Back Arts & Culture » Film & TV » Review: 'Cù Lao Xác Sống' Is the Worst Movie I've Ever Watched. I Love It to Death.

Review: 'Cù Lao Xác Sống' Is the Worst Movie I've Ever Watched. I Love It to Death.

When we entered the auditorium to watch Cù Lao Xác Sống, no theater attendant was there to check our tickets. Perhaps the telling emptiness of the room made them realize they could be doing better things with their life than shepherding unsuspecting watchers to such a vulgar display of cinematic abhorrence.

We were late, and on screen, crusty-faced zombies were already juicily ravaging people. Ten minutes into the carnage, two other cinema-goers ambled in and sat down in front of me and my colleagues; together, unbeknownst to the five of us, on that day we shared a kinship few ever get to experience: trauma-bonding over the world’s worst zombie film feature. This companionship didn’t last long: before the last quarter of the movie unfurled, half of the pair stood up and walked out, I assumed, to head to a support group for those who have ever been personally victimized by Cù Lao Xác Sống. The theater attendant would be there, along with the film crew, the dead ducks shown on film, and perhaps, actual zombies who were maligned by misrepresentation.

I have never walked out of a movie theater in my life. I try to minimize the chance of this by avoiding movies with that potential in the first place, or, if forced to attend against my will, I would try to sleep through them — at least that way the ticket cost could go towards a comfy chair and air-conditioning. In recent history, a plethora of movies have inspired massive walk-outs for various reasons. Titane (2021), a movie about a woman who literally has intercourse with a car, was reportedly so grotesque it left audience members fleeing for their sanity. Tom Hooper’s Cats (2019) was unbearably tedious to the point that some couldn’t endure the whole 110 minutes. Cù Lao Xác Sống is neither grotesque nor tedious enough to warrant a similar fate, at least to me, but I acknowledge that it could be walk-out-able if you sit down not knowing what you are getting into.

Makeup is a rare bright spot in this dreary zombie-themed schmaltzfest.

Let’s get one thing straight: by nearly every measure, Cù Lao Xác Sống is objectively a terrible movie. The lore is non-existent, the plot is illogical, the humor is juvenile, the emotional scenes are contrived, and the acting is, at best, not puke-worthy. The makeup is the sole aspect that merits praise. Even if you know nothing about the movie, over the past weeks, you have probably encountered reviews on Facebook tearing it to shreds. In something as historically contentious as the Vietnamese cinema landscape, rarely can one witness such a sense of camaraderie, forged as reviewers, commenters and critics bond over their unanimous hatred for this movie. Eviscerating Cù Lao Xác Sống has become a national sport in which people gleefully participate and spectate. I didn’t join in the fun online — I guess, until now, that is — but I arrived at the theater for my viewing knowing all this, expecting mediocrity. Despite the scathing reviews, as a fan of the genre, I couldn’t possibly miss out on Vietnam’s first-ever zombie flick!

A new cult classic?

What I didn’t expect to experience, however, was a campy, trope-tastic, ridiculously over-the-top, perfect B movie that is well on its way to becoming a cult classic; in Susan Sontag’s apt summary of camp: “It's good because it's awful.” Cù Lao Xác Sống is a survival tale of people in the Mekong Delta trying to escape a zombie apocalypse — zombies, but make it miền Tây. This vague setting is all there is to the story’s background, and little effort is spent on explaining how and why the zombie epidemic manifested, apart from one throwaway line by a supporting character: “I heard it started upstream.”

With nothing to speculate over, viewers are introduced to our protagonist, his daughter, and his elderly father. He has a name, but we shall refer to him as dollar-store Liam Neeson. Liam once had a wife and ran a traditional medicine apothecary, but now spends most of the movie sulking, representing the self-serving conservatism faction in disaster movies, and wearing Converse sneakers. I am not here to perpetuate stereotypes of what a traditional medicine practitioner should look like, but a baseball cap, jeans, and Converse is probably not it — even though he’s wearing the hell out of those sneakers. I already own a similar pair but am seriously considering getting the shoes he wears on screen; maybe I can look smoldering while wacking zombies and pouting about my dead wife, too.

Liam Neeson (Huỳnh Đông) has found his missing daughter (again).

In true Liam Neeson traditions, the daughter goes missing and for the rest of the movie, we are forced to watch them search for a girl to whom we absolutely have no emotional connection. If you don’t like going missing, maybe you should have thought twice before being born into the Neeson household in the first place. This wild goose chase is truncated by a roll call of new characters that’s at least 5–6 people too many, further reducing my already-minuscule emotional investment in these people. There’s a gang of thugs that seem to kidnap people for no reason at all, a pregnant lady and her husband, a cải lương veteran, a pair of zombie-fighting yuppies, a tweenage gang member that forms a connection with the missing daughter, and an unknown female survivor with a mysterious past.

If you have seen any apocalypse movie or series, you have seen this movie. Trust that the pregnant lady will give birth at the most inconvenient moment, the conventionally attractive yuppies will share romantically charged glances, the stray members will secretly be infected and not tell anyone, the terse alpha man and elderly sages will sacrifice themselves for the collective good, and the seemingly helpless will backstab. There’s no novelty to any of these storylines, but what makes the watching experience positively exhilarating is the gusto with which director Nguyễn Thành Nam dialed up the melodrama. The abundance of slow motion, montages, and tearful goodbyes is enough to put early-2000s R&B music videos to shame. Throughout the movie, I never felt in sync with the prevailing moods of the narrative, because I was too busy laughing at how ridiculously these scenarios play out.

Sad zombies, happy representation

Crafting an entertaining zombie production is straightforward: just focus on the undead. The faster, fiercer and hungrier they are, the more satisfying it will be to watch them being destroyed by charismatic heroes. When the stakes are high, every union, victory, and sacrifice on screen becomes more meaningful for viewers. It’s hard to take Cù Lao Xác Sống seriously as a new addition to the genre because its zombies are comically impotent, and thus every supposedly thrilling scenario fizzles out like a silent fart. The zombies are so slow and frail it’s a miracle that anyone is caught at all. They are also blind and can be easily diverted by an olfactory or auditory distraction thrown the other way. The most glaring “feature” of these zombies is the fact that they require sleep — am I a zombie? — so the director takes this as an opportunity to jam as many cheesy interludes as possible into the night scenes in an effort to humanize our ragtag band of survivors. The tonal shift is so jarring it’s hard to feel touched by their bonding, especially when they are belting out cải lương verses in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.

Some attempts to ground the plot in its Mekong Delta setting mostly fall flat in the movie's kitschy narrative.

Even though Cù Lao Xác Sống might not win Best Zombie Movie, it might just be the Vietnamese movie with the Best Representation we’ve had this year, thanks to a tone-deaf but nonetheless welcoming dash of homoeroticism in the form of two male characters who form a flirtatious connection while on the run from zombies. Admittedly, they contribute nothing to the story and exist purely for comedic effects, but a same-sex couple — one of whom has a disability — who are not effeminate caricatures, don't die by the halfway point, and actually kiss on screen? Checkmate, The Walking Dead.

I’m aware that this review might make you think that I despise this movie, but the truth can’t be further from that: I found great joy in watching it and writing this. Cù Lao Xác Sống is so resolute in its dedication to dramatic excess and gory pageantry, to the point of sacrificing every other aspect of the film, that one can’t help going along for the ride. This movie has single-handedly made me believe in “live, laugh, love” again. It’s cheesy, it’s campy, it’s unintentionally goddamn funny.

Sometimes I think about that viewer who abandoned ship that day. I wonder what moral quandary was going on in her head that propelled her to take the leap, what on-screen sin was the last nudge that made her say "enough is enough," and where to sign up for the support group. I wish I could interview her for this review. There’s one thing though, she left before the best and most incredulous twist of the film was revealed: the 93 minutes we watched is just Part 1. We squealed in delight. The implication of this revelation is enormous. Is there a second part? A third part? A Cù Lao Xác Sống cinematic universe à la Netflix' The Princess Switch? Whatever that might be, I will be the first in line, eager to relish every overwrought, slow-motioned, cải lương character sacrifice they throw at me.

[Photos via AFamily]

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