helps Thach/the fake Dũng build his confidence as an actor, starts to become attracted to him. And the feeling is mutual.

The real Dũng’s only family is his widowed father, who is currently estranged from him, so Dũng’s father doesn’t know about the switched identities. But what about any of Dũng’s friends, neighbors or previous work colleagues who could easily identify him? They are all non-existent. Meanwhile, (dumb plot development alert) Thach, as the fake Dũng, becomes a TV star.

Things get complicated for the real Dũng when he finds out that the man whose identity he stole is really a high-paid assassin. And guess who’s supposed to be his next target? Hint: It’s the only person in the movie who didn’t know Dũng’s real identity before meeting him. It’s all so obvious and lacking in any real suspense, although “A Hundred Billion Key” throws in ludicrous plot developments on top of ludicrous plot developments in a feeble attempt to distract viewers from all the movie’s plot holes.

The rest of the movie involves people on the run from crime bosses, a computer flash drive that contains information that will access a fortune, and a series of cliché-ridden fight scenes. The cast members’ adequate performances aren’t the movie’s biggest problems. “A Hundred Billion Key” fails at being creative because of the insipid storytelling, erratic tone (its attempts at being a wacky comedy look very awkward) and all-around bad dialogue. Action movies aren’t supposed to be intellectual, and many action movies aren’t realistic, but there’s just too much stupidity in “A Hundred Billion Key” that drains the movie of even having the entertainment value of being a guilty pleasure.

3388 Films released “A Hundred Billion Key” in select U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022. The movie was released in Vietnam on February 1, 2022.

Review: ‘The Roundup’ (2022), starring Don Lee, Son Suk-ku, Choi Guy-hwa and Park Ji-hwan

June 5, 2022

by Carla Hay

Son Suk-ku and Don Lee in “The Roundup” (Photo courtesy of Capelight Pictures)

“The Roundup” (2022)

Directed by Lee Sang-yong

Korean and Vietnamese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Korea and Vietnam, the action film “The Roundup” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Roguish police detective Ma Seok-do and his colleagues try to hunt down a ruthless crime boss, who eludes law enforcement in Korea and Vietnam.

Culture Audience: “The Roundup” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “The Outlaws,” star Don Lee, and suspenseful action flicks about cops versus criminals.

Don Lee and Choi Guy-hwa in “The Roundup” (Photo courtesy of Capelight Pictures)

“The Roundup” delivers plenty of thrills and adrenaline-pumped action in this worthy sequel to 2017’s “The Outlaws.” In this “cops versus criminals” story, the flawed protagonist’s misdeeds and mistakes bring some intentional laughs. The last third of the movie includes an epic chase during a kidnapping and ransom drop that will make “The Roundup” a memorable standout among a sea of action films.

Directed by Lee Sang-yong, “The Roundup” (which picks up four years after the events of “The Outlaws”) continues the story of hot-tempered police detective Ma Seok-do (played by Don Lee), who is nicknamed “The Beast” or “Beast Cop,” because he doesn’t hesitate to commit police brutality to get his version of justice. Detective Ma works in the major crimes unit of the Seoul Police Department in South Korea. His antics have given him a reputation as a loose-cannon cop.

An early scene in the movie shows how Detective Ma operates. He’s called to a crime scene at a convenience store, where a deranged man with a knife is having a shouting meltdown and wildly swinging the knife at anyone who comes near him. Detective Ma shows up late because he says he was on “a blind date.”

Detective Ma quickly subdues the attacker with a very illegal beatdown. The movie then cuts to a scene at the police station, where Detective Ma and three colleagues look at an unflattering newspaper article about this incident. The article, which has a photo of Detective Ma at the convenience store, has a headline saying that the Beast Cop has struck again.

The article mentions that Detective Ma was disciplined for excessive use of force, and he was sent to rehab for 12 weeks. Detective Ma scoffs at the report with his three cop colleagues: mild-mannered Oh Dong-gyun (played by Heo Dong-won), eager Kang Hong-seok (played by Ha Joon) and rookie Kim Sang-hoon (played by Jung Jae-kwang). All three of these cops look up to Detective Ma for his fearless and often-irreverent attitude.

One person in the police department who tries (and often fails) to control Detective Ma is his supervisor Captain Jeon (played by Choi Guy-hwa), who frequently admonishes Detective Ma, but begrudgingly admits that Detective Ma is often effective in his work. That’s why Captain Jeon often looks the other way or enables Detective Ma to get away with certain unethical things, if it means that it will help the cops solve a case. When Captain Jeon and Detective Ma do interrogations together, it’s easy to predict who will play the “good cop” role and who will play the “bad cop” role.

