If anyone is familiar with the phrase “Alla Famiglia” made famous from the movie “MOONSTRUCK”, this is its Vietnamese counterpart. It is all about family and trying to fit in.
Simply put, this is an entertaining, surprisingly well-acted, and a totally fun series to watch. Sure, some parts of it are corny, and there are some cringeworthy moments which I shall discuss later. It has sound effects that work for me, although they should not have. The laughter tracks and added noises, while I cannot really explain why, just makes this series more convivial. It is a sitcom with a distinctive Vietnamese flair, making it enjoyable.The story is about a family where the erstwhile son is returning to Vietnam from studying in the United States. However, he is bringing his ‘wife’. The mother is a stern, bitter, controlling individual; who had to raise her children by herself after her husband (described as her soulmate) left her for another woman when they were a young couple. Lastly, there is the sister who is unfocused, scattered, and sometimes dense but astute enough to see things as they are and is a great mediator. Her life has not been a bed of roses, either as her husband has beaten her more than once. She is now divorced from him and as such, is forced to stay with her mother. Unbeknownst to the mother, the son, Hung Cuong (Ba Do), brings home his ‘wife’ who happens to be Duy Lam (Jackie Vu). The problem is that Duy is a man and thus begins the saga of a mother-in-law turning into a monster-in-law. There really are some very funny scenes where she does dastardly ‘motherly’ manipulations to thwart the relationship but always to no avail as they both are just too much in love (Ti Amo – to coin another phrase from MOONSTRUCK) with each other.
Despite its simplistic message of a mother simply not liking the ‘wife’, the show is full of good human interactions not only with the mother but with friends, co-workers, and even Hung’s unknown relationship with a stepbrother. Throughout all of it, Duy is always trying to fit in and become part of the family. Sometimes trying too hard. Some of the quirky interactions with Hung’s co-workers were hysterical and I genuinely laughed out loud (with the bumbling of the unrequited love of one of Hung’s co-workers for him). The sister, Thuy Duong, played by Kieu Ngan also develops a love interest. While delivering her brother’s manuscript, she meets the publisher, Phuc Kang (Kang Pham) who is stunningly handsome. He is smitten by her, and their relationship begins. Kieu, as Thuy has perfect physical comedic timing. She is the goofball of this series, and her physical comedy is nearly perfect and a joy to watch. There is also a trans character in this series that is entertaining, funny, and totally comfortable which is quite refreshing. Normally I intensively dislike ‘drag’ characters as it is more of a mockery or to poke fun at. But Suong Suong, played by Thanh Tu brings charm, wit, and a connection to her character. She is nosy, curious, empathic, and an intensely loyal friend. Someone I would want her in my corner as well. She never becomes a caricature and is just as real as all the other individuals. Her comedic timing is spot on as well.
This is an exceptionally well-acted ensemble of performers, each with their very own distinctive characteristics; making them all noteworthy. But the one that stole the show and my heart is Jackie Vu as Duy. He is such an endearing character and one that has the greatest range of development. His comedic timing is also good, but it is his passionate display of loyalty and love for his husband that is so charming and noteworthy. He must deal with the nastiness of his mother-in-law, maintaining the intense connection with his husband, and the added pressure of trying to fit into the Vietnamese culture since he has never lived in Vietnam. While his Vietnamese is a bit underdeveloped, the way he uses it makes this series quite hilarious in ironic ways. Jackie is a solid performer and has a natural charm that is transparent in his eyes and conspicuous in his mannerisms. He has a boy-next-door look, that simply adds to his handsomeness. He has sacrificed a lot to come live with his husband in Vietnam, leaving his sister alone in the United States. Something that I am sure plays on his mind and at times is evident.
This series is charming and filled with REAL people who are all relatable. We have all met such people at some point in our lives. At the same time, the story lines are filled with sincere emotional dramas and in some cases real pain. Jealousy, unrequited love, desperately trying to fit in, and the pain of rejection by your soulmate are just some issues tackled in this series. Sometimes with humor; other times with strong emotional responses that will leave you teary eyed. Some scenes in this series were simply brilliantly written. But, as mentioned earlier, I have a hard time with using violence as a means to get your anger or hurt across. The mother continuously slaps people to display her displeasure or anger. This is offensive no matter the country or the customs or culture. Hitting people outside of self-defense is simply a bottom line of unacceptable tolerance. Even in the context of situations where it might seem funny or ‘not as bad as it seems’, it is still cringeworthy. I do wish all movies/series would stop this superfluous practice of abuse as a way to connect to someone’s displeasure.
The sister’s abusive husband is glossed over too and there is some tone-depth dialogue between her mother asking her to return to her husband. This is very outdated thinking and strange. No one needs to return to an abusive relationship. The whole situation with her abusive husband is sort of excused, but for me it was very hard to understand why the mother wasn’t fully sympathetic to her daughter’s plight. What I also found disconcerting is the use of ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ in a gay relationship. It just seems to make the relationship more palatable, rather than seeing them as husband-husband. Someone I guess must be labeled in relatable terms in a relationship. I do not pretend to know what acceptable relationship imagery in Vietnam is or looks like, since I have a lot to learn about other cultures. Personally, I would never call my husband my wife. That seems insulting. I am not from Vietnam, and I understand that my sensibilities are different.
Outside the over reliance on hitting and the cavalier attitude towards abuse, nothing else detracts from this series. It is well produced, has good performances, and feels so natural and real. The comic timing is good, the show is poignant at times and filled with realistic portrayals. I loved this series, and it would make a great weekly sitcom series, as it has that kind of flair about it. I would be glued to my television, if this was the case because they all made it work so well.
Rating – 4 out of 5