One of the things that I love about martial arts movies and especially the ones released by the wonderful company Dragon Dynasty is that it’s basically the only genre that makes its violence a selling point. Yet, it doesn’t glorify violence for the sake of violence as anyone can grab a gun and shoot their way out of a situation in some gruesome Hollywood fashion. No, in martial arts films, the violence — even when guns are used — is always choreographed to awe-inspiring perfection and only on a Dragon Dynasty title are you going to see the phrase “a raging unstoppable river of butt-kicking” (as quoted on the box by the New York Asian Film Festival) find its way above a film’s synopsis.
Usually the plot in a martial arts film is the last thing on our minds as after all, we just want to see some action, but director Charlie Nguyen has crafted a rare epic with his exquisitely produced film. The Rebel somehow manages to give equal consideration to its screenplay as it does to its martial arts.
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Given the double-disc treatment from Dragon Dynasty, the gorgeous DVD transfer on the first disc comes complete with a variety of language options as well as a commentary track by its three stars and Asian Cinema expert Bey Logan. The Rebel also offers an entire disc of extras on the second including numerous exclusive interviews one-on-one with cast members, a martial arts demonstration by our leading man Johnny Tri Nguyen, a deleted scene, a making-of featurette, and a behind-the scenes gallery.
As of this review date, not only is The Rebel Vietnam’s highest grossing film but it’s also the most expensive film ever produced in the country which, as Variety’s Richard Kuipers noted, managed the phenomenal feat of “looking several times larger than its $3 million budget.”
Set in the 1920s, this complex historical film finds the gorgeous Johnny Tri Nguyen portraying Cuong, a member of a top-notch team hired to look after the French officials who have invaded his homeland. After he manages to intervene in an assassination attempt, he finds himself entranced by the plight of his country’s rebellious freedom fighters after he captures the beautiful Thuy (Asian pop star turned actress Ngo Thanh Van). Thinking that she’ll lead him straight to her powerful father, one of the leaders of the resistance movement, Cuong becomes a double agent, running away with Thuy, but finds himself torn between his loyalty to his country and his alliance to his job and violent team leader (Dustin Tri Nguyen).
While predictably, he discovers his true devotion is to Vietnam, especially when he finds himself increasingly attracted to Thuy, it leads to a series of escalating confrontations as the rebels square off against not only their French oppressors but also men like his former captain who were hired to put their lives on the line to rid themselves of the rebel threat.
The film, as Dragon Dynasty notes on the box, features “an acrobatic fighting style rarely seen in the U.S.” However, it’s far more than just an ultra-violent entry into the world of the martial arts genre. Moreover, it’s a highly compelling and intellectually challenging storyline that will no doubt benefit from a second viewing as it’s so visually engrossing that at times (and no doubt due to the incredible fight choreography) we get so caught up by the stimulus our brains switch off and we just appreciate it on a purely visceral level.
While China has been an unparalleled leader in offering up superlative martial arts films, those who’ve appreciated not only other Dragon titles but especially the epic structure evidenced in Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will find themselves overwhelmed by this Vietnamese production which seems inspired by not only those films but also American adventure films and westerns as well.