Captain Jeon tells Detective Ma that the two of them will be going to Vietnam to investigate why a South Korean criminal named Yoo Jong-hoon (played by Jeon Jin-oh) has turned himself into authorities in Vietnam. Yoo Jong-hoon was a suspect in a high-profile jewelry heist in South Korea, so the two cops want to see what Yoo Jong-hoon has to say and if he can be extradited back to South Korea. There’s some comical back-and-forth between Captain Jeon and Detective Ma about which of them can speak English on this trip.

The interrogation of Yoo Jong-hoon leads to him confessing to being involved in a 2008 kidnapping and murder of a wealthy South Korean business scion in his 20s named Choi Yong-gi (played by Cha Woo-jin) in Ho Chi Minh City. This kidnapping and murder were committed by a gang led by a ruthless overlord named Kang Hae-sang (played by Son Suk-ku, also known as Son Seok-koo), whose charming good looks mask a nasty and sadistic personality. Son’s portrayal of this villain is one of the main reasons to see “The Roundup,” because he convincingly plays the Kang Hae-sang character as both coldly calculating and insanely reckless.

The rest of “The Roundup” involves Detective Ma and his colleagues uncovering more of Kang’s crimes and trying to track him down to arrest him, first in Vietnam and then in South Korea. Kang is an elusive and crafty criminal who always seems to be far ahead of law enforcement. Instead of keeping a low profile when he knows he’s being hunted, he goes out of his way to cause more madness and mayhem. It’s why, as a movie villain, Kang is riveting to watch.

Needless to say, “The Roundup” has a lot of brutal violence that is not for viewers who get easily offended by this type of content. Some of the fight stunts are over-the-top and unrealistic, because these fights would definitely cause more damage in real life than what’s shown in the movie. However, that doesn’t mean that the cops and other people involved in the fights don’t have the physical effects of getting beaten up or shot. “The Roundup” has four people credited as the movie’s screenwriters: director Lee Sang-yong, Ma Dong-seok, Young-jong Lee and Min-Seong Kim.

People don’t watch a movie like “The Roundup” for award-worthy acting. However, the acting in “The Roundup” is better than the average “cops versus criminals” movie. Lee is very charismatic in his role as Detective Ma, the rogue cop who makes wisecracking quips in between some of his questionable and harsh ways of getting what he wants. The actors in supporting roles get their jobs done well, but make no mistake: It’s the Beast Cop’s world, and everyone else is just living in it. The villain Kang Hae-sang is the only supporting character who can be considered truly formidable to Detective Ma.

Just when you think “The Roundup” is going to be a typical international police caper that will wrap up in a certain way, the movie ramps up the suspense with a kidnapping. This abduction involves the parents of murder victim Choi Yong-gi, whose father Choi Chun-baek (played by Nam Mun-cheol) was with him in Vietnam before Choi Yong-gi was abducted and murdered. The Choi spouses are targeted because of their wealth and because of certain things that happened after their son’s death.

One of the Choi spouses gets kidnapped, but this review won’t reveal which spouse. A Detective Ma colleague named Jang Isu (played by Park Ji-hwan) is recruited to help in the kidnapping case. This kidnapping plot development leads to the best parts of the movie, which takes some action-packed twists and turns that will have viewers completely on edge to see what will happen next. It makes “The Roundup” the type of gripping and crowd-pleasing thriller that is sure to inspire more sequels.

Capelight Pictures released “The Roundup” in select U.S. cinemas on May 20, 2022. The movie was released in South Korea on May 18, 2022.

Review: ‘The Ancestral,’ starring Lâm Thanh Mỹ, Quang Tuấn, Mai Cát Vi and Dieu Nhi

May 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

Lâm Thanh Mỹ in “The Ancestral” (Photo courtesy of T2 Group)

“The Ancestral”

Directed by Le Van Kiet

Vietnamese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed part of Vietnam, the horror film “The Ancestral” features an all-Vietnamese cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: After the tragic death of his wife, a widower takes his two underage daughters to live in an abandoned ancestral mansion, which appears to be haunted by ghosts.

Culture Audience: “The Ancestral” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of horror movies about ghosts and haunted houses.

