A big-hearted, deeply traditional Vietnamese father juggles the wants, needs and occasional indignities of his dysfunctional extended family in actor and comedian Tran Thanh’s “Dad, I’m Sorry.” This comedy drama currently stands as Vietnam’s highest grossing movie of all-time (beating “Avengers: Endgame”), so it’s no surprise it’s the country’s 2022 Oscar international feature submission. Tran, who co-wrote the script, tries hard to provide a multi-layered picture of domestic Vietnamese life and he’s especially concerned with the cultural shifts that have widened the generation gap between older Vietnamese patriarchs and their digital-native charges. But his film swings from histrionic melodrama to broad comedy with such abandon that his concerns and insights are given little opportunity to sink in.
“Dad, I’m Sorry” is based on Tran’s hugely popular five-episode web series. Here, the actor, comedian and former judge on “Vietnam’s Got Talent” toplines as Ba Sang, a middle-aged, debt-ridden, single father who lives in a dilapidated home in a Saigon alley with his son Woan (Tuan Tran) and 6-year-old daughter Bu Tot (Ngan Chi). The alley is also populated by a sprawling array of other characters, many of whom are Sang’s relatives. These include his older sister Giau (Ngoc Giau) and his two brothers, the henpecked Phu (Hoang Meo) and drunken party crasher Quy (La Thanh), who is in debt to local thugs. If the residents have anything else in common it’s their propensity to complain and the sheer tonnage of vituperative dialogue spewed at Sang by various children, siblings and in-laws becomes as tiresome to him as it can for audiences.
Because the story flies in more than directions than a holiday fireworks display, it can’t fully service the needs of all these characters. Worse, it suffocates the film’s promising central relationship between Sang and Woan, robbing the viewer of a unique and illuminating assessment of modern Vietnamese intergenerational dynamics. Sang is part of an older crop of parents taught to sacrifice for their family even if it means paying their debts and being seen by others as a doormat. The twentysomething Woan wants money and fame as a YouTuber, which neither Sang nor his family consider a real job. This dynamic plays out early on when a clueless but well-meaning Sang cleans Woan’s distressed Gucci sneakers and mends his stylishly ripped Dsquared2 jeans. Meanwhile, Woan earns his father’s scorn after filling his bedroom with water for his latest viral video causing the alley to flood for no less than 35 supposedly-comical seconds.
But overkill is the operative word throughout “Dad, I’m Sorry,” especially during the second half when the story takes multiple tear-jerking turns including Sang’s sudden need for a kidney transplant. Woan offers up his kidney despite the credibility-stretching double whammy of wearing a pacemaker and being a hemophiliac, while Quy’s generous donation assumes he can avoid the knife-wielding goons who want their loan repaid. If that’s not enough, Woan’s ex-girlfriend returns after a years-long absence with a plan to manufacture a scandal involving the young YouTuber that’ll launch her acting career.
Co-directors Tran and Vu Ngoc Dang deliver a good amount of local color, and they occasionally give us a breather from the hyperactive goings-on with a well-executed “oner,” including the shot where Woan and Sang discuss the paternity of a major character. Otherwise, too often the most reasonable family discussions, let alone the emotional breakdowns and dramatic reversals, are pitched at exaggerated levels. The hard-working, heavy-handed score, which Tran composed with Ngo Minh Hoang, switches from sitcom-style pleasantries to heavy dramatic thunder within seconds, as the performers push things to the edge whether the moment calls for laughter or tears. That includes the thirtysomething Tran who vaguely passes for a middle-aged man with his dyed gray hair and dodgy gray mustache. Of the leads, credit the tall and lanky Tuan with best managing to steer his performance toward the neighborhood of recognizable human behavior.
For Americans, the major disappointment in “Dad, I’m Sorry” is that the soap opera-level plot machinations, wild tonal shifts and ceaseless bickering deny foreigners a proper introduction to the life of a contemporary working-class Vietnamese family. While Tran has no obligation to tailor the action to audiences outside Vietnam, especially since the film is resonating just fine on its home turf, his comments on Vietnam’s patriarchal system and how the younger generation is chafing against it get lost in the cacophony. Indeed, Tran could develop into an international voice worth listening to if he’d just stop screaming.