Back Arts & Culture » Film & TV » Review: 'Bến Phà Xác Sống' Is the 2nd-Worst Movie I've Ever Watched. I'm Sad It's Over.

The day when the Saigoneer team organized a little get-together to watch Bến Phà Xác Sống in the cinema, I was running seriously late.

During the extended holiday to celebrate our national Independence Day, there were nary a soul on the Saigon streets, so my trusty motorbike and I were flying down the road at a concerning speed. As I zipped past bridges, swaying trees and cozy families on scooters along the Võ Văn Kiệt Boulevard, a solemn voice echoed in my mind: “What are you doing, speeding like that? What if something happens? Is Bến Phà Xác Sống worth losing a life over?”

That could have been the sobering whispers of my conscience or an apparition of St. Genesius — the patron saint of actors, plays, and cinema — himself centering me in a moment of reckless impulsivity. Enlightened, I took a deep breath, slowed my gear to a languid pace, and muttered a thank you to Bến Phà Xác Sống for reminding me of the sanctity of life. Very few films in the history of mankind are really worth dying for, and this bottom-rung zombie-themed schmaltz fest, even less so.

Huỳnh Đông reprises his role as bargain-bin Liam Neeson to spend more time finding his lost daughter in Bến Phà Xác Sống.

Exactly a year ago, Cù Lao Xác Sống, touted as Vietnam’s first-ever zombie flick, hit national theaters during the holiday weekend to universal ridicule from all corners of the internet. It was a subpar movie on nearly every facet of film-making, but magically managed to strike so delicate a balance between cringe and camp in an it’s-so-bad-it’s-good way that it made an ardent fan out of me. I, proudly, am a Cù Lao Xác Sống stan; read my review of the movie here. When it was announced in August this year that the oft-mocked but inevitable sequel Bến Phà Xác Sống would premiere soon, I began counting down to the day I can finally wallow in its glorious cinematic filth like a pig in mud, and write this review.

It’s bến phà time, bitches.

Me fighting off people who hate on Cù Lao Xác Sống.

Previously on The Real Housezombies of Mekong: A mysterious epidemic breaks out in the Mekong Delta, turning victims into comically impotent zombies who only bite when it’s narratively significant. Traditional medicine practitioner Công ‘bargain-bin Liam Neeson’ (Huỳnh Đông) loses his daughter, finds her, and loses her again to climactic betrayal by mother-on-a-mission Diễm (Ốc Thanh Vân). A pregnant character gives birth at the worst moment. A grandmother sacrifices herself to save her newborn grandchild by using the power of cải lương to distract a horde of zombies.

Maybe the real zombies are the friends we make along the way

Even though Bến Phà Xác Sống might be marketed as a sequel, it’s not a standalone addition to Cù Lao Xác Sống; rather, they are two halves of the same story, screened a year apart. Having seen both parts of the duology, I would argue it doesn’t really matter if you’ve watched Cù Lao, because is anyone really in this for intelligent playwriting and nuanced character portrayal?

The movie doesn't have enough bến phà to warrant it being in the title.

The sequel name, meaning The Ferry Port Zombies, is a formulaic repetition of the first part, but I was cautiously intrigued upon learning of its title. Traditionally, thriller movies where characters are confined to a small space tend to bring out heightened levels of horror, in the case of Snakes on a Plane or Train to Busan. Plopping our beloved Cù Lao characters on a floating Mekong ferry to fend off vicious zombies with nowhere to hide might yield some thrilling action sequences.

Alas, Bến Phà Xác Sống turns out to be a misleading title because the ferry and port take up very little of the movie’s running time. It’s like naming Spirited Away “The Amusement Park Pigs.” Our band of survivors are dying to get to the ferry port to escape the zombies. Oops, it’s overrun with zombies! Let’s go somewhere else instead. The entire faceoff happens in 10 minutes. Despite an army of hungry zombies cornering the group, everybody escapes unscathed thanks to a suspiciously well-timed save by other members.

Much of Bến Phà can be boiled down to this: a character gets lost, others drop everything to search for them, zombies attack, everybody is saved thanks to a last-minute appearance of somebody else. Rinse and repeat. There is very little time spent on developing this staggeringly crowded cast of characters and minimal effort expended to connect supporting roles to the main story, so I struggle to care if anyone survives. Considering their military-grade plot armor, at times I find myself actively rooting for their demise.

Diễm (Ốc Thanh Vân) begs Liam Neeson to save her daughter, but he turns the other way.

Luckily, outside the mind-numbing tedium of watching bland characters survive again and again, the sequel provides some much-needed explanation into the backstory of why Diễm kidnapped Liam Neeson’s daughter. As it turns out, the girls were in the same classroom when the zombies swamped the school. Diễm begged him to save her daughter, but Liam actually saw that the child was already bitten, so he just saved his daughter and fled. Angered by his alleged heartlessness, she captured her zombie daughter, kept her on a leash like a rabid pet corgi, and started planning her revenge against Liam Neeson by snaring his daughter, and preparing to feed the poor girl to her mad-dog daughter.