Mai Cát Vi and Quang Tuấn in “The Ancestral” (Photo courtesy of T2 Group)

“The Ancestral” overcomes repetitive clichés in movies about haunted houses, by delivering an intriguing plot twist in the last third of the movie. Spooky jump scares, convincing visual effects and good acting make “The Ancestral” an entrancing horror film. “The Ancestral” does a lot with a relatively small number of people in its cast. It’s a movie that could have gone down a predictable route, but it keeps viewers guessing over what will happen until the very last scene. Viewers should stick around for a mid-credits scene that shows the fate of one of the characters.

Written and directed by Le Van Kiet, “The Ancestral” (which takes place in an unnamed part of Vietnam) begins with a widower named Thanh (played by Quang Tuấn) driving himself and his two underage daughters to an abandoned and dilapidated mansion, which is described as an ancestral family home. Elder daughter Linh (played by Lâm Thanh Mỹ), who’s about 14 or 15 years old, is a serious and responsible child who has essentially become the female head of the household. Younger daughter Yen (played by Mai Cát Vi), who’s about 10 or 11 years old, is more outgoing and playful than Linh.

The family is grieving over the death of Thanh’s wife, who was the mother of Linh and Yen. Thanh’s wife died a year before for reasons that are later explained in the movie. Even though this ancestral mansion is dark, run-down and very creepy-looking, Thanh has decided that they are going to move there for a change of scenery. He thinks that this change of environment will help all three of them heal from their grief.

However, the house is a less-than-ideal place to raise two children. There is no electricity in the house. And it’s the type of abandoned place that has been neglected for so long, many things in the house look rusty and worn-down. And as is typical for a haunted house in a horror movie, it’s also in an isolated area, where there doesn’t seem to be any neighbors around for miles.

Not long after moving into their new home, Thanh tells his daughters: “It’s just the three of us now.” He also tells Linh that she has to look after Yen when he’s not there. The movie never details what Thanh does for a living, but he’s often away during the day. He plans to have Linh and Yen homeschooled, so he later introduces them to a pretty young woman named Ms. Hanh (played by Diệu Nhi), whom he says will be the girls’ tutor.

Strange things start happening immediately after the family gets settled in the house. Linh and Yen both start to see various people in the house. And these people appear to be ghosts. Some of them are shadowy apparitions that run across a room and disappear. Others run on all fours and then attack before Linh and Yen wake up, as if it was all a bad dream.

And these sightings don’t just happen at night. In an eerie and chilling scene, Linh is outside in the house yard as she hangs laundered sheets to dry. She starts to see human faces pressed against the sheets. But when she looks behind the sheets, no one is there. And then what appears to be an old lady, who has matted hair and black teeth, attacks Linh before running away. This time, Yen saw this ghost too.

Adding to the terror, Yen starts to sleepwalk. And sometimes she appears to be experiencing paralysis during a nightmare where she can’t wake up unless someone vigorously shakes her. Yen and Linh tell their father about these scary incidents, but he dismisses it all as the girls having bad dreams. Thanh tells his daughters: “There are no such things as ghosts and demons.”

Ms. Hanh is kind and sympathetic to Yen and Linh. This tutor also seems to be spending a lot of time with Thanh, which leads Yen to joke that maybe their father and Ms. Hanh will end up dating each other. Ms. Hanh also goes out of her way to show that she wants to befriend the girls, and not just be their tutor.

One day, Thanh surprises the girls by showing them a new, more modern home where they will be moving to in the near future. Yen and Linh each has her own bedroom in this new home. Ms. Hanh has even gone to the trouble of decorating each of the girls’ bedrooms, according to the tastes of each girl.

But this seemingly idyllic new living situation is hindered as more haunting incidents occur. These ghost sightings and jump scares become a little tiresome after a while when it’s just a repeat of the girls getting scared, and their father not really doing anything about it but comforting them and telling them that ghosts aren’t real. By the middle of movie, viewers might be frustrated that nothing much is being done in plot development.

But viewers who are patient enough to stick around for the last third of the movie will be rewarded with some compelling twists and turns. Lâm Thanh Mỹ and Mai Cát Vi give very good performances as loyal sisters Linh and Yen, whose sibling relationship is at the heart of the movie. There’s a little bit of melodrama in a climactic “life or death” scene, but this melodrama doesn’t lessen the impact of the suspense that ramps up in this last section of the movie. “The Ancestral” has its best moments when it shows that even in the devastation of grief, there is always hope for healing.

