Once Upon a Time in Vietnam: Busan Review

"Once Upon a Time in Vietnam"
A fun, if derivative, martial arts epic.

Actor Dustin Nguyin makes his feature debut as a director with a martial arts western inspired by genre cinema from around the globe.

Perhaps still best known for his role as one of the teen narcs on Fox’s 1987 series 21 Jump Street, actor Dustin Nguyen makes his feature directorial debut with Once Upon a Time in Vietnam, a fantastical martial epic with a touch of Hollywood polish. Replete with all the splintering wood, flying kicks to the face, screeching swordplay and brotherly and/or romantic betrayal of a good Tsui Hark film, Nguyen’s actioner is a film designed to shake the idea that Vietnamese cinema is all Cyclo and Bi, Don’t Be Afraid.

Master Bao (Nguyen) comes from an army of warrior monks dedicated to protecting the country from its enemies. Unable to return to monastic life after witnessing all manner of death and destruction, he now spends his days wandering the land looking for deserters. His journey takes him to a village where local thugs are harassing a humble baker, Hien (Thai Hoa Tran), who won’t sell his shop. He rents a room with Hien, and before you can say “deep dark secret” we discover Bao has a history with Hien’s wife, Anh (Thanh Van Ngo). The short version is that Anh’s more badass than a housewife has a right to be, and Bao cleans up the town before taking off again.

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OUATIV draws from Yojimbo, classic American westerns (there’s a showdown at high noon), Hong Kong action and heaps of other genre films and mashes everything in a timeless cocktail that revels in its silliness and anachronisms. Harley Davidsons and pick-up trucks ride along horses and carriages, soldiers refer to their emperor, the baker’s specialty is croissants and Bao’s preference is for Johnnie Walker. The willful disregard of time and place gives OUATIV a comic book tone that works in the context. It’s nothing new but fans of the genre will be pleased.

Despite Nguyen ensuring that as director he looks heroic (and perfectly dressed) at every turn as star, it’s Roger Yuan (who’s had small parts in Skyfall and Bulletproof Monk, among others) that makes the biggest impression in just a few minutes as a former general fond of executing deserters. Ngo also deserves praise for giving Anh some real backbone -- not to mention looking awesome decked out in her leather fighting gear and wielding a sword.

A Window on Asian Cinema, Busan International Film Festival
Cast: Dustin Tri Nguyen, Thanh Van Ngo, Thai Hoa Tran
Director: Dustin Tri Nguyen
No rating, 106 minutes