Vietnamese comedian turns box office hitmaker

By Mai Nhat   February 22, 2023 | 06:03 am PT
Comedian Tran Thanh was once a student expelled from university, but now he’s a successful film producer with the two highest-grossing Vietnamese movies of all time.

After 23 days in cinemas, "Nha Ba Nu" (The House of No Man) has grossed over VND421.2 billion ($17.86 million), surpassing "Bo Gia" (Dad, I’m Sorry)'s VND420 billion as the highest-grossing Vietnamese movie of all time.

With no formal training in filmmaking, Tran Thanh accumulated experience from years of working in the cinema industry. In 2005, he was accepted to the Ho Chi Minh City Academy of Theatre and Cinema. He said that when he went to university, his family was in a tough financial situation due to a failed business, and their only asset was an old motorbike.

His first opportunity came when his friends advised him to take part in the En Vang contest for upcoming MCs and event hosts. Thanks to his gift of gab, Thanh won third prize. The contest became a stepping stone on a path that led him to host many local shows and events.

Comedian, actor and filmmaker Tran Thanh at the premiere of Nha Ba Nu on January 22, 2023. Photo by Nam Nguyen

Comedian, actor and filmmaker Tran Thanh at the premiere of "Nha Ba Nu" on January 22, 2023. Photo by Nam Nguyen

While Thanh was busy hosting shows and making money during his second year of school, he got expelled for truancy and failing to pay tuition. Looking back now, Thanh says he’s never regretted it.

"Real-life experience helped me improve my ability to learn," he says.

From 2006 to the early 2010s, Thanh continuously appeared in films. Although he mainly played minor roles, he still attracted attention. His charisma and ability to improvise made him a popular choice for directors. He appeared in "Quy Tu Bat Dac Di" (The Fake Son), which was the most popular movie of the 2015 Lunar New Year (Tet) holiday. A year later, he scored the leading role in "Benh Vien Ma" (Ghost Hospital). During this period, Thanh was also on air regularly as the host of multiple TV shows.

But Thanh’s real rise to prominence at the local box office came when he starred in the romantic comedy "Cua Lai Vo Bau" (Win My Baby Back), a Tet movie in 2019. It became the all-time highest-grossing Vietnamese movie at that time, with VND191 billion in revenue.

After more than 10 years in the industry, Thanh began producing films and TV. For his first series, he invested VND4 billion of his own money in 2020’s web drama "Bo Gia" (Dad, I’m Sorry). The show was well-received and was a top trend on YouTube, with each episode garnering tens of millions of views.

Thanh did not stop there. He quickly wrote a movie version of "Bo Gia," with a separate storyline from the web drama. For his first time directing a film, Thanh invited Vu Ngoc Dang to be his co-director. Released in theaters after the social distancing period in March 2021, the movie became a blockbuster, earning VND400 billion in just a month.

Experts say Tran Thanh’s success comes from the fact that he hits a sweet spot for audiences of the family drama genre. In both of his movies, he focused on a story of generational conflict within families.

Director Charlie Nguyen says Thanh had him at the opening line of "Bo Gia": "When was the last time you took a picture with your father?"

Director Ly Minh Thang likes the way Tran Thanh captures the struggles of his audience, especially the working class who battle to make a living in the city.

Despite the box office success, Thanh’s movies still have artistic limitations, according to some.

Director Bui Thac Chuyen says that "Nha Ba Nu" lacks panoramic shots and focuses on close-ups, so the movie suffers from "stuffiness" due to the lack of space on screen.

"The movie also lacks moments of silence after the main events, for the audience to digest what just happened, so it is easy to view the movie as noisy," Chuyen says.

Tran Thanh (R) reviews a scene of Nha Ba Nu on camera with actor Song Luan. Photo by Nam Nguyen

Tran Thanh (R) reviews a scene of "Nha Ba Nu" on camera with actor Song Luan. Photo by Nam Nguyen

When "Nha Ba Nu" premiered, the movie was said to be too heavy because the characters constantly criticized each other. But Thanh explains that those details were inspired by personal experiences from his childhood growing up in poverty.

"All I did was recreate life properly, there are still many stories out there that have not been recorded on camera," Thanh says.

Colleagues say Thanh is extremely strict on set. Actor Le Giang says Thanh asked her to stop improvising and told her to say each line correctly as it was written in the script.

Thanh says that he didn’t want the film to make basic mistakes and get criticized too easily by viewers. He says Vietnamese filmmakers often sympathize and overlook each other's shortcomings, so when their movies hit the theaters, viewers are often skeptical about the quality and don’t want to watch them. After that, the only way to rescue a movie is through promotion.

"If the movie is good, there’s no need for a rescue," he says.

At the age of 36, Thanh does not hide his ambition of bringing Vietnamese movies to the world. He says he wishes to produce something like the South Korean blockbuster series Squid Game, which went viral worldwide last year. After "Nha Ba Nu," Thanh is now working on "Mai," a dramedy with a budget of VND30 billion, of which his own money accounts for 80% of the film’s investment.

"As long as the next movie is appreciated more than the previous one, it is a success for me," Thanh concludes.

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