T2 Group released “The Ancestral” in select U.S. cinemas on May 13, 2022. The movie was released in Vietnam on March 18, 2022, and in Malaysia and Singapore on March 24, 2022.

Review: ‘Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry),’ starring Tuấn Trần, Trấn Thành and Ngân Chi

June 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ngân Chi, Tuấn Trần and Trấn Thành in “Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry)” (Photo courtesy of 3388 Films)

“Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry)”

Directed by Tran Thanh and Ngoc Dang Vu

Vietnamese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon), Vietnam, the comedy/drama film “Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry)features an all-Asian cast representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A dysfunctional family has ups and downs as the family’s fortune ebbs and flows, and the family is affected by a paternity scandal.

Culture Audience: “Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry)” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a soap-opera-styled family story that has overly exaggerated acting and elements of broad comedy.

Cast members of “Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry)” Pictured in back row, from left to right: Quốc Khánh, Lan Phương, Aquay and Lê Trang. Pictured in middle row, from left to right: La Thành, Hoàng Mèo, Trấn Thành, Ngọc Giàu and Bảo Phuc. Pictured in front row, from left to right: Tuấn Trần and Ngân Chi. (Photo courtesy of 3388 Films)

If you’re prone to get headaches from watching movies where most of the actors shout unnecessarily when they over-emote, then make sure that you have some aspirin nearby when watching “Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry).” It’s a convoluted and frequently messy film that awkwardly tries to balance comedy and drama, with over-the-top acting that lowers the quality of what could have been a more interesting movie. The treacly sentimentality tacked on at the end of the story can’t erase the problematic scenes where women are treated as nuisances, in order to make sure that the male characters have the most importance in the story.

Directed by Tran Thanh and Ngoc Dang Vu and written by Ho Thuc An and Nhi Bui, “Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry)” tells the story about a very dysfunctional family in Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon. (“Bố Già,” which means “The Godfather” in Vietnamese, is based on Tran Thanh’s web series of the same name.) Within this family are varying degrees of wealth, which cause feelings of insecurity and jealousy among the poor family members who live in the ghetto and the middle-class family members who have more comfortable lifestyles. During the course of the story, the family’s fortunes change, which affect the clan’s dynamics in how they treat each other and how they are viewed by the outside world.

The members of this bickering family are:

  • Ba Sang (played by Trấn Thành), the movie’s narrator, a divorced father who lost his fortune and is now heavily in debt.
  • Quấn (played by Tuấn Trần), Ba Sang’s son, who is a 23-year-old aspiring YouTube star.
  • Bu Tot (played by Ngân Chi), a 6-year-old girl who has been raised by Ba Sang, ever since he brought her home when she was a baby.
  • Hai Giàu (played by Ngọc Giàu), Ba Sang’s older sister, who sells gravestone plots and employs Ba Sang to help him pay off his debts.
  • Út Quý (played by La Thành), Hai Giàu’s alcoholic son who’s the “black sheep” of the family.
  • Bình Lợi (played by Quốc Khánh), Hai Giàu’s goofy younger son.
  • Tư Phú (played by Hoàng Mèo), Ba Sang’s younger brother who is generally passive unless he gets irritated by his nagging wife.
  • Thím Ánh (played by Lan Phương), also known as Ánh, who is Tư Phú’s overly critical, shrewish and very materialistic wife.

Another featured character in the movie is Cam Le (played by Lê Giang), a platonic friend of Ba Sang who might or might not have romantic feelings for him. Cam Le is often the calm voice of reason when Ba Sang and his family start feuding or acting unstable. And a woman named Truc Nhan (played by Minh Tu), who’s from Quấn’s past, resurfaces with news that shakes up the family.

Much of Ba Sang’s insecurity comes from feeling like a loser because he used to be a successful businessman, but he made a lot of bad choices, and now he’s drowning in debt. His financial problems also cost him his marriage. Ba Sang is living in a very poor neighborhood that he thinks is beneath the social class that he thinks he deserves.

Ba Sang’s alcoholic nephew Út Quý is a criminal who is in debt to some local gangsters. The movie has a subplot about these gangsters lurking around because they’re growing impatient with Út Quý being unable to repay the money that he owes. Út Quý’s drinking problem is so bad that he has the unsavory reputation of being the “town drunk.”

