THE REBEL broke box-office records when it opened in its native Vietnam, becoming the biggest grossing film made by the Vietnamese film industry. It’s also the most expensive film to date made there, and this is no surprise. Beautifully shot, well acted, and boasting some memorable martial arts sequences, at heart it is a film about national pride starring charismatic actors, including two Vietnamese-Americans and a hip-hop star with her own following.
The time in 1922 and Vietnam is struggling to free itself from French rule. Cool, suave, and very easy on the eyes, Cuong (Johnny Tri Nguyen, who also co-wrote), is newly returned from France and recruited by the colonial government to root out the rebels in his native country. He’s only too happy to do so until he meets Thuy (Thanh Van Ngo), the daughter of a rebel leader and quite the firebrand herself. Their uneasy relationship turns to one of mutual need as they traverse the countryside with enemies on every side and no one to rely on but each other. In hot pursuit is Sy (Dustin Nguyen), Cuong’s former ally, but never quite a friend who is also a shaman with hair turned pale with the bad magic he practices,.
Tri Nguyen is wonderfully tormented as the conflicted officer, and he’s also lithe and graceful as he twirls in mid-air like a dervish, dishing out marital arts punishment while clad in the most elegant of white suits. Ngo, the hip-hop star is gritty and entirely believable as the rebel princess. She doesn’t just succeed in kicking butt convincingly in a variety of interesting ways, there is a deadly look in her eyes that makes her entirely believable as someone who not only could, but is looking forward to the opportunity to do just that. Dustin Nguyen is the most watchable of the three, if only by a hair’s-breadth. There is the mystical self-possession with a roiling undercurrent of a danger that is pure malevolence.
Bey Logan, producer at the DVD’s distributor, Dragon Dynasty, once again offers a pithy, enthusiastic, and above all knowledgeable addition the commentary track that also features Thanh, Johnny Tri Nguyen, and Dustin Nguyen). The four of them are a lively bunch recalling the ridiculous and the sublime from the film shoot with Logan asking all the right questions, including the ones highlighting the distinctly Vietnamese form of martial arts, Vo Thuat. Trivia from how many times the same vintage car can be used in different contexts, who is related to whom both in front of and behind the camera, and the general state of infrastructure is included. A history of their prime location, though, offers insights into Vietnam’s history over and above that given by the film. Shooting in a working iron mine offers a different kind of insight, including the ramifications of filming on a mountain of said substance, which is a natural collector of the sun’s heat. In-depth interviews with the three stars fill in any blanks that the commentary might have, as well as giving a solid history of each actor.
The other special feature of note has Tri Nguyen recreating the best of the Vo Thuat moves in a gym with stuntmen from THE REBEL. He does more than walk us through them, though, he highlights the moves both in the sparring situation and with clips from the film, and also explains exactly why they’re so deadly. It concludes not with a “don’t try this at home”, perhaps because for some it’s just too tempting, but rather with a more realistic “be really careful”.
THE REBEL is a solid martial arts flick that treats its through story as more than just filler between bouts. As a bonus, it’s also filled with the beauty of the Vietnamese countryside, as well as its history, and presented by a filmmaker who is obviously in love with both.