The Rebel

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“No, we still don’t get to win this time.”

In 1920’s Vietnam, the French are in control, but there’s a burgeoning insurgency. Vo Thanh Thuy (Ngo), the daughter of the rebellion’s leader, is arrested during an assassination attempt on a high-ranking colonial officer, but is broken out of captivity by Le Van Cuong (J. Nguyen). He’s an agent in the secret police, but has grown weary of the conflict and the toll it is taking on his fellow countrymen. Vo needs to return to her father and tell him about the mole in his organization, but the pair are pursued on their way back by Sy (D. Nguyen), Le’s sadistic superior.

It’s a relatively simple storyline, albeit with one significant twist that I won’t spoil – though must confess, didn’t come as much of a shock. However, it benefits from a fresh setting, a slick look that combines well-executed period atmosphere and solid production values, and reasonable performances. On a few occasions, I was reminded of Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series, which has a similar feel, not least in a portrayal of the colonialists that would never be described as remotely sympathetic. Still, this was intended for local consumption, and did very well when it came out in 2007, setting a Vietnamese box-office record for a locally-produced movie.

The main selling point in the West would be the fights, which are particularly hard-hitting. It appears Vietnamese martial-arts owes more than a little to Muay Thai, incorporating a lot of the same elbow and knee strikes. The version depicted here is also flamboyant on occasion, with J. Nguyen in particular flying through the air to deliver spinning kicks to his opponent’s head. For our purposes though, the focus is on Ngo, who was already famous in her home country at the time as a singer and actress, Indeed, she already had martial-arts experience, thanks to Rouge, her 2004 MTV series which “follows a Southeast Asian all-girl rock band who are also high-tech special operatives working for a global crime-fighting organization.” As they do. [Have a promo clip.]

Ngo certainly delivers, producing an impressive set of moves that are virtually the equal of her male co-stars, with balletic grace that reminded me a bit of a young Michelle Yeoh, culminating in the move captured on the right, and seen in the trailer, which is a wonderful cross between MMA and lucha libre. I don’t know why she hasn’t subsequently become a star, though did have a supporting role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny last year, so is still active. Her character is certainly the emotional heart of this film, and is more important than I expected.

If there’s a flaw, it’s mostly Sy, who is not much more than your standard frothing psychopath, and the efforts to give him back-story fall completely flat. He appears impervious to edged weapons, for some reason which is never explained and is entirely wasted as a plot-point. Indeed, most of the story is fairly obvious, and I’ll confess to rolling my eyes occasionally, at the blossoming relationship between Vo and Le. The positives, however, outweigh the problems, and this is a straightforward and two-fisted tale, generally well told.

Dir: Charlie Nguyen
Star: Johnny Tri Nguyen, Veronica Ngo, Dustin Nguyen, Stephane Gauger

Clash

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“Vietnam Calling?”

clash_04cAfter The Lady Assassin was my first venture into Vietnamese action heroine film, it didn’t take long for the second to show up, though this could hardly be more different, being a gritty beast set firmly in the modern era. It begins with Trinh (Van) putting together a team of criminals – in an amusing nod to Reservoir Dogs, they each take code names, and there’s bickering over who gets what animal. The job is to steal a laptop containing sensitive information on behalf of Trinh’s employer, Hac Long (Phuc), but after the mission achieves its end, one of the gang goes renegade and vanishes with the computer, intending to sell it on his own behalf. Trinh teams up with – in more ways than one, if you know what I mean, and I think you do –  another member, Quan (Nguyen), unaware that he’s actually an undercover cop, seeking to bring down her boss. Trinh has issues of her own to worry about, for Hac is holding her young girl hostage, and requires her to complete “just seven more” jobs, in order to win Trinh’s daughter her freedom.

I’ve heard of Nguyen before; he did some work in Hollywood, before returning to his native country and starring in The Rebel, which became the biggest-grossing local film at the time of its release in 2007. This re-unites him with his co-star there, and the film does a good job of balancing the two stories, though it’s not until the second half that Quan steps out from the crowd of supporting actors to join Trinh in the spotlight. The martial arts is certainly impressive, with a hard-hitting style which seems to borrow a fair amount from Muay Thai, and former beauty queen and pop singer Van certainly holds her own. It’s notably less successful when it strays from this, and tries to incorporate gun-battles into the mix: it delivers the kind of high-volume, low-accuracy shootouts which might have passed muster during the heyday of Hong Kong cinema, but is more likely to produce a derisive snigger these days, for example due to the apparently bulletproof nature of Vietnamese furniture.

Have to say, elements of the storyline are also more than a tad over-familiar too, especially if you’ve seen Ronin, which used a number of the same elements, and had a rather better cast, acting-wise. Van isn’t bad, but she does have the advantage of the script providing her character with significantly better back-story. Quan is an undercover cop, largely for the reason that the story appears to have decided it needs one. Naturally, things build to the expected finale where they have to take on Hac Long, and… I should say no more for fear of spoilers, though that would probably imply there was something unexpected – and that isn’t exactly this movie’s strong suit, shall we say. Still, as mindless action, it’s entirely serviceable: perhaps I’ll make The Rebel #3 in this ongoing series?

Dir: Le Thanh Son
Star: Ngo Thanh Van, Johnny Tri Nguyen, Hoang Phuc, Lam Minh Thang
a.k.a. Bẫy Rồng

The Lady Assassin (2013)

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“A new territory of action heroines opens?”

ladyassassinThe first Vietnamese action heroine film I’ve seen is a credible effort, albeit one that is weakened by a couple of obvious flaws. Firstly, the middle section spends far too much time sitting around chatting (particularly in the hot-tub, though to Western eyes, it’s a peculiarly PG hot-tub, with the clothes remaining on), and the occasional game of beach volleyball is about the only concession to action. Secondly, the actresses are much too spindly for the sword-swinging fights they are called on to do here; I’m guessing they are models, but someone really needs to buy them a good meal or two. However, the premise is solid and the central performances are fine. There’s also a rousing finale which lasts a solid 20 minutes, with a surprisingly high body-count, and it’s always best to save the best for last, so your audience leaves the movie with a good final impression. In this case, it certainly upped the grade by at least one-half star.

The main setting is a group of four women, led by Kieu Thi (Thanh Hang) who operate a tavern by the sea, that offers rest and sustenance to passing travellers, with a side menu of more salacious offerings, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. They also have a further sideline: robbing and murdering those they deem appropriate, particularly including corrupt officials. They’re in for a shock though, as the cargo being transported by their latest victims is a young woman, Linh Lan (Tang Thanh Ha) . Her life is spared by Kieu, who realizes that they share a common goal, her and Linh seeking vengeance on the evil general Quan Du, who murdered both of their families. He’s very difficult to get to, but Quan Du has a particular fondness for virgins – while this may rule the more “experienced” Kieu out, it leaves Linh as the perfect assassin, if only she can be trained in the necessary skills.  Time for some wire-fu powered beach volleyball – and the sequences here are better than Beach Spike, at least. But not everyone in and around the tavern is who they seem, and neither might they need to find Quan Du, if he comes to find them first…

The action is a bit of a mixed bag, and that’s putting it mildly. Even in the same sequence, it’ll combine poorly-done CGI and questionable wirework, with stunningly well-executed shots and long takes of acrobatic action. Perhaps it works better seen in 3D, as originally intended, or perhaps that aspect simply acts as a distraction [something we’ve seen often enough in Western 3D films]. But overall, the balance is positive, helped by Thanh’s undeniable screen presence. Outside of her and Tang, the rest of the cast are closer to eye-candy, and this might be one of those cases where more is less. However, for an apparent first stab at the sub-genre of historical action heroines, I’ve seen an awful lot worse, and I’ll have to see if I can find anything else from the local movie industry.

Dir: Quang Dung Nguyen
Star: Tang Thanh Ha, Thanh Hang, Kim Dzung, Anh Khoa