Ba Sang’s adult son Quấn still lives with Ba Sang, who is annoyed because he doesn’t think that Quấn’s YouTube channel is a practical way to make money. Ba Sang lectures Quấn to get a “real job,” but Quấn refuses to do anything else for work because he’s convinced that he will eventually get rich from being a YouTube star. The only person in the family whom Ba Sang doesn’t seem to get irritated with at some point or another is Bu Tot, who is an adorable and obedient child.

Because “Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry)” is a soap-opera-styled movie, there’s a lot of twists and turns to the plot that include a paternity scandal and a health crisis where someone needs a kidney transplant. Unfortunately, the melodramatic tone to the story means that the actors tend to over-act in a way that’s not flattering to the movie. And there’s too much shouting of dialogue, as if some of the actors think that in order to convey strong emotions, you have to shout.

“Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry)” also has a problematic way of depicting domestic violence. In more than one scene, Tư Phú slaps his wife Ánh very hard on the face when they argue. But this type of abuse is brushed aside as nothing more than a man trying to control his wife when she gets too mouthy. When he slaps her, it’s in front of other members of the family who do nothing about this abuse. In one scene, Ba Sang says that Ánh deserves to be slapped for “running her mouth.”

As annoying as Ánh can be, no one deserves to have this type of abuse inflicted on them. Ánh isn’t even the most troublemaking member of the family. Ne’er-do-well drunkard Út Quý is the family’s biggest problem, but his destructive behavior is excused, with the implication being that because he’s a man, he’s allowed to get away with it. There’s a scene where Út Quý literally destroys a birthday party for his brother Bình Lợi, but Út Quý faces no real consequences.

In addition to the movie’s over-the-top acting, “Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry)” falters by trying to cram in too much melodrama, which results in some of the more pivotal scenes being rushed. And many of the scenes that are intended to be comedic are just irritating, unless you consider it amusing to see a bunch of actors portraying family members who act like feuding chickens.

Some of the direction is downright sloppy. There’s a scene where the family has gathered inside an apartment, and the family member who owns the apartment goes inside a bedroom, and is surprised to see an estranged member of the family in the room. How did that person get in that room without anyone else knowing, when there’s only one door for the apartment? It’s never explained.

“Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry)” isn’t a terrible film, since it has some touching moments that are meant to be a sentimental message about how people should not take family members for granted. It takes this 128-minute movie a long time to get to that message toward the end of the film. Just be prepared to sit through a lot of tiresome human squawking along the way.

3388 Films released “Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry)” in U.S. cinemas on May 28, 2021. The movie was released in Vietnam on March 12, 2021.

Review: ‘Da 5 Bloods,’ starring Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman and Mélanie Thierry

June 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters and Jonathan Majors in “Da 5 Bloods” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Da 5 Bloods”

Directed by Spike Lee

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in Vietnam, the drama “Da 5 Bloods” has a racially diverse cast (African American, Asian and white) portraying the middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Four African American men who are Vietnam War veterans return to Vietnam with one of the men’s sons to find a hidden stash of gold bars, and they confront issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), loyalty, greed and the cultural wounds left by the war.

Culture Audience: “Da 5 Bloods” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted dramas about friendships bound by trauma, but sensitive viewers might be disturbed by the film’s significant level of bloody violence.

Johnny Trí Nguyên, Clarke Peters and Delroy Lindo in “Da 5 Bloods” (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

Spike Lee’s sprawling epic drama “Da 5 Bloods” takes viewers on a thrilling, heartbreaking and absorbing ride that will reel you in, shake you up, and leave you feeling uplifted and solemn at the same time by the end of the movie. Simply put: “Da 5 Bloods” is one of writer/director Lee’s best films of the 21st century. Delroy Lindo gives a masterful performance that will stay with people long after watching “Da 5 Bloods.”

The plot to “Da 5 Bloods” is pretty simple, but there are many complexities that weave the story together. It’s the type of movie that people might feel compelled to see more than once to revisit all the story’s layers. The movie clocks in at 155 minutes (or two hours and 35 minutes), but every minute is worth it.

In “Da 5 Bloods,” four African American men who were Army buddies in the Vietnam War return to Vietnam to find the hidden treasure they left behind back in 1971—a safe filled with gold bars that they were entrusted to deliver on behalf of the U.S. government but the pals decided to keep the gold for themselves. The safe got lost in a plane crash and a mudslide, but there’s a chance that they could find the gold again.

