“NOISY household,” “MESSY family,” “CRAPPY neighborhood” — these are the title cards in the latest trailer for Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry, which in Vietnamese would look more like “Ba, Con Xin Lỗi”), and they seem to promise an unruly time. Think Happy Madison picture, but one made in Vietnam. It is from Trấn Thành and company’s trust — and pride — in unruliness that the film’s pros and cons surface, and unfortunately there is more of the latter than the former.
Bố Già is an entity of numbers. In 2020, the multi-hyphenate Thành debuted his bố già (lit. old father, can also be slang for godfather in the Scorsese sense) persona in a five-part, nine-figure-viewcount web drama. For the feature film, the bố già is revised so that he can accommodate new and more, well, drama — some stemming from his two children, Youtuber and K-pop boy-adjacent son Quắn (Tuấn Trần, also in the web drama; the subtitles from the start address him by his YouTube name “Woan”) plus the adopted and way-too-wise daughter Bù Tọt (Ngân Chi), and some from key residents of the alley, all of whom are family quite like the real deal in Vietnam. When put in birth order, the matriarch Giàu (Ngọc Giàu, also in the web drama), our modest lead Sang, wife-fearing cơm tấm seller Phú (Hoàng Phú) and rabid drunkard Quý (La Thành) make up the culturally desirable quartet of “wealth, luxe, privilege and respect” — though none of them are exactly that. Thành, who co-writes the script as well as co-directs, co-edits and co-composes, has put some thought behind this ensemble and it shows; every member has vibes, relationships and stories that, while distinct, can invade one another in a flash. Because of that, happenings of the funny, tragic, moral and educational kinds in Bố Già are abundant and would appear frequently, providing a lot of momentum to make the lengthy runtime of 2 hours and 8 minutes negligible.
Thing is, crowding isn’t always a blessing. While Thành and his team’s style of writing offers comedy and tragedy leagues above those in the past, using alliterations, rhymes, double entendres, reversals, varying paces and the like — similar to Kim’s Convenience, its regularity offers sitcom patchiness. If not, obvious signs of hoarding and padding. Even on a piece-by-piece basis, there are more misses than hits, no matter how on point an actor’s delivery or expression is — and this is unfortunately true for the witty tailor Lệ (Lê Giang, also in the web drama), a particular highlight, who crushes hard on Sang. Many other supporting characters can take up more of the plot than necessary and their absences would cause no damage at all; right now they are there so another gag, another clash, another aggressive tear-jerker, another lesson or a repeat of said lesson gets filmed. Thành and Vũ Ngọc Đãng’s direction is speedy but isn’t concise or careful, they seem to be willing to abandon the core father-son element, the film’s essence, to herald and then hammer home a hee-hee, a boo-hoo or a loveya-dad. Perhaps for an upcoming trailer, and there should be one since Thành and company are taking Bố Già abroad — most recently the U.S. and Australia — the film should include these title cards: “You will CRY,” “and LAUGH,” “and HUG your DAD.” We’re more inclined to think it’s tiring rather than agree.
The flip side of having so many overt moods and more-overt purposes is there is more of Diệp Thế Vinh’s excellent photography and Nguyễn Trịnh Hoan’s daring production design to enjoy. Bố Già is a surprisingly cinematic play; there are impressive long takes that test our performers (all of whom are game for these, including the kid Tủn (Bảo Phúc) in the introductory one-take reportedly costing 1 billion VND or $43,000 to make) and parts where the alleyway is waterlogged (either from the monsoon rain or for a wild livestream from Quắn).
But if you are to ask the people contributing to Bố Già’s massive intake — per the crew, it’s currently 420 billion VND, or $18 million, which is impressive considering COVID moved the film from its original Lunar New Year rollout — most of them will likely not name Vinh or Hoan as the reason they show up. They’ll say Trấn Thành. His comedy. His hand at a more dramatic-leaning role. His presence, but cinema-sized. Or perhaps something simpler, like entertainment that won’t “tax the brain” (as my YouTube-reliant relatives would say of Thành’s other shows and videos). Much like Ba Sang, Thành and crew will give and give and give, clearly labeling whether what’s given is happiness, sadness or virtue. More of what the people want isn’t exactly more of what the film wants, however.
(Writer’s note: The provided cut of Bố Già is English-subtitled. It might be due to tired hands (come on, the film is 128 minutes!) that spelling and translation quality dip the closer the film gets to the end. But A1 for effort.)
Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry) is available in US theatres from May 28, 2021