When one considers Asian cinema, certain countries instantly command our attention. China (and its Hong Kong companion), Thailand, Japan, and South Korea typically lead the conversation, names like John Woo, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Yuen Wo-ping monopolizing all meaningful discourse. With its history of colonial conflict and Domino Theory demonizing, Vietnam rarely gets a mention. For decades, the US ‘defeat’ in the region relegated anything associated with the tiny nation to a sour, shunned status. But over the last decade, we’ve warmed to the work of the former enemy of the state, celebrating everything from its food to its films. Now, the definitive Dragon Dynasty Collection is releasing the highest grossing film in Vietnamese history to DVD, and with its mix of history, culture, and martial artistry, The Rebel reveals a great deal about its sovereign source.
After failing to thwart yet another assassination, double agent Le Van Cuong begins to question his dedication to the French. In Colonial Vietnam during the 1920s, our hero lives the easy life - that is, as long as he plays ball with the ruling elite. But when a rebel girl captures his heart, he decides to give up his life of undercover work and regain his sense of national pride. Naturally, this makes his associate Sy very angry. Pressured by high ranking government officials to stop the freedom fighters or die trying, he soon finds himself tracking his fellow spy through the countryside. Of course, over the course of their journey, Thanh Van Ngo begins to question Cuong’s loyalties. Is he really interested in helping her famed father and his resistance, or is this all a trap, a chance for a well-placed mole to infiltrate her trust. With Sy hot on their tracks, it all becomes a question of faith and allegiance to one’s traditions and heritage.
On the outside, The Rebel is nothing more than a pretty period piece with lots of historical high points and potboiler plotting. It’s the kind of sweeping epic with a doomed love affair at the center and several fringe social statements that sustained Hollywood for several decades. With its attention to detail and feeling of fictional authenticity, director Truc Nguyen clearly understands the needs of the genre. There is nary a false step along the always enticing way. But since this is also a martial arts movie, albeit one draped in the kind of free wheeling fighting one rarely gets a chance to see, everything is amplified. Abruptly, the drama becomes even more serious, the threats and various double crosses that much more damaging. That the director can balance both elements speaks volumes for his talent and vision.
Luckily, he has a cast that’s quite capable of carrying out his various intentions. In the lead, Johnny Tri Nguyen cuts a very charismatic swath. Playing both sides of the situation until the last setpiece, he creates an enigmatic lead, one which we question throughout the entire storyline. Cuong is supposed to be the best at what he does, and we definitely see that in the beginning of the film. The opening assassination is handled with deft cinematic skill. And because of the actor’s suave persona, we believe he could be fooling his newfound rebel liaison. As the lady in his sights, pop star Veronica Ngo is absolutely amazing. Beautiful, but able to kick butt with genre authority, she’s a real find. Her scenes with Tri Nguyen certainly sizzle, and there’s chemistry to spare.
But the real revelation here is former 21 Jump Street star Dustin Tri Nguyen. Playing his first bad guy in nearly 20 years in the business, he handles the part with pure evil panache. Sy is so wicked, so lost in his own unhinged world of anger and hate (mostly aimed at his French advisors) that we sense he would do anything to rid himself of what haunts him. That makes his actions even more frightening, especially when he matches Tri Nguyen roundhouse kick for kick. It has to be mentioned that all the actors truly excel at what could best be described as a very gymnastic style of kung fu. Many attacks start out as cartwheels and flips, and when body blows are delivered, the victims fly through the air with incredible power and authority. Our director perfectly paces the moments of marital fisticuffs. They seem to flow naturally out of the body of the narrative. Even the last act train attack seems logical and within the limits of the story.
As they do with all their releases, Dragon Dynasty (a division of Genus Products and the Weinstein Group) overstuffs this two DVD set with mountains of added content - the most important being the full length audio commentary found on Disc One. Led by the consistent presence of Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan, our three leads show up to explain how such a sweeping piece of cinema was made on a ultra-low ($1.6 million US) budget. From the iron mine set to a horrific village massacre, the actors discuss location difficulties, the endless fight training, and the sense of history within the production itself. It’s a wonderful conversation, and truly supplements the source. Similarly, the interviews and featurettes found on Disc Two - while repeating some of what we already know - gives us a chance to understand these actors and the struggles they’ve had to overcome to be part of this effective film.
While it sometimes is too luxurious for all the violence it propagates, and frequently fails to flesh out subplots (Cuong’s opium addicted dad, Sy’s prostitute mother) that could have added even more to the movie, The Rebel is still a wonderful and exciting experience. It shows us a nation struggling for an identity, even before the Americans came in with their napalm and supposedly noble intentions. As a condemnation of colonialism, it’s rather insightful. As an example of amazing physical skill, it’s a stunner. It’s easy to understand why this movie was such a monster hit. Rarely does a country get a love letter as broad and cinematically sweeping as this. The Rebel reveals a Vietnam ready to take its Asian filmmaking fraternity head on. Here’s hoping Dragon Dynasty continues to cull more titles from all areas of this fascinating foreign canon.