The four men are Paul (played by Lindo), a politically conservative curmudgeon who’s suffering from PTSD and refuses to get treatment for it; Otis (played by Clarke Peters), a friendly medic who has a possible addiction to Oxycontin pills; Melvin (played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a fun-loving jokester who’s married but has an eye for other women; and Eddie (played by Norm Lewis), a well-to-do businessman who’s made his money through several car dealerships.

All four men are haunted by the Vietnam War death of their squad leader Stormin’ Norman (played by Chadwick Boseman, who appears in the movie’s flashback scenes), who was the fifth member of their group and the one who inspired them the most. The five men called themselves Da 5 Bloods. The surviving members all say that they have dreams about Stormin’ Norman, who died a hero in the plane crash. The four surviving members of the group are hoping to find the remains of Stormin’ Norman, so that he can get a proper burial.

Soon after they arrive at their hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, it’s clear that Paul is the most emotionally volatile one of the group. He makes racist and dismissive comments about the local Vietnamese people, and he has a quick temper. While having dinner at the hotel, a boy with one leg wanders in and goes over to their table to beg for money. Paul tries to shoo the boy away, but Otis compassionately gives $20 to the boy.

Paul, who is a unabashed supporter of Donald Trump, gripes: “It’s time we got those freeloading immigrants off of our backs and build that wall.” Otis, Eddie and Melvin don’t like Trump at all, but their political differences with Paul don’t drive a wedge between the four friends. Paul likes to wears a red Make America Great Again baseball cap (which was the Trump campaign’s signature apparel item for the 2016 U.S. presidential election), and that cap is used as a metaphor in different parts of the story.

After the four friends spend the night partying at a nightclub and drinking at a bar, Paul goes back to his hotel room to find a surprise: His son David (played by Jonathan Majors), an African American studies teacher, has unexpectedly shown up, and Paul is furious about it. Paul makes it clear that not only does he not want David there, but he also doesn’t want David in his life at all.

“You ain’t been nothing but an anchor around my neck since the day you were born,” Paul cruelly tells David. Why does Paul dislike David so much? That answer is revealed later in the movie. Majors gives an outstanding performance as David, who is desperate for his father’s love but is trying to hold on to his masculine dignity in seeking his dad’s love and approval.

Even though Paul doesn’t seem to want anything to do with his son, David isn’t going to leave. David tells Paul that he found out about the treasure hunt and that he wants to help. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that for David, this trip isn’t about finding the gold. It’s about trying to connect with his father, who goes out of his way to express his animosity toward David. This stressful father-son relationship is truly one of the most compelling aspects of “Da 5 Bloods,” and it will leave many viewers in tears during certain scenes.

Meanwhile, Otis has taken on the role of a surrogate father figure to David, as well as the group’s peacemaker when conflicts inevitably happen. Otis is also the one who leads the planning of the treasure hunt, since he has figured out the coordinates of where the plane might be, based on satellite photos.

Otis has enlisted the help of an ex-lover named Tiên (played by Lê Y Lan), a former prostitute who now works in international exports. Tiên has assisted Otis in arranging a meeting with one of her contacts: a shady businessman named Desroche (played by Jean Reno), who promises that he can give the treasure hunters a way to convert the gold to American funds without them getting caught. In exchange, Desroche will get a percentage of the money as his fee.

It’s a deal that has to be made on trust, because none of Da 5 Bloods knows Desroche personally, since he was recommended by Tiên. Paul is the most suspicious of Desroche, because he thinks it’s possible that Desroche will try to double-cross them and steal the money for himself. Paul also tells Otis that he doesn’t really trust Tiên either. During an argument with Otis, Paul also accuses Otis of the possibility that Otis and Tiên are secretly in cahoots with each other to steal the money.

And what about that gold treasure? A flashback scene shows when Da 5 Bloods decided to keep the gold, Stormin’ Norman made a pledge to donate the money to the Black Liberation movement: “We repossess this gold for every black boot that never made it home, for every brother and sister stolen from mother Africa to Jamestown, Virginia, way back in 1619.”

“Da 5 Bloods” makes an unusual and bold artistic move for the flashback scenes. Instead of having younger actors portraying the young Paul, Otis, Melvin and Eddie, the movie keeps the same actors for these roles in which they have to portray the characters as their younger selves. There are also no visual effects that de-age the actors in the flashback scenes. By not changing the physical age of the actors in the flashback scenes, it actually creates the sense that although they have physically aged when they remember this time in their lives, there’s a part of them that is still mentally trapped in their Vietnam War days.

