Low-brow comedy for high profits

By Kim Nga, Thanh Nien News

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Despite being a commercial smash, Vietnam’s first road comedy ‘Teo Em’ gets flak for its cheap thrills
 

Renowned Viet Kieu director Charlie Nguyen pairs action star Johnny Tri Nguyen (R) with comedian Thai Hoa (L) for his new comedy road film ‘Teo Em.’ Despite mixed critical reviews, the film has earned VND15 billion (US$712,000) at the box office

Renowned Viet Kieu director Charlie Nguyen’s new blockbuster pairs handsome workaholic Ti (Johnny Tri Nguyen) with his clumsy adopted brother Teo (Thai Hoa) for a road trip from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to the Mekong Delta’s idyllic old town of Sa Dec.

The odd couple encounters an array of disasters on the way to propose Ti’s lover, Minh (Ninh Duong Lan Ngoc), who has broken up and gone back to her hometown to marry another man despite being two months pregnant with Ti’s child.

Teo forces Ti to hitchhike, all the while trying to manifest the brotherhood he’s craved for years. Teo’s antics – such as hiding his brother’s wallet to prevent him from buying a bus ticket, getting them purposefully lost to lengthen the journey, trying to make a car jump over a broken bridge, and even wrestling a crocodile – wear thin on Ti’s patience and hilarity ensues.

The fun is found in the bumps and friction as the duo escapes a series of increasingly hazardous mishaps along the way.

The film, inspired by road comedy films like “Due Date,” “Rain Man,” and “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” is not about taking the viewers from point A to point B but about how the characters evolve during the journey. Ti gets back his girl, who used to blame him for putting his job before family, in time and Teo garners Ti’s acceptance as his little brother. Teo also wins the affections of a hip and talkative young woman.

According to local newswire motthegioi.vn, the film earned VND15 billion at the domestic box office after three days in release, the highest-grossing opening of all time for a Vietnamese film.

But the critics are not impressed.

Despite some very big laughs and nice moments, ‘Teo Em’ has been criticized for its poor storyline, raunchy dialogue and illogical plot points and character traits.

Tuoi Tre newspaper film columnist Cat Khue said she had trouble suspending her disbelief when straight-laced Ti embarks on the journey with reckless abandon even before he knows his love is going to be married.

“The script has no climax and lets the characters speak unstoppably throughout the film. Johnny Tri Nguyen portrays an uptight and surly architect while Thai Hoa has to keep his silly appearance with trite tricks and pokes.”

Nguyen Minh wrote in The Thao Van Hoa newspaper that the story and journey are simply uninteresting and that the whole film rests on Thai Hoa’s comic abilities.

“Unfortunately, the silly, more precisely mentally-ill character [Teo played by Thai Hoa], was characterized nonsensically. When the trip finally ends, you realize that they really haven’t gone anywhere,” he said.

Thai Hoa, who has appeared in four of Charlie Nguyen’s films, is clearly the most popular part of the film.

“Hoa so brilliantly and naturally depicts a mentally-challenged man,” said photographer Le Thanh Tung. “But instead of creating awkward situations from his unusual mind, the film depicts him struggling to organize and arrange a normal plan. It seems that he is just pretending to be dotty and all is a con.”

Tung also said that he was frustrated with Johnny Tri Nguyen’s rigid portrayal of an uptight architect.

“He is an action star, not a comedic actor. And the biggest failure of the top-grossing down-market product is the illogical and unconvincing plot. I cannot feel the character’s coherent progression,” he said.

According to local critics, ‘Teo Em’ is below a talented director like Charlie Nguyen. Some say that the more he compromises to suit commercial pressures and superficial tastes, the more he loses the ‘brand’ he has built since the serious historical action blockbuster ‘Dong Mau Anh Hung’ (The Rebel) in 2007.

Both critics and movie lovers agree that the box office success of ‘Teo Em’ has been reliant on effective marketing and a fascinating trailer, which was screened for months before the film opened and spoils many of the best bits.

On the other hand, some local newspapers have backed the film with the viewpoint that it is the mainstream audience’s reaction that determines the value of mainstream entertainment.

Either way, we’re going to see a lot more of Ti and Teo as Charlie Nguyen has already revealed plans for a sequel. 

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