Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Vietnamese Interlude: The Rebel

There is nothing I love more in a film than a scene-stealing so-charismatic-your-toes-curl actor. You know the kind of actor I’m talking about - a guy who draws your attention every time he comes on screen, who doesn’t have to utter a word to communicate with the audience, who can turn a small role into the most memorable part of film. Johnny Tri Nguyen is that kind of actor.

I first came across Johnny in 7aum Arivu, playing the telepathic Chinese villain out to destroy the upstanding hero played by Suriya. Now, I love a good villain anyways but Johnny had a bit of an extra sparkle to him - something about those drop dead good looks and phenomenal martial arts skills just spoke to me. I had to see more and to that end, I looked up his filmography and immediately purchased the one title easily available to me: The Rebel (2007, Vietnamese).

And do you know what? Despite the fact that The Rebel is not an Indian film, I’m going to review it here anyways because it is just that awesome.*

Set in 1922 in French-occupied Vietnam, The Rebel is the story of tall, dark, and handsome Le Van Cuong (Johnny Tri Nguyen), who is some sort of law enforcement agent for the French, along with Sy (Dustin Nguyen, yes, the guy from 21 Jump Street) and Hua Danh (Nguyen Thang). The three agents have been tasked by the French to go around Saigon sniffing out rebels and killing them.

As we begin our story, we see that Cuong has grown weary of bloodshed, unlike his co-workers who continue to revel in it. When they capture Vo Thanh Thuy (Veronica Ngo), a rebel involved in the assassination of a French official, Cuong reaches his breaking point and helps her escape. His betrayal comes to light, as it must, and Sy is tasked with hunting him down by any means necessary. The rest of the film follows Cuong... and Vo Thanh Thuy as they try to hang on to their lives while the Colonial machine bears down on them.

The Rebel was apparently the most expensive Vietnamese film ever made and clearly they spent their money on all the right things - talented actors and enough pre-production time to choreograph and rehearse some excellent martial arts sequences. I’ll be the first person to admit that I know absolutely nothing about fight techniques or martial arts in general but I do know when I’m watching something that is extremely boss and I can say with no hesitation that all of the fight sequences in The Rebel - and there are a lot of them - are boss. Johnny does these great kicks where he spins in the air for what seems like ages before bringing down some pain on the bad guys. Even somebody who knows nothing, like me, can enjoy that.**

But let’s get to the heart of the matter - even the world’s greatest martial arts sequences would get tedious without a plot to hang them on and The Rebel gives us both characters to care about and a sense of real peril for them. Colonial stories can be tricky to get right. Lean too far in one direction and the kindly white people are just there to (reluctantly) help the natives out of their backwards ways but lean too far in the other direction and it’s all cartoon whiteys on horses whipping the saintly brown folk into submission. The best colonial stories are the ones that delve right into the shades of grey - films like Mangal Pandey or Madrassapattinam, where the political and the personal are intertwined and nobody is a saint or a demon.

The Rebel is one of these shades of grey film. Take the character of Sy. He’s hunting his own people, sure, but he’s not on the side of the French. Sy is on Sy’s team and Sy’s team only. He’ll work with whoever can get him into power. And then there is Sy’s self-loathing French supervisor (Stephane Gauger) who is half-Vietnamese himself but dreams of moving to France where “his” people are. Vo Thanh Thuy is an interesting character, as well, and far more than a simple freedom fighter. She is cagey but self-sacrificing; she acknowledges the progress France has brought but asks at what price. With Vo Thanh Thuy more than any other character you can sense the tension underlying the fight for freedom - freedom to do what? As this bad-ass woman kicks and punches her way out of jail, I couldn’t help but think of the women in Tahrir Square, who came out to protest with the men, only to be told to go back to the kitchen and mind their babies.

And then there is Cuong, the traitor. Much like Sy, he is motivated more from his own interests than in any noble feelings towards his country or his people. Cuong falls in with Vo Thanh Thuy due to a sense of ennui more than anything else and it’s fascinating to watch him start to care about his surroundings through the course of the film.

I think at this point it goes without saying that I thought all the performances were all excellent.

Other things worth mentioning in the film are the beautiful set design and sound design, which were very evocative. Also, the casting of the extras and small roles (French and Vietnamese) were spot on and made the film feel that much richer.

After watching the film, I put on the DVD that had interviews with the three main performers - Johnny, Dustin, and Veronica - and if you get the chance I recommend you do the same thing. Dustin reveals a whole black magic subplot that was mostly edited out of the final cut but leaves a somewhat eerie mark on his character. Veronica talks about how she went from zero to hero with months of extensive training. Johnny... well, he’s just charming as all get out.

The Rebel has stuck with me for a few days now, always the sign of a good film, and I think fans of masala will really enjoy it. (You can find it on Amazon for a very reasonable price.)

If anyone has a reliable and legal source for Vietnamese (or Thai) films, please let me know. I saw on imdb that Johnny was in a film with Australian actor Conan Stevens (whom I interviewed for Outsider in Bollywood) and I’d love to find it.

* Also, I’d like to draw this film to the attention of Indian producers as something just begging to be made into a masala film... perhaps starring Arya? Think about it.

** Especially when Johnny is shirtless.

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