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.