This culminates in a “torture porn” sequence set inside an abandoned abattoir that could have been nerve-wracking — or titillating, depending on who you are, no judgement here — had it not been so unintentionally hilarious. Diễm ties Liam Neeson up on a pig hook and smacks him while unleashing her virulent devil-spawn on his daughter, making him watch. This takes place after she spends five minutes giving a Villain’s Motivation and BackstoryTM speech while restraining the zombie daughter behind her back, as casually as holding a basket of harmless vegetables. The zombie girl never makes an attempt to bite Diễm throughout the exchange, and obediently, but rather non-threateningly, crawls towards Liam Neeson’s daughter. Of course, both parent and child are saved in the end by grandpa’s arrival at the 89th minute.

Better in quality but less fun to watch

After Cù Lao Xác Sống hit national theaters last year, the film crew became the target of a considerable amount of criticism, both of the constructive kind and the mean-spirited kind, so the film production went into the making of Bến Phà vowing to address many areas of the feedback. Bến Phà, objectively speaking, showcases noticeable improvements in some aspects, such as sharper cinematography and tighter editing that could successfully build suspense in some scenes. The introduction of a villain lends some weight to the narrative and allows the actors some room to display their skills. The overall pacing of the movie is more consistent, as much of the offbeat humor and bizarreness that characterizes Cù Lao is absent, replaced by melodrama and attempts at action sequences.

These people all have names but no personalities.

This tonal shift, understandably, was employed in hopes of appeasing criticisms, but, at the end of the day, made Bến Phà much less enjoyable to watch. The storytelling stays steadfastly illogical and disorganized throughout both parts of the duology, so no amount of earnest melodrama could really save this sinking ferry. Still, even with a scatterbrained script, what contributed to the magic of Cù Lao was the high-wattage cringe at every beat, putting characters and zombies in situations so ridiculous they are endlessly entertaining: a full-throated cải lương session in the middle of a zombie outbreak, a flirtatious heart-to-heart at night while zombies are “sleeping” right outside.

Bến Phà is decidedly more joyless because of this reduction in campiness. I mourn the future I envisioned in my head where Cù Lao and Bến Phà would become the must-watch B-movie double feature of the 2020s, earning a cult following and yearly rewatch parties. Had the production team decided to send a big F-word to naysayers and leaned hard into the cringe, I think we could have in our hands something wacky and wonderful — for instance, giving cải lương the divine power to cleanse the zombie disease, or revealing that this whole world was a simulation à la Black Mirror.

Going out in style

Sitting through the first two-thirds of Bến Phà Xác Sống, I experienced a sense of dejection that often comes with meeting an old friend again just to see that they’ve changed for the worse. It used to be so bad it’s good, now, it’s just bad. I had resigned to my fate by the time the ending unraveled itself: the group finally manages to flee to a fishing boat, away from the claws of the zombies. Diễm and Liam Neeson face off; she threatens to turn his daughter, but he offers to trade space with the girl instead. Just when the zombie daughter is about to make the bite, she nuzzles into his hand — oh snap! Liam Neeson is infected due to a wound from a fight 10 minutes prior. Bến Phà Xác Sống decides to slice into this razor-sharp emotional tension with none other than a… music video. I howled with laughter right in the middle of the theater. Praise be to whoever edited this sequence! This is the juicy, over-the-top, breathtakingly cloying cringe content I came to this goddamn empty cineplex for! The musical montage shows the happy memories of Liam Neeson and his daughter before the pandemic, set to the tune of ‘Bàn Tay Của Cha’ performed by Hiền Thục.

A music video montage? Yes, please.

The music peters out and Liam, cradling a wailing daughter in his arms, begins to mutter a sentimental goodbye. If one can put aside the fact that this ending was lifted wholesale from Train to Busan, the emotional gravitas of this supposedly solemn moment is comically ruined by the fact that Liam can’t sob out five words without a dramatic “I’m turning into a zombie” facial spasm. He falls into the river and the credits start rolling, leaving viewers confused about the fate of the rest of the survivors, and that one tweenage zombie. Unfortunately, this may be the last we’ll see of this cast as it was confirmed that there’s no third movie.

The Xác Sống two-parter’s existence is emblematic of the state of the domestic film industry right at this moment: young, outward-looking, and eager to experiment with new ideas, but remains perpetually hampered by a lack of good scripts. It might not leave behind a respectable legacy, but it was side-splittingly entertaining while it lasted, serving as a vivid reminder that finding levity in a dire situation is key to survival, be it during a zombie apocalypse or a screening of the world’s worst zombie feature.

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