EmptyHONOLULU -- With "The Rebel," Vietnamese-American writer-director Charlie Nguyen readily combines period drama and martial-arts combat, staging a robust actioner nicely shaded with romantic subplotting. Vietnam's most expensive production ever with a reported $3 million budget, "The Rebel" broke boxoffice records following its domestic debut earlier this year and soon after DVD rights sold to the Weinstein Co. for North America and five other English-language territories. An award-winning festival run is garnering favorable word of mouth that should boost the film to reasonable boxoffice returns in theatrical release with support from ethnic audiences and martial-arts fans.
In 1920s colonial Saigon, handsome, suave Cuong (Johnny Tri Nguyen) serves as an undercover agent for the French occupation, investigating and eliminating anti-government rebels set on toppling the regime. In a rousing opening action sequence, a well-coordinated guerilla operation assassinates a French official, incidentally giving Cuong's unit the opportunity to nab Thuy (Ngo Thanh Van), the beautiful daughter of a most-wanted insurgent leader holed up in a jungle hideout.
Cuong's divided loyalties become apparent when his partner Sy (Dustin Tri Nguyen) brutally tortures Thuy, attempting to extract the location of the guerillas' secret base. After thwarting her desperate suicide attempt, Cuong is so moved by Thuy's allegiance to the rebel cause that he helps her escape and the two are soon on the run from Sy and his ruthless intelligence squad.
Nguyen stages a series of exhilarating set pieces that propel the pair's journey, including a daring escape from a forced-labor camp and a tense showdown at the rebels' village. Along the way, Cuong and Thuy discover their similar family histories and shared attraction, but dutifully put their nationalist loyalties first.
Nguyen fluidly choreographs the film's interplay of action and drama, capably supported by cinematographer Dominic Pereira's dynamic visuals. Fine performances and galvanizing martial arts action throughout -- with all the lead actors displaying impressive fighting skills -- augment the briskly paced plot. Period settings and details, along with lush jungle exteriors, enhance the film's agreeably authentic production values.
A Chan Phuong Phim production in association with Cinema Pictures
Director: Charlie Nguyen
Screenwriters: Charlie Nguyen, Johnny Tri Nguyen, Dominic Pereira
Producers: Jimmy Pham Nghiem, Charlie Nguyen, Johnny Tri Nguyen
Executive producers: Tawny Truc Nguyen, Nguyen Chanh Tin
Director of photography: Dominic Pereira
Production designer: La Quy Tung
Music: Christopher Wong
Editors: Charlie Nguyen, Ham Tran
Cuong: Johnny Tri Nguyen
Thuy: Ngo Thanh Van
Sy: Dustin Tri Nguyen
Running time -- 103 minutes
No MPAA rating