Bố might be già, but he’s in his prime at the box office. In the U.S., the made-in-Vietnam comedy-drama Bố Già (lit. “Old Dad,” but it’s Dad, I’m Sorry in international markets) is a hit, breaching the $1 million mark on June 15. JumpCut Online has reviewed the film, which is about Ba Sang (Trấn Thành) and the many stories he’s at the centre of within a tight-knit alleyway in present-day Saigon.
Of course, with a milestone like this, everyone involved with the production is a happy camper. Two cases in point: Thien A. Pham, the film’s North American distributor at 3388 Films, and Thành, the lead actor. Even if only through emails, to alleviate the hurdles of different time zones, happiness could be felt behind every answer.
“We’re hearing stories of Vietnamese parents who have lived in the U.S. for three or four decades, yet never have stepped foot in a movie theater until this film,” Thien said, listing one of numerous ways Bố Già’s stateside presence since May 28 have produced “cultural shifts” and “powerful emotional moments.” Another notable one is the fact older audiences don’t require any translation from their children or younger relatives.
He added, “As a filmmaker myself, I don’t know if we can ask for anything more from a film.”
But in a way, Bố Già’s success abroad was already written. Locally, it garnered the VND equivalent of $18 million (and could have been way more had COVID not affected the original Tết release window when schools and offices closed!). Tickets sold out in Singapore and Malaysia. Showings in theatres of 11 states upon landing in the U.S. At the moment, Australia and Tasmania are rolling out the proverbial red carpet for it.
Thành, who also helms many roles behind the camera of the film, has only confidence presenting this father-son/among-siblings story in other markets — especially the U.S. where the Vietnamese diaspora is titanic. Per the producer’s notes, Bố Già is the result of boiling the 2019 web drama where Ba Sang debuted down to the essential elements and giving them a feature-worthy sheen.
He reveals his biggest hope is among those supporting the film are U.S.-born Vietnamese members of Gen Z.
“Before their parents came to America, this is what it was like,” he said, translated from Vietnamese. “If there was anything good in life then, they should hold on to them. As for anything that could use some improvement, they will come to realise maybe they should change for their children. Moreover, I hope other demographics will also check out the film if they like Asian cultures or Vietnam — so that they can have the clearest visualisations of today’s Saigon and that some stories in today’s Saigon unfold exactly like what’s seen here.”
Thien, too, has no doubt about the film’s quality, but in his role he must consider whether the pandemic can pose a challenge. That May 28 opening date had been chosen, but then reopening, with theatres in mind, was a go-ahead in some states or a guessing game in others — among the latter then was the Vietnamese-rich California.
Expectations had to be adjusted. The time came, the numbers rolled in. Tenth spot on Box Office Mojo’s domestic weekend table. Thien put to rest questions on if audiences are OK with returning to theaters, or if social-distancing protocols will hamper the box-office performance.
“Ultimately, it still goes back to the basics: give the audience a great film that they can connect with, and make sure to market really well so they know it’s playing in theaters,” he added. At the time Thien and Thành’s personal Facebook pages worked overtime to promote the film’s availability.
Now that the film is out, they have switched up the content into proof of Bố Già’s incredible intake.
Somewhat like parents imparting knowledge to their children, Thien said future Vietnam-made films can apply Bố Già’s ways to tackle their overseas dreams. For this film, he said it also entered cities not so well-known for their Vietnamese population like Wichita, Omaha, Louisville and Indianapolis, greatly expanding and showcasing its stateside presence.
“The caveat is no two films are the same,” he said. “Unlocking new markets is always exciting because we’re pushing boundaries and exposing more potential. However, when distributing a niche/specialty film like Vietnamese films, it’s critical to truly understand the market and audience, and not just use Bố Già as a cookie-cutter template.”
Thien also added that the film benefited from a much-needed, if not exactly common, “symbiotic relationship” of producers and studios who trust distributors, distributors who don’t mind taking risks and — most importantly — audiences ready to support the film wherever and however it’s available.
The latter is important, considering Bố Già isn’t the only title out in theatres or is viewable. May 28 meant it opened alongside new titles, like A Quiet Place Part II and Cruella, and solid holdovers, like Raya and the Last Dragon and Godzilla vs. Kong.
“Every time we play a film in theaters, we are competing directly with Hollywood studio films for screens and showtimes,” Thien said. “For our films to remotely have any chance, we have to work extra hard to gain exposure as it is all too common for small voices to get lost in the sea. But it can happen.”
And it has. Still is.
Bố Già (Dad, I’m Sorry) has been in US theatres since May 28, 2021. It recently expanded its theatre count to 47 across the country. Read our Full Review here.