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Martial Arts Film Reconciles Feuding Viets

NAM, News Analysis, Andrew Lam Posted: Aug 06, 2007

Editor's note: The Rebel, a martial arts movie made by Vietnamese Americans in Vietnam, with the help of a local crew, is extraordinary, not for its artistic and sleek filmmaking alone, but for bridging the historical gap between Vietnam and its Diaspora. NAM editor Andrew Lam recently saw the movie at the Bangkok International Film Festival. Lam is the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora," (Heyday Books, 2005).

Bangkok -- I do not mean to use the word lightly but The Rebel is extraordinary. For a martial arts film made in Vietnam by a handful of Vietnamese Americans with a tiny budget of $1.6 million to approach the likes of a well-choreographed Jackie Chan or Jet Li action flick say, Drunken Master or The New Legend of Shaolin - is a feat unto itself. But the movie is extraordinary for a far more important reason: its a breakthrough film on many levels for Vietnam and its Diaspora.

The movie shown recently at the Bangkok International Film Festival to great fanfare and sold out crowds in all of its three screenings tells the saga of anti-French rebellion during colonial period in early 20th century Vietnam, and of the men assigned to squelch it. It features drop dead handsome Vietnamese-American Johnny Nguyen, who had worked as a stuntman for Spider-Man 1 and 2, and the beautiful and fierce Van Ngo, who is known in Europe as a model and in Vietnam as a famous singer. Now, thanks to her co-star who trained her, she can add martial arts fighting to her resume. The movie is directed by Truc Charlie Nguyen, Johnnys older brother.

In the movie, Cuong (Johnny Nguyen), a French-educated Vietnamese seduces Thuy (Van Ngo), the French fighting daughter of a famous rebellion leader, and follows her back to her fathers village hideout in order to arrest him. Not far behind them is the evil Sy (Dustin Nguyen 21 Jump Street, V.I.P.), a mixed race Vietnamese-French attack dog with powerful martial art skills and a small army -- all to make sure that Cuong obeys his orders. What ensues is Cuongs internal conflict and a series of dazzling Vietnamese-style martial arts fights. rebel

The Rebel is a breakthrough because its the first martial arts movie of its kind made in Vietnam, and it manages to find a common ground for an otherwise politically diverse population. Vietnam, after all, was a country ravaged by several wars in the 20th century, and the worst one was the civil war in which the South was backed by the Americans, and the North by the Russians and Chinese. But if disunity and vehemence is largely the story of modern Vietnam and its Diaspora, one mostly formed by the millions of refugees who fled communism, there is a sentiment practically every Vietnamese, at home or abroad, can agree upon: Vietnamese may not like each other and differ on ideological grounds, but few if any wanted to be colonized.

rebel It was why both in Vietnam and in Little Saigon in Orange County, where the largest and most influential population of Vietnamese living abroad resides, and where protest against the Vietnamese government is as regular as clockwork, the responses to the movie were equally enthusiastic. The Rebel was shown in Irvine at the Vietnamese International Film Festival last March to rave reviews. A month later it premiered in Vietnam where it instantly became reportedly the biggest box office smash of all time.

Charlie Nguyen, who was at the Bangkok International Film Festival with the cast, said that Young people came up to me after the show in Vietnam, and they said they were completely blown away. They didnt know that Vietnamese could make an action movie on the same level as Hollywood or Hong Kong. Charlie and Johnny were both refugees and came to America as children. Many of the viewers were emotional, he said, still visibly moved by the memory. They said to me I feel proud. Normally I dont feel proud to be Vietnamese. But after seeing the movie, I feel proud. Its an extra bonus to hear that. Rebelcouple

Until the last couple of years, the Vietnamese film industry has been largely a misnomer. A handful of movies made in Vietnam by Vietnamese with social messages like Bar Girls and Street Cinderella gained some notoriety abroad and certain popularity among Vietnamese audience at home. Likewise, aesthetically pleasing, but thin-on-plot movies made by returning Viet Kieus Vietnamese nationals living abroad like Tony Buis Three Seasons and Tran-Anh-Hungs Cyclo and The Scent of Green Papaya and Nguyen Vo Nghiem Minhs Buffalo Boy, often leave Vietnamese audiences mildly bemused and only played in art houses overseas.

DustinNguenBut international cooperation has paved the way for a series of important cooperative film projects, providing much-needed foreign capital and expertise to the Vietnamese film industry. Now with local talents emerging and Vietnamese Americans like Johnny Nguyen, Tony Bui, Dustin Nguyen, and Ham Tran, all with Hollywood experiences, poised to make movies in Vietnam, the country suddenly has a bona fide film industry.

It's only the last two years or so that you see people really are making movies in Vietnam, agreed Dustin Nguyen, at the Bangkok International Film Festival. Besides The Rebel, Dustin Nguyen, who recently starred in a romantic movie opposite Cate Blanchett, in Little Fish, has a couple more movies in Vietnam. People in Vietnam are easy to work with, and eager to learn.Kick

When asked about the political differences between Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans, Dustin, who himself was once a refugee, brushed it off. I can only speak for myself but theres no tension. If you make a movie critical of the government then of course youre not welcome. But I find its easy to make movies in Vietnam. Earlier this year he told Nguoi Viet, a Vietnamese language newspaper in Little Saigon, about going back to Vietnam and filming The Rebel. I felt an intense connection to the people. We bonded very quickly during the shooting. I never spoke Vietnamese in a film before. It was a period drama, all over Vietnam, not just Saigon where I grew up. I felt reintroduced to the country on all levels. It was just a fantastic six-month stretch.

JohnnyAs someone who has been writing about the Vietnamese Diaspora since the early 1990s I strongly believe that national reconciliation is best done through the languages of the arts, and the most wide reaching of these languages is, of course, the language of cinema. As the country opens up, Vietnam and its rich if bloody history becomes a treasure house for exploration. Last I heard, The Rebel has been picked up by Harvey Weinstein of Miramax. If I want to, Charlie Nguyen said, encouraged by the news, I could spend the rest of my life making movies about Vietnam.

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The Rebel Trailer

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