But in the present day, the surviving members of the group have mixed feelings about that pledge. Paul is the one who unapologetically says that he wants to keep his share of the money for himself, while Eddie still wants to hold true to the promise that they made with Stormin’ Norman to donate the money toward causes that empower African Americans. The dilemma of greed versus philanthropy causes major friction with the characters during different parts of the story. If people want to read more into it, the gold and what to do with it are metaphors for the conflicting ideals of capitalism and socialism.

Before their big trip to the jungle, the five men spend some time in a restaurant/bar. While there, David meets a French woman named Hedy Bouvier (played by Mélanie Thierry), who works for nonprofit organization called Love Against Mines and Bombs (LAMB). As part of her job, she looks for old land mines and detonates them. Two of her co-workers—an American named Scott (played by Paul Walter Hauser) and a Finnish man named Seppo (played by Jasper Pääkkönen)—are also in the bar.

David and Hedy are immediately attracted to each other and they begin flirting and talking about their lives. Hedy says that she and Seppo “occasionally use each other for sex,” but she makes it clear that she’s single and available. And so is David.

For the treasure hunters’ trip to the jungle, they have a local guide named Vinh Tran (played by Johnny Trí Nguyên), who is easygoing and knowledgeable, but  Vinh isn’t told the real reason for the trip. During a boat ride, a middle-aged Vietnamese man tries to sell Paul a live chickens and refuses to take no for answer. Paul gets so angry that he begins yelling and threatening the man, who accuses Paul of killing his parents because African American men in Vietnam are assumed to be American military men.

The accusation triggers Paul into an emotional meltdown, where his PTSD is on full display. It’s during this breakdown that he confesses that his dreams about Stormin’ Norman are really nightmares. There are several scenes in “Da 5 Bloods” that are disturbing close-ups of Paul’s mental deterioration. And his relationship with estranged son David also takes viewers on an emotional roller coaster.

One of the striking technical aspects of “Da 5 Bloods” is how the flashback scenes are filmed by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. The scenes are shot as if they’re news film from the late 1960s/early 1970s, with 16mm and 4:3 aspect ratio. When the movie switches back to the present day, the scenes are in 2:40 aspect ratio before they go to the jungle. And for the scenes in the jungle, the film is in a 1:85 aspect ratio, to portray an environment which is wide open to the possibilities of the unknown.

It wouldn’t be a Spike Lee film without social commentary as part of the story. Lee and Kevin Willmott (who both won adapted screenplay Oscars for “BlacKkKlansman”) wrote “Da 5 Bloods” screenplay with Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo. The movie has plenty to say about race relations, colonialism and civil rights, not just in the United States but also in Vietnam.

“Da 5 Bloods” also makes blistering observations about how the Vietnam War was the first American war fought with a fully racially integrated military, which meant that more African Americans were on the front lines to die, compared to previous American wars. And although Vietnam War veterans of all races experienced divisive and painful reactions when they returned home, African American veterans had the added burden of racism in trying to adjust back to civilian society.

Throughout the film, there are snippets of African American history lessons to put much of the movie’s story in context. The beginning of the film opens with a montage of archival footage of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Angela Davis and Bobby Seale talking about the Vietnam War and/or the American government. And there’s mention of war hero Milton Olive III (who died in 1965 at the age of 18),  the first African American man to be award the Medal of Honor for the Vietnam War.

Lee’s best movies are known for their memorable soundtracks. “Da 5 Bloods” is no exception. Marvin Gaye’s classic 1971 album “What’s Going On” is prominently featured. And so is the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today,” which seems to be a staple in movies that have themes of African American empowerment, just like the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” seems to be in a lot of mobster movies. Music composer Terence Blanchard, a longtime collaborator of Lee’s, once again does a great score that enhances the essence of each scene.

“Da 5 Bloods” also includes striking and often brutal archival photos and videos to show the horrors and controversies of the Vietnam War, such as the American protests against the war; combat footage; and disturbing photos of people being murdered and children’s bloody corpses. The last half of the film, which primarily takes place in the jungle, is especially gruesome with gun shootouts and other bloody mayhem.

However, whatever violence is in the film is a manifestation of the emotional horrors the characters feel in trying to face personal demons. That psychological turmoil is the biggest gut-punch in “Da 5 Bloods.” People can try to avoid bullets and bombs, but they can’t run away from themselves.

Netflix premiered “Da 5 Bloods” on June 12, 2020.

