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[Film Review] The Rebel

A modern and fast-paced Vietnamese martial arts thriller

Glen MacDonald

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Known in its original Vietnamese as Dòng Máu Anh Hùng (Hero’s Blood), “The Rebel” (2007) is a martial arts film with an unusual setting: French-occupied Vietnam in 1922. Director Charlie Nguyen’s sophomore film depicts Vietnam’s bloody early resistance against the oppressive French regime. High-kicking freedom fighters combat bayonet-wielding soldiers and the sinister secret police comprised of Vietnamese agents. When one such agent grows tired of the never-ending bloodshed, he helps the imprisoned daughter of a rebel leader escape the tortuous clutches of his former allies. Now outlawed by the French, the two skilled martial artists must fight their way back to a rebel village, with the sadistic agents in deadly pursuit.

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The film is a good place to start for those who want to learn more about Vietnam’s modern movie industry, starring some of the biggest names in Vietnamese cinema. Johnny Tri Nguyen stars as Le Van Cuong, a white-clad colonial agent trained in France. American audiences will most likely know the handsome action-star from his role as Vinh in Spike Lee’s“Da 5 Bloods.” An early role for Nguyen, here the actor is more skilled with delivering formidable blows than performing profound macho stoicism. While not terrible in the role, Nguyen’s former career as a Hollywood stuntman makes for some thrilling fight scenes, his more dramatic scenes are somewhat sullen note; his well-toned physicality is arresting, while his acting stiff.

As the fiery Vo Thanh Thuy, Ngo delivers a series of lightning-paced punches and sorrowful soliloquies throughout the film.

Actress Veronica Ngo does most of the heavy-lifting acting-wise. As the fiery Vo Thanh Thuy, Ngo delivers a series of lightning-paced punches and sorrowful soliloquies throughout the film. It should come as no surprise that later brought these talents to another decent, high-grossing Vietnamese film, “Furie.”  She also appeared in “Da 5 Bloods” as the fascinating historical figure Hanoi Hannah, but did not share any screen time with Nguyen. Ngo’s face is invariably a magnificent canvas for conveying intense emotions, be they agony, fear or murderous rage. Her nuanced performance carries the more wooden performance of our slightly clunky male lead.   

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Dustin Nguyen rounds out the main cast as the villainous Sy. As the leader of the secret police, Sy is repeatedly goaded by his French superior into taking crueler actions towards his own people. Nguyen’s furious and cynical performance expertly portrays the impotence of his character’s position. Despite committing atrocities against the rebels for the sake of his colonial masters, Sy is never treated as an equal by the French even though he fully embraces their culture and enforces colonial rule. While Sy considers himself an obedient servant, the French use him a pawn to be used for their continued exploitation against the Vietnamese people.

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Sy exemplifies how colonialism manipulated individuals into placing modernization over freedom, a common theme in Vietnam’s colonial fiction. Throughout the film, the Vietnamese agents don elegant suits styled in European fashion. In spite of their gentlemanly appearance, the suave men act savagely when enforcing French law, including mercilessly shooting children and torturing women.

The narrow alleys and canals create tense, close-quarter battlegrounds full of fists and gunfire.

In powerful early scene, a child’s blood spills on Cuong’s crisp white suit, metaphorically staining him with guilt. Eventually, Cuong ditches his colonial garb and fights in the less robust but more traditional Vietnamese clothes. Meanwhile, Sy wears a dark suit throughout the film, signifying his conscience is already darkened by carrying out the repeated sins of the French empire.

In addition to the sharp costuming, the set design in “The Rebel” is outstanding. The ancient town of Hoi An stands in for colonial Hanoi and, due to its protected status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, offers a preserved glimpse of historical Vietnam, full of inimitable details.

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Several fight scenes are featured on the cobblestoned streets and yellowed walls built during France’s actual occupation of Vietnam. The narrow alleys and canals create tense, close-quarter battlegrounds full of fists and gunfire. The desaturated cinematography reinforces the depiction colonial Vietnam with old-fashioned lighting. While most action movies featuring Vietnam are set during the American War, it is refreshing to have an eye-catching period piece that examines stories from other eras of Vietnam’s tortuous past.

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Editing-wise, the use of quick cuts is jarring and inelegant at times. At one point, several French soldiers are searching for people in hiding, but the tension is destroyed as a rapid montage constantly cuts to everyone’s faces. The ill-paced move is disorienting, confusing the viewer and crippling the rising tension. Charlie Nguyen’s fast-paced editing will be a pain to some viewers.  But hey, it’s a martial arts flick.

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Despite a few flaws from an energetic filmmaker, “The Rebel” is one of the more memorable Vietnamese action films, much due to its unique setting and time period. Upon its release, the film became the highest-grossing picture in Vietnamese history. With a budget of 1.5 million U.S dollars, peanuts compared to Hollywood blockbusters, this neat action film shows how the modern Vietnamese film industry has developed standout stories, with less resources and more censorship than other markets. This is no mean feat, and the film well-worth watching.

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