Thursday, July 02, 2015

New Vietnamese Cinema ’15: Jackpot

State lotteries are often called a tax on stupidity. Evidently they are quite a hard sell in Vietnam, but peddling them is the only work a naïve single mother can find. However, it seems like Thom’s tickets have an unusually high chance of winning. Naturally, that only leads to trouble in Dustin Nguyen’s Jackpot (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 edition of New Vietnamese Cinema at the Honolulu Museum of Art.

Thom is sweet as she can be, but she has a hard time providing for her young daughter. Her ex-husband is not totally out of the picture, but his new wife is definitely the jealous type. Fortunately, Tu Nghia will always buy a set of tickets when she most needs help (even though his sensible wife usually protests), while Ba Muoi provides day care on credit. The older woman’s conman husband Tu Phi has just been released from prison, but she is hardly thrilled to see him. Yet, Thom will broker a rapprochement between them. Soon, they settle in rather peacefully together. In fact, when she discovers she has purchased a big winner from Thom, she allows the old fast-talker to claim it as his own.

In retrospect, this will be a mistake. True to form, as soon as Tu Phi feels some money in his pockets, he starts making bad decisions and falling in with the wrong crowd. Frankly, a sudden windfall might make matters worse rather than better for all involved (not so subtle take-away warning). Yet, just as things look desperate for Thom and her extended family, providence might just provide again.

Vietnamese-American expat Nguyen will be recognizable to some for his TV work as a cast-member on 21 Jump Street and V.I.P., but he has since reinvented his career as Vietnam’s top box-office draw. Rather logically, in addition to directing, he also appears in Jackpot, as the rugged, salt-of-the-earth farmer, Tu Nghia. However, there is no question Ninh Duong Lan Ngoc outshines everyone and everything as the earnest Thom. There is something refreshing about her guilelessness and indomitably sunny disposition. However, as Tu Phi, the old reprobate, a little of Chi Tai’s shtick goes a long way. Similarly, the less said about Thom’s man-stealing rival, the better.

Jackpot definitely extolls the value of provincial village life and discourages capital accumulation, which surely pleased the current regime. Still, there is nothing inherently wrong with celebrating community and compassion. Despite his more action-oriented resume, Nguyen displays a light, skillful touch for comedic fare. As a result, American audiences will probably relate to it more easily than the broad, slapsticky Lost in Thailand franchise. Rather enjoyable in an old fashioned way, thanks in large measure to the radiant Ninh Duong, Jackpot is recommended for fans of light comedy when it screens this coming Sunday (7/5) and Tuesday (7/7), as part of New Vietnamese Cinema at the Honolulu Museum of Art, one of the country’s leading venues for Asian cinema.