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Mai Khoi & the Dissidents’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Mai Khoi
Mai Khoi in “Mai Khoi & the Dissidents”

“Mai Khoi & the Dissidents”

Directed by Joe Piscatella

Vietnamese with subtitles

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 13, 2019.

There have been many pop stars who have changed their safe, politically neutral images to making music that’s edgy or politically controversial. But what if a pop star does that and is then persecuted by the government? That’s what Vietnamese singer Mai Khoi has experienced, according to this compelling film that clocks in at a brisk 70 minutes. This documentary chronicles her ongoing struggles in fighting that persecution and for her rights to freedom of expression.

She first became famous in Vietnam for doing fluffy, inoffensive pop songs. In 2010, Vietnam Television awarded her the prizes of Album of the Year and Song of the Year (for “Viet Nam”). But, as she says in the documentary about her former life as a pop star: “I felt comfortable having a lot of money, but I felt something missing inside me.” Her Australian husband, Ben Swanton, a fellow left-wing social activist whom she married in 2013, says: “She caused a major national scandal when she said that she didn’t want to get married and have children.”

She caused another scandal with her song “Selfie Orgasm,” which essentially dropped the final bomb in her “safe” pop-star image. Khoi says that the song was a social commentary on narcissism, but it was eventually banned by Zing, which is the Vietnamese version of YouTube. By then, a political fire had been began to roar inside her, and she ran for political office as an independent, for a seat in the National Assembly of Vietnam. However, the Vietnamese government, specifically the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, made sure that her name was left off of the ballot.

Khoi’s 2016 meeting with then-U.S. president Barack Obama when he visited Vietnam made her even more of an enemy to the Vietnamese government, she says in the movie. In March 2016, the police raided her concert in Saigon, and she’s been banned from performing in Vietnam. But in one scene in the movie, she does a secret show anyway, and braces herself for the consequences. Viewers see in the film that the government’s reaction is swift and severe: In retaliation for Khoi doing the secret show, the government forced her landlord to evict her. One of the people interviewed in the documentary is Nguyen Qui Duc, also known as radical blogger Anh Chi, who says he’s also been harassed by the Vietnamese government for speaking out against the government.

The movie also shows her botched attempt to hang a banner saying “Keep the Internet Free” from the Long Biên Bridge in Hanoi. She dropped the banner into the Red River after only five minutes, out of fear of being arrested. However, that experience perhaps emboldened her to do an even more daring protest publicity stunt.

The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president added more fuel to her fire. In 2017, when Trump visited Vietnam for the first time as U.S. president, she made headlines around the world for holding a banner up as his motorcade passed by on the streets of Hanoi. The banner said, “Piss on you Trump,” with “iss” crossed out to read “Peace on You Trump.” She was quickly visited by the police, who harassed her. Some of the harassment was caught on camera, but the police eventually forced the cameraperson to stop filming. Despite the police attempting to silence Khoi, her protest achieved its goal of international attention, since video of Khoi holding up the banner became a viral sensation.

A great deal of the movie also documents the recording of Khoi’s first album with her all-male band the Dissidents, whose members all have left-leaning political beliefs, but some of them express a certain trepidation about how being in the band will make them targets of harassment from the government. The musicianship  isn’t particuarly impressive, but the album isn’t about crafting catchy pop songs, and the song lyrics clearly mean more to the band than the music.

It’s not a spoiler to say the “Mai Khoi & the Dissidents” album was released in 2017. The album, which was picked up by a Norwegian record company to be released in Norway, became only the second album from a Vietnamese artist to be released outside of Vietnam, according to the documentary. Khoi also received the Human Rights Award from the Oslo Freedom Forum, but the Vietnam government censored this news in the BBC report that was televised in Vietnam.

As a documentary, “Mai Khoi & the Dissidents” is at its most riveting when it conveys the fear and tension after Khoi does something to agitate the Vietnam government. It leaves viewers wondering what’s going to happen next, and what kind of harassment Khoi will experience. What’s less interesting is footage of Khoi and her bandmates in the recording studio, because the musicianship is, frankly, mediocre.

There’s a poignant scene at the end of the film when Khoi seriously contemplates moving from Vietnam to Australia, even though she would be leaving her entire biological family behind. You’ll have to see the movie to find out what she decided in her dilemma to leave Vietnam or stay. The biggest downside to this movie is that in the unpredictable world of a firebrand like Mai Khoi, she’ll inevitably make headlines again for bold and risk-taking activism, and this documentary will then be rendered very outdated.

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