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Bleeding for ‘The Rebel’: A Tribute to the Vietnamese Action Blockbuster

By Nguyên Lê | Film | December 30, 2022 |

By Nguyên Lê | Film | December 30, 2022 |


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When the coup de grâce of a fight in The Rebel sees a character’s eye meeting a machete’s pointy end, I knew then that sleeping would become difficult. I was 14, sure, but my mind was far from prepared to take in that image.

But there was also another reason to toss and turn: I had never seen a Vietnamese theatrical release like Dòng Máu Anh Hùng —- The Rebel’s title in its original language, which translates to “heroic bloodline.” It was action-packed instead of comedic. Its direction emphasized show over tell. The last act didn’t become a preach-fest. All of the film’s ingredients, in fact, had my circles and I remarking that it was akin to a “phim Mỹ,” meaning “American film” upon translation (but more often a colloquial expression for “Hollywood blockbusters”).

The Rebel then went on to break all sorts of box office records when it came out on April 27, 2007; its winning run capped with the netting of the Silver Lotus at the 15th Vietnam Film Festival, one of the event’s top prizes. It also put Charlie Nguyễn, the film’s director, co-writer and co-producer, on the map. This was the sign for the country’s cinema scene to become aware of the caliber of talents who are from Việt kiều (overseas Vietnamese) if it wasn’t already.

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“We didn’t think about that actually,” he said, with a chuckle, of the ripples the film could make. “We were too naive to think about distribution, the cinema industry, or anything like that. We just wanted to make a film and to satisfy our own passion.”

True discovery

Texas’ Sunday night, or Vietnam’s Monday morning, proved to be a great time to reminisce about The Rebel with him and director of photography Dominic Pereira, whose respective efforts were legitimate eye-openers for me. They remain so, in fact, upon a rewatch in September after I decided to buy the film’s Dragon Dynasty DVD to save it from a possible Zaslavian fate.

The chats also marked 15 years since a man living in French-ruled Vietnam named Cường (Johnny Trí Nguyễn) first made the most crucial choice of his life: to serve his European superiors as their capable secret agent (like Sỹ (Dustin Nguyen, credited as Dustin Trí Nguyễn), his brutal colleague with a silvery hairdo) or to assist the locals eliminate their oppressors (what Thuý (Veronica Ngo, as Ngô Thanh Vân) is doing with full force). After all this time, Charlie revealed, the first things about The Rebel that he would recall are the story and its themes.

“My grandfather was a rebel fighter, and we were inspired by his legacy,” he added. “But, in retrospect, it’s really about my inner journey as well because I was considered the ‘one-point-five’ generation—not American-born, not exactly Vietnamese. So I took that and put that into Cường’s character, a French-educated man with a Vietnamese heart. They are now in conflict, and he doesn’t know which