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Vietnam’s Record-Smashing Rom-Com ‘Mai’ is a Perplexing Watch

Trấn Thành's newest film is the highest grossing Vietnamese movie of all time—maybe because it offers quite literally something for everyone

In 2019, the superhero smash-hit Avengers: Endgame became the highest grossing film in Vietnam, but that record has since been broken three times over, all by one filmmaker: Trấn Thành. After comedy-dramas Bố già (Dad, I'm Sorry) in 2021 and Nhà bà Nu (The House of No Man) in 2023 Trấn's latest—the zany, often confounding rom-com-melodrama Mai—has nearly doubled Endgame's box-office take, raking in over 550 billion đồng (about $22 million U.S.) The film, which released domestically in February, is now playing in North America and Europe, where it's taken in a further $2 million. 

With over 6.5 million tickets sold in Vietnam, Mai is one of the most popular movies the country has ever produced—so popular that in Ho Chi Minh, police had to inspect people's ages mid-movie because of how many underage viewers had been attending the 18+ rated film. Its story follows Mai (Phuong Anh Dao), a single mother and hardworking masseuse who falls for her younger playboy neighbor, Duong (Tuan Tran), a born-rich vagrant who wanders through life while sleeping with attractive women.

On its surface, Mai features a little bit of everything, from operatic drama, to sensual romance, to slapstick fart comedy—it hits practically every target demographic and then some—and it even turns into a horror movie for a scene or two. Unfortunately, these tonal oscillations are often extremely jarring, and involve Trấn taking wild stylistic swings he can't quite modulate or reconcile. The film has tremendous energy and the camera never seems to stop moving, but it's indiscriminate in its stylistic approach; every artistic decision is built for maximum impact, though what that impact is meant to be shifts wildly between scenes (sometimes, between shots in the same scene), resulting in tonal whiplash. 

It's occasionally amusing, but for a film to be this stylistically malleable, its characters need to be paper thin, allowing them to adapt to practically any situation or aesthetic approach. Mai, who's trying to escape a mysterious past, has a heart of gold and does nothing wrong. She cares for her quiet lesbian daughter Binh Minh (Uyen An) and her gambling addict father, Mr. Hoang (Trấn himself)—three generations whose actors are separated by just 6 years each—and she shoulders the rampant abuse and harassment of her neighbors with a smile. Duong, who crosses paths with Mai at their building and ends up one of her clients at a massage parlor, is framed similarly: as a charming do-gooder who just needs to figure his life out, but this too ends up a reason to scratch one's chin in confusion. He doesn't seem to have much of a personality, or even a job, so when a villainous character tries to break them up, you can't help but agree with this objective.

Plus, Duong's advances towards Mai aren't so much romantic as they are uncomfortably creepy. They verge on workplace sexual harassment, which she playfully rebuffs, and eventually give into, making her read less like a real or complex individual, and more like retrograde male fantasy. This isn't even the only major disconnect between what the movie says and what it presents on screen. Notably, Mai and Duong's age difference isn't all that much—she's 37 and he's 30—but the film frames it as a generational gap that makes their being together impossible, drumming up romantic drama where it doesn't feel like there ought to be any.  

These are the movie's ostensible heroes, while nearly every other character who appears is cartoonishly evil to the point of being unpleasant to watch. The whole world seems out to get Mai, from a needlessly nasty coworker who accosts her verbally and physically (and whose arrival is marked by Trấn's sincere use of horror lighting and music cues), to a male neighbor who tries to assault Mai in her home, a scene which Trấn inexplicably shoots from his point of view. Any frame or shot in isolation is pretty to look at, but the moment you consider the basic meaning or context of a given scene, Mai becomes a baffling experience. Verbal and visual information are seldom communicated with clarity, to the point that both jokes and dramatic moments are lost between the movie’s folds. It feels, at times, like an alien's re-creation of what they've heard a human film is like. By the time you wrap your head around some of its thundering, out-of-left field reveals, the film has already doubled back and inadvertently clarified that something else was happening all along. (One mid-movie revelation, played like a major plot twist, turns out not to have been a twist at all).

It's the kind of film that throws everything at the wall, though little of it sticks. The tonal oscillations it employs aren't impossible to manage (mainstream Indian filmmakers, and even Hollywood directors like Paul Verhoeven and Spike Lee, have mastered this art), but it takes a basic amount of cinematic control to be able to tell a story in this fashion. Where Mai ought to wrap its numerous visual influences and dissonant approaches into something coherent and fun, it ends up swerving in dizzying ways, switching from one idea to the next almost at random, and introducing new plot points that are quickly dropped, over and over again, for most of its 131-minute runtime.  

But if there's one thing that truly works about Mai—arguably a reason it's struck a chord, regardless of its narrative chaos—it's that each performer is completely committed to these tonal extremes. They approach every comedic, dramatic and even horror note with the utmost sincerity, and dive headfirst into material that needs to be played at 9 out of 10 on the soap opera scale at all times, so that when required, they can burst into tears and turn it up to 11.

The film also tries to gesture in the direction of feminist thought and queer positivity, but hits numerous hurdles. Though it attempts to lambast victim-blaming, its depiction of assault is sloppy and slapstick; the subject is too serious for a movie this unfocused. The dialogue makes a show of mentioning Binh Minh’s sexuality, a step forward for nominal representation—the movie often touted as “Vietnam’s first gay film,” Lost in Paradise, was released only 13 years ago—but Mai gives her little by way of depth or personality. It's progressive the way Barbie is progressive, in broad and digestible strokes, with verbose statements about women standing up for themselves in the face of misogynistic abuse (even though the abusive environments in the film are almost entirely female spaces). That its actors brim with emotion in each scene gives it enough of an appearance of soul, to the point that its success isn't really surprising. But with the amount of ambition Trấn clearly displays, with the way he moves his camera and apes the techniques of better filmmakers, one would think he has the cinematic gusto to craft a dramatic rom-com whose drama, romance and comedy are at all convincing or relatable—rather than a jumbled mess where each decision feels like it was made impulsively.

Published on April 5, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter