Wednesday, July 15, 2009

THE REBEL (2007)

A Google search for "Vietnamese martial arts" reveals a long history that I should have taken for granted, given the nation's proximity to China. The general term Vo Thuat refers to a full range of skill sets, from open-hand combat to a variety of weapons. Martial arts gained the glamor of the forbidden during the period of French rule, when they were banned. How the Communists regarded it all is unclear from the Wikipedia entry. A clue on past attitudes might be gleaned from the fact that a Google search for "Vietnamese martial arts movies" generates only two results, both asking if anyone knows of Vietnamese martial arts movies.

Charlie Nguyen's film, known at home as Dong Mau Anh Hung, thus seems to fill a vast cultural gap in Vietnamese popular culture. According to different reports, it's both the most expensive and the most popular Vietnamese movie ever made. It's the handiwork of two Viet-American brothers, director Charlie and co-producer, co-writer and star Johnny Tri Nguyen. Another Viet-American, Dustin Nguyen of 21 Jump Street fame, plays the leonine villain.

Johnny Tri Nguyen has blood on his hands (well, his face) in The Rebel, while Dustin Nguyen (below) continues to aspire to be the Vietnamese Johnny Depp.

Johnny and Dustin play agents of the French colonial government during the 1920s. Their job is to help put down nationalist independence movements. Both men are Westernized, but Cuong (Johnny) is ambivalent about his work, while Sy (Dustin) is ambitious to rise in the colonial hierarchy despite the disgrace of his mother being a prostitute. We see them in action foiling an assassination attempt and capturing Thuy, a female rebel. Coung doesn't like to see Sy torturing the girl, and he thinks something's fishy about the way the lead assassin was gunned down before he could even pull his gun out. It looks like Sy has inside information, but may be abusing it to make himself look good at the risk of other people's lives. Refusing to let Sy torture Thuy to death, he breaks her out of jail and goes out on the run with her, leaving behind his opium-addicted dad as well as, most likely, his career. He's told her that there's a mole in her father's rebel organization, and he heads back to her home with her to find out about it for himself.

An episode in the iron mines reminds Coung of the cruelty of the French occupation, and he seems more of a committed rebel when he and Thuy bust out in explosive fashion. But Sy is on their trial, and their arrival at the rebel stronghold is only the cue for Sy to make his move.

A "Frog's" about to flog poor Thuy at the iron mine, but this Viet-minx knows how to handle those cheese-eating imperialists. Below, she makes her farewells as Cuong chauffeurs her home.

He captures Thuy's dad, intending to take him back to Hanoi and earn his long-coveted promotion. If Cuong wants to play rebel, he concludes, the poor schmuck can die like one. Disappointment is in store for our villain, however, when his French superiors meet him on the train to tell him he's been passed over in favor of another Frenchman. Sy snaps and has his personal goon squad slaughter the French officials. Has he turned rebel too? Hell, no! He's going to pin all the killings on Thuy's dad, take all the credit for bringing him in, and claim that damn promotion. That is, if Cuong, Thuy and some angry villagers can't stop the train from leaving the village....

This is a fast-paced unpretentious and pretty much apolitical action film. It has nothing to say about Communism, and if Ho Chi Minh was up to anything at this time no one in the film has heard about it. The rebellion of this film is purely nationalistic, and while the French are shown as bad guys throughout, the script goes the extra mile to say that they weren't all bad and actually brought some benefits to the country by modernizing it. The Nguyens, I think, had an eye on the international martial arts audience and not just on Vietnam, so ideology is off the table. Anyone but a racist would root for the Vietnamese while watching this film, and at the same time a Vietnamese, rather than a Frenchman, is the main bad guy.

On the humid city streets Cuong prefers to kick around in a natty white ensemble. On the road, he opts for rustic, earthy colors and a more casual look overall.

The martial arts are closer to the Thai style popularized by Tony Jaa than to traditional Chinese film style. Johnny Tri Nguyen practices a family style of martial arts called lien feng kwon as well as a Vietnamese style called vovinam which emphasizes elbows and knees. It's a cumulative style that followers of mixed martial arts as well as pure cinematic fighting will appreciate, though there are a few too many showy spins for my own taste. As an actor, he gets the period look right in the early part of the film, including the hair, but opts for a more rugged look as he goes native. His co-star, Ngo Thanh Van, is a beauty queen and Vietnamese pop singer who proves her versatility by brawling quite nicely here. Dustin Nguyen makes no effort to fit into the period apart from wearing the clothes, but that greying mop of hair definitely makes him stand out. He's been working in Vietnam more often lately, American opportunities having apparently dried up for him. He projects a certain menacing cool but is out of his depth in the one scene when Sy must vent his bitterness over the way everyone talks about his mother. Overall, though, his Magua-style villain is nasty enough to keep you interested in his comeuppance, though you do wonder how that's going to happen when he seems to have superhuman invulnerability early in the film.

Ngo Thanh Van kills in style -- a style that seems partly derived from professional wrestling -- in The Rebel.

As a martial arts film, I don't think The Rebel is on the level of the Thai films I've seen lately, but as a period action film it looks good and stays lively. The relationship of martial arts to large-scale 20th century violence is a little shaky, though. I can understand the scene where the disarmed villagers use mass drop kicks to disarm the colonial troops and then arm themselves, but in the climactic attack on the train it seems like the armed and explosive part of the assault is only a prologue to the decisive vo thuat phase. If I were Cuong and I had access to guns, I'd want to bring one with me to a final showdown with Sy. Then again, nobody paid admission (and I didn't put the Albany Public Library disc into my machine) to watch two dudes fire pistols at each other. That'd be like putting Fred Astaire in a big romantic scene and watching him take his clothes off. In this film, I wanted hand-to-hand, foot-to-foot, elbow-to-wherever combat, and if that's what you're after, The Rebel will probably satisfy you.

Here are two trailers. First, a Vietnamese preview uploaded by lecoquino

Now, the English-language Dragon Dynasty trailer, uploaded by 9charlie25.

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