After attracting crowds and earning awards in Vietnam, Victor Vu’s “Passport to Love” is poised to please those offshore ticketbuyers — especially Vietnamese emigrants and their offspring — with a taste for undemanding yet diverting romantic dramedy. The lead thesps try a bit too hard at first while emphasizing funny business, and the script, co-written by helmer Vu and scripter Nguyen Hoang Nguyen, wins few points for originality. Overall, however, this polished production is likable enough, and could generate just enough favorable word of mouth to ensure respectable returns during limited theatrical runs in Stateside markets.
The plot pivots on life lessons learned by two Saigon buddies when they go off to college in Orange County. Khang (Binh Minh), the breezily hedonistic son of a wealthy businessman, changes his wastrel ways after he falls for Tiffany (Kathy Uyen), a dedicated cop and devoted single mom. Hieu (Huy Khanh), a studious straight arrow, pledges fidelity to Thao (Tang Bao Quyen), his beautiful schoolteacher sweetheart back home. But he’s unable to resist the alluring come-on of Jennifer (Ngoc Diep), a sexy scatterbrain who’s improbably smitten with him.
“Passport to Love” is mostly featherweight fluff, but Vu — the Los Angeles-born son of Vietnamese emigres — manages to slip in a few intriguing observations about cultural and political identity.
Hieu drifts into Jennifer’s orbit only because her parents, longtime friends of his family, want their thoroughly Westernized daughter to learn how to speak fluent Vietnamese. (They’re not traditionalists — they want her to master the language to compete in Asian-centric beauty contests.) No one here ever refers to Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City. And a single indirect reference to communist doctrine is played as a wry joke.
Khanh, Diep and (especially) Minh are too eager to please, and much too prone to mugging, in early scenes. But as “Passport to Love” subtly shifts the balance from broad humor to heartfelt emotion, the performances across the board grow increasingly effective and affecting. Finale is surprisingly bittersweet, suggesting that, even in a pic as frothy as this, a happy ending is something a character has to earn.