The Rebel is a fascinating viewing experience. The occasional Vietnamese film has made a name outside its homeland — we even have a few reviewed here on HC — but mostly we see the country through the filmic lens of western Vietnam war films. So it’s always interesting when a homegrown production comes along to lend its own voice to the conversation. When it’s as well-made as this film, it’s a pleasure to watch as well.
The Rebel goes back in history to 1922, during the French colonial era. It’s something of a family project, with director/co-writer Charlie and producer/co-writer/action director/star Johnny being brothers and several other family members involved also. Although not inspired by specific events, Johnny and Charlie’s grandfather was a member of the resistance movement against the French, so there is personal as well as national history comprising the background to the story.
Cuong (Johnny Tri Nguyen) is a French-educated young man working for the colonists to stamp out rebellion among his own people. He’s clearly disillusioned with his life despite his sharp good looks and material well-being. It’s his character arc that forms the main thread of the film. Cuong’s immediate boss is Sy (Dustin Tri Nguyen, no relation) who in turn reports to the French. A little higher up the ranks, Sy is ambitious and ruthless, playing everyone around him for personal gain. Probably the most widely known actor in the film, this was apparently Dustin’s first villainous role. I had never seen him before, but had no trouble buying it. A pointed silence from the guy has the menace to melt an iceberg. No sooner is the dynamic between these two established when our third central character enters the picture. Thuy (Veronica Ngo) is a proud resistance fighter with no qualms setting up attacks against the occupying government, and no hesitation jumping into the fray herself.
The flash point that tips off the story is an attempt on the life of a French official ordered by resistance leader — and Thuy’s father — De Canh. In the aftermath Thuy is imprisoned, Sy is ordered to capture De Canh to prove himself to his French masters, and the wavering Cuong is caught in the middle. From there you could guess most of the rest. The main shortcoming story-wise is the film seems to make a bigger mystery over where Cuong’s allegiance lies than seems apparent, which causes a few confusing moments and some emotional beats to lack clout. The French cop a bit of pasting, but make safe villains for a present-day Vietnamese audience regardless of political persuasion. One note of nuance comes from Thuy stating that the French influence is not all bad for the country, but that the benefits coming at the cost of freedom is too high a price. All things considered, it’s a solidly told if unsurprising tale, helped immensely by other aspects of the production.
Cinematography and set design are really strong. Much of the film is shot on location, even many of the interiors, and whatever is a built set merges seamlessly with the rest. Nothing feels sparse and the period detail is remarkable — even everyday stuff like house fittings stand out, which is saying something. The only nitpick I can muster on this front is that some of the outdoor big city stuff feels a bit cramped, like the film crew couldn’t take over multiple city blocks at once, but what we see is nevertheless wonderfully preserved real places. There’s a large iron mine midway through the film that practically radiates the grimy heat out of the screen into your lounge room. The majority of scenes have a semi-sepia look to them that adds a sub-conscious historical feel and suits the earthy tones of much of the Vietnamese countryside.
With all the care paid to the setting, it’s pleasing to report that the action that takes place in it is pretty punchy too. Johnny Nguyen has plenty of action experience under his belt across both American (Spider-Man; Cradle 2 the Grave) and Asian films (The Protector) and brings a lot to this aspect of The Rebel.
Care is taken to differentiate each main character’s style and show off the strengths of the performers. Veronica Ngo’s Thuy uses a fighting style based in traditional vovinam martial arts from Vietnam, featuring some striking aerial leg choke to takedown moves. It’s worth noting that this was Veronica’s first major film role and she does a fantastic job, reminding me a bit of Michelle Yeoh — graceful and fierce. Dustin Nguyen’s Sy is more grounded and straightforward, relying on blunt power. Johnny gives himself a grab bag of different moves, suited to his character’s cosmopolitan background, peppered with his spectacular leaping kicks. I do wish some of these moves were shown in one shot at regular speed, rather than slowed down with sometimes multiple edits during the one move for impact. When you’re capable of doing something for real I’d really like to see it! Also, scenes detailing Sy’s practice of dark internal energy discipline were cut, which may cause those unfamiliar with the way iron robe kung fu etc. is often used in Asian film to wonder why he’s resistant to bladed weapons and pain in general (and is losing his stylish grey-streaked hair). He gets away with it because he’s so boss anyway.
There is plenty of action spread throughout the film, but it doesn’t overpower everything else. The action and drama balance well, with fights forming important story beats and only one vehicle escape merely serving its own action quota ends. For such a standout showing, it’s disappointing we haven’t had more Vietnamese film readily appearing on our shores since.