'Jackpot' ('Trung So'): Film Review
Vietnam’s entry to the foreign language Oscar race revolves around a struggling lottery ticket vendor and a motley crew of odd smalltown types around her.
Having made his debut as a helmer in 2013 with the high-octane action film Once Upon A Time in Vietnam, martial arts expert and 21 Jump Street alumnus Dustin Nguyen’s second directorial outing is a surprising leap into low-budget, rural-set comedy drama territory. Revolving around a group of characters whose lives are transformed by Vietnam’s state-run lottery — with the central character being a vendor who managed to sell off not one but two winning tickets within a very short period of time — Jackpot is a straightforward moral tale about how money doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness. The film has somehow hit the spot with both Vietnamese audiences and film officials, who have enlisted it as the country’s flag-bearer in the race for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
But this middling mainstream mix of simplistic satire and tear-jerking family melodrama might be a tougher sell beyond its domestic shores, and its appearance as a competition title at the Asian World Cinema Film Festival might prove to be the high-point of its overseas travels. Just like Once Upon A Time in Vietnam — for which Nguyen wrote the screenplay himself — the Nguyen Manh Tuan-penned Jackpot is disjointed in both its storytelling and stylistic rigor. Still, having now proved his versatility and his ability to engage Vietnamese audiences, Nguyen — who moved to the US in his early teens — has now certainly consolidated his standing as Vietnam’s top A-lister, and a one-man machine honing the development of genre cinema in the country.
Jackpot begins with a solemn candlelight conversation about the need to make different but moral choices in life, a scene seemingly signposting a serious, arthouse drama to follow. But in a move which would be repeated frequently later on, the film leaps off into another tone, as each of the film’s characters are introduced with a short gag of a scene and then a cartoon and a one-liner about their personality traits. Among the main players on this comical, provincial stage is the "sweet but naive" lottery ticket hawker Thom (Ninh Duong Lan Ngoc); the "convicted bullshitter" Tu Phi (Chi Tai), a middle-aged con-man freshly released from prison; and the jackpot addict and "dreamer" Nghia (played by the director himself) and his more earthly wife Chin Cuc (Thu Trang).
This manic, cartoonish energy keeps the first half of the film going, as Tuan’s script packs in as many off-tangent gags as possible to evoke continuous mirth. Phi continues his con-man antics by repeating his spiels about being "framed" for his anti-graft work as the "mayor of Saigon," and is chased off by estranged family and friends in return; Thom makes a near-slapstick escape from the grasp of a lewd bigshot in town; Nghia, meanwhile, gets to joke about sex, fake condoms and playing the officially-run lottery as a "patriotic" gesture.
While offering merely scattergun humor, these scenes remain more dynamic than the film’s second half when the story proper begins, as Phi’s fortunes change for the better and Thom’s for the worse. Strangely, the premise which inspired the film in the first place — that is, the real-life story about a ticket vendor who gave up a winning stub to a customer to whom she has promised to sell the ticket to — was given very short shrift towards the end. A mish-mash of generic tropes, Jackpot is a potlach of crowd-pleasing and heartstring-tucking scenarios, as Tuan’s screenplay repeatedly jabs at the pettiness of provincials, the parvenu and the poor alike. As the film offers ceaseless morsels of easily digestible comedy, the many opportunities to reflect on greed and graft are lost.
Opens: Feb. 13 (Vietnam); Oct. 28 (Asian World Film Festival, Los Angeles)
Production companies: Dreamscape DBS in a co-presentation with Chi Tai Brothers, Anh Sao Productions, PS Vietnam, Tiep Thi and Gia Dinh
Cast: Ninh Duong Lan Ngoc, Chi Tai, Dustin Nguyen, Thu Trang, Kim Xuan
Director: Dustin Nguyen
Screenwriter: Nguyen Manh Tuan
Producer: Bebe Pham
Director of photography: Dominique Pereira
Editor: Tran Quoc Bao
Music: Kantana Vietnam
International Sales: Dreamscape DBS
No rating; 95 minutes