Know Your Critic

Know Your Critic: Hoai-Tran Bui, Staff Critic at /Film

Bui shares what it's like returning to theaters, a quarantine movie she wishes she could've seen in theaters, and her thoughts on classic Disney debates.

by | May 28, 2021 | Comments

(Photo by Columbia, Madhouse, and Warner Bros.)

“Know Your Critic” is a column in which we interview Tomatometer-approved critics about their screening and reviewing habits, pet peeves, and personal favorites.

After quitting her day job to focus on entertainment writing full-time on /Film, Hoai-Tran Bui has since become one of their lead critics. Like most young Vietnamese-Americans, she is of the first generation to be born here, her parents having left Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon in the 1970s and the communist takeover of the country. Bui’s mother’s upbringing in a French-speaking school in Vietnam translated to bookshelves in America filled with Western classics like Jane Eyre, Les Miserables, and Little Women. Those, along with Studio Ghibli films like Castle in the Sky, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke (“A lot of blood and gore in that one for an eight-year-old child”) were the foundations of Bui’s writing aspirations, and making it onto the Tomatometer as a film critic. Bui talks now about a movie world transitioning back to something approaching normalcy, along with the things she watched during quarantine that she would’ve liked to have seen in theaters, and settling long-running Disney debates.

Hoai-Tran Bui is a staff critic at /Film, and co-hosts the Trekking Through Time and Space podcast. Find her on Twitter: @htranbui.

Theaters are opening up again. Have you been back yet?

Quiet Place II was my first one, and then In the Heights was the next day. So I went from not going to theaters for over a year to going to the theaters twice in a row. Actually, the day that I went to see In the Heights, I went to see the Wong Kar-wai retrospective special that they’re doing at the Lincoln Center in New York. Then the In the Heights screening showed up, and I was like, “I’ll just do both.” So I went to see three movies in theaters within two days.

It was great, but it was surreal. Still doing social distancing, but because these are both just press screenings, they’re just like, “Sit where you want, but also don’t sit next to people.” That was nice, although I feel like it kind of diminished some of the effects of seeing both of these movies in theaters. Because A Quiet Place was very much about that communal theater experience, everyone gasping and holding their breath at the same time, but as for Quiet Place II, and I feel like this also led into my thoughts on the movie, which I think were also lightened up on that aspect, it felt less like that communal experience because we’re all just kind of far apart and there’s only six other people in theater.

What movie did you watch last year during quarantine that you wish you saw in theaters?

I would’ve liked to see Bill & Ted Face the Music in theaters, less so for seeing on the big screen and more so for seeing the people, just because it’s a movie that, like a lot of comedies, it demands being seen with a bunch of people, and laughing by yourself with your computer on your lap isn’t as fun as laughing with a group of people with the same jokes. I think Face the Music came at such a specific time that it was this hopeful movie about coming together, about facing the odds as humanity, and that felt very resonant during the pandemic and during quarantine. That one made me a little emotional, even. But I feel like even seeing that together with a bunch of people would’ve been even more impactful. I don’t even know how it would play now, just because I feel like the timing of it was so specific to the fatigue that we’re feeling during COVID. But I feel like that one, I would’ve liked to see with people, just to share in our misery together and our hope for something that can come through and still make us laugh.

(Photo by Columbia/Everett Collection)

What’s required viewing for you?

The Before trilogy. They have such great, effortlessly written scripts, and one that feels so natural and organic and yet also is rife with so much character drama and building and dynamics within it. There’s an ebb and flow within the movie, within the dialogue, and even though it’s completely plotless, there is a plot within what these characters are saying to each other and how they’re interacting with each other. Every movie is such an interesting snapshot of each age, too, that altogether they become this experiment with time that I think Richard Linklater has tried to recapture with a lot of his later movies, with Boyhood, for example.

What’s the hardest review you ever had to write?

One that was more recent and which I just spent a lot of time on because it was something that was so personal to me. That’s Raya and the Last Dragon. I spent a couple of days writing that. That one I kind of turned into part review, part personal essay. Raya and the Last Dragon, in particular, because it was Disney’s big Southeast Asian animated movie. It was going to have Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess, it had Kelly Marie Tran, who’s a Vietnamese-American actress, so there’s just a lot riding into that movie. I had a lot of complicated feelings with it because I thought it was good to an extent, but it didn’t quite fulfill all of the promises of diversity and representation that it was billed to do and, in the process, I think lost a lot of what could’ve made it good by trying to be so big and universal and ended up being nothing very specific.

So I spent a couple days just picking that apart, both the movie itself and my own personal feelings about it. I think I wrote something pretty good. Before I started writing film criticism, I remember my journalism class, they always talked about how you shouldn’t put yourself into the story. It should be as unbiased and as distant as possible. Of course, going into film criticism, it’s all about your own personal opinions and beliefs and your own personal relationship and how this movie affected you. I can’t help but making a lot of the reviews that I write very personal, deeply personal at that. I think often the better ones I write are the personal ones, the ones where I draw on some of that experience.

I do feel kind of weird sometimes because I feel like I’m exploiting my own personal life for other people’s entertainment in a way, other people’s pleasures, and it always feels a little weird to me that I’m just putting little pieces of myself out there in these tiny personal essays about movies. But I think that that’s the way that people interact with art anyways, the best way to communicate how something moves me or something affects me. So Raya and the Last Dragon, for sure, was one that I spent a lot of time thinking of.

Then another one that was deeply personal, too, but wasn’t really a review, was this piece I wrote about Da 5 Bloods. The depiction of Vietnamese characters in that movie, honestly, were the best attempt by any Hollywood movie so far, but still falls extraordinary flat because it tries to, I think, connect the Black Lives Matter movement and effects and legacy in a way that doesn’t totally cohere. I wrote about that, and I wrote about my own personal thoughts watching that movie with my mom, actually, and the kind of mixed feelings I had, and her thoughts on the Vietnam War and about the American response and involvement in the Vietnam War. That was always really interesting to me, and it was something that was a little bit tangled and knotty, and I don’t think I fully picked it apart and untangled it as much as I could’ve. I haven’t gone back to read it because a lot of pieces that I find deeply personal, I don’t like to read again and be like, “Oh, well, I could’ve written that better,” because now it’s out there, I don’t want to think about it anymore. But, at the same time, it’s something that I put a lot of thought and care into.

(Photo by Warner Bros./Everett Collection)

What’s a Rotten movie you love?

I feel like there’s a lot of cooler answers, but Wonder Woman 1984. I gave it a positive review, and I was one of the first wave of people to give it a positive review. Then the Rotten Tomatoes score slowly went down and then nose-dived. But I stand by my positive assessment of it. I think that it is a movie that moved me, and I acknowledge the flaws that it had, but I feel like those were minimal compared to how the movie itself worked for me. Speaking of Bill & Ted Face the Music, I feel like it falls in the similar vein of being a movie that comes at a certain time that it feels very important and optimistic and has that bent during the quarantine times. So that obviously affected me a lot because of that. But I think, even so, it’s a fun, optimistic, loud, very goofy movie, and that’s the kind of movie that I unapologetically enjoy.

What’s a Certified Fresh movie you don’t like?

I didn’t love Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I’m actually a fan of Quentin Tarantino, and I actually really liked Hateful Eight, which is a movie that most people disliked. Hateful Eight is such a nasty, mean movie that I felt like was Tarantino looking inwards at how his displays of violence are seen in the general public and saying, “Hey, this is actually awful, and I’m going to make you look and make you feel terrible about it,” and I loved that. I thought that was so self-aware and interesting.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I actually don’t mind the lightness of it. I don’t mind the hangout element of it. I think that that part of that was actually my favorite part of it, and the idea of these men who are on the cusp of being redundant and no longer being a part of that big cultural core was really interesting and also kind of this self-aware thing that a lot of auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese are doing in their late stages of their career. They’re looking back at their lives and their careers, and they’re saying, “Oh, we’re no longer viable anymore.” That was interesting.

I feel like the Manson stuff and how that looms over the entire movie and casts a whole shadow over the movie doesn’t really work for me and, as a result, just makes that final act feel so intensely out of left field that I left the movie with a bad taste in my mouth. I’ve also never felt that kind of same interest and fascination with the Manson family murders as I think a lot of American people do. Coming from Vietnam, we kind of came after that whole 1969 cultural touchstone pivot, and it’s not something that’s part of my own cultural memory. I’ve always thought that the fascination with the Manson family has been a bit on the ghoulish side, so painting Charles Manson as this big monstrous villain and making 1969 this big cultural turning point and these murders this big cultural turning point is not really interesting to me and just doesn’t work as well for me as I think that the movie wants it to.

And, of course, there’s the whole Bruce Lee scene, which I thought was completely unnecessary. I think that they could’ve used any other New Age Hollywood actor in that. They could’ve used Chuck Norris, for example. I felt like it would have the same effect versus Bruce Lee, whereas when I was watching it in the theater and everyone was laughing at everything that the Bruce Lee character said, it just felt very uncomfortable to me. I did not like that, although that itself didn’t tank the movie for me. It was just the entire, I guess, approach to this being the center of the world, this being this big turning point. That just didn’t feel like, to me, something so exciting and interesting as I think the movie and a lot of its lovers feel.

(Photo by Madhouse./Courtesy Everett Collection)

What was the movie that made you want to be a critic?

Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress was a movie that just opened my eyes to what movies can do and be because it’s sort of this non-linear movie that plays with both reality and fiction. It follows this young girl who meets this man in World War II Japan, and she’s a young child, and she falls in love with him, and she decides that she’s going to spend her whole life trying to find him. To do that, she decides that she’s going to become an actress and be on the biggest stage so that he’ll find her again. The movie is so interesting about it. It’s framed around these two documentary filmmakers who are interviewing her as she’s an older actress, having retired, and she’s talking about her life. The entire movie plays through this story that she’s telling, and it goes between her real life and the movies that she stars in, in which she always stars as a young woman who’s pining after someone and always trying to find someone, so it’s this reflection of her reality and her fictional career.

The way that it switches between both and the way that the line blurs between that reality and fiction was so interesting and eye-opening for me. Of course, the ending in that movie is so quick and easy and something that you can’t even do in a lot of live-action, too, because there are shots that linger for a fraction of a second, and in live-action, that would be something that you have to set up. It takes a lot more time to do it. But in animation, you can just throw it in there, and that’s fine. I think that that to me not only opened me up to filmmaking and movies but also to the potential for animation, which I’m a big flag-bearer for. But, yeah, that movie itself was like, “Wow, movies can do this. Stories can be told out of order, and things can be this reality-blurring thing.” I was really enamored with that movie, and that kind of set me on that path.

On Rotten Tomatoes, readers are currently voting on their favorite Disney animated movies. So: Lion King or Hercules?

The Lion King, for sure. It’s the gold standard for Disney renaissance movies, and Hercules kind of comes in that late era where it’s very self-effacing and self-referencing, which is fun but doesn’t age nearly as well.

Beauty and the Beast versus Little Mermaid.

Ooh, that’s actually an interesting one because Beauty and the Beast is my personal favorite. Little Mermaid is the one that did kick off the entire Disney renaissance of the ’90s, but I’m going to have to go with Beauty and the Beast. I think it’s a masterpiece.

A lot of people went nostalgic with their movie-watching during quarantine. Did you re-watch something that surprised you?

Happy Feet. The George Miller movie before Mad Max: Fury Road. I was shocked by how dark that movie is. I thought it was just, as I remembered, a movie about a tap-dancing penguin, but it gets dark. It starts to be about pollution, and it becomes this epic Lord of the Rings-style journey across the Arctic, and it almost ends on this extremely bleak note where the penguin is stuck inside this aquarium and thinks he’s never going to leave, and you’re like, “What is this movie? Why is it terrifying?”

Hoai-Tran Bui is a staff critic at /Film, and co-hosts the Trekking Through Time and Space podcast. Find her on Twitter: @htranbui.

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