Int’l Critics Line: Todd McCarthy On Vietnamese Box Office Sensation ‘Dad, I’m Sorry’

Todd is a veteran trade publication film critic, columnist and reporter who has also written several acclaimed books and documentary films. He served two stints on the staffs of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter and extensively covered film festivals internationally for both publications. 

How many Vietnamese films have you ever seen? Or even heard of? For a heavily populated country that was controlled during roughly the first half of the 20th century by one of the most cinematically advanced nations, France, it’s surprising that Vietnam has such a thin history where film is concerned. The only Vietnamese director to ever make much of mark internationally is Tran Anh Hung, who in the 1990s gained an art house reputation with such films as The Scent Of Green Papaya and Cyclo.

But now suddenly a new film has opened in the United States (via 3388 Films) that is being promoted as the number one Vietnamese box office champion of all time. On a budget of $1M, Dad, I’m Sorry (Bo Gia) has raked in over $17M in its native country since releasing on March 12. And, after two weekends dominating the U.S. specialty box office, it has now grossed $820K. The film played at 19 theaters in its first week, growing that to 38 in the second week and will expand to 45 this weekend.

The story originated in Vietnam as a five-episode web drama that drew some 90 million viewers and was the brainchild of Tran Thanh, a hugely popular comic actor and television host. Tran wrote the piece, co-directed with Vu Ngoc Dang, and also stars as a beleaguered middle-aged man who tries, and largely fails, to preside over a dysfunctional, exceptionally argumentative family in a poor area of Saigon, a city now marked by any number of skyscrapers. This is a disputatious comedy-drama with a thick sentimental streak.

If Tran rates a comparison to any American comedian, it might be to Rodney Dangerfield, not at all physically or in style, but by virtue of the fact that his character, named Ba Sang, is overwhelmingly beleaguered and bubbling over with complaints. Living with uncountable relations — whether they actually live there or not seems a moot point, as they’re always around — in a slum called the Alley that’s always brimming with activity, the ineffectual Ba is constantly on the receiving end of criticisms from his various relations, none of whom appears to be contributing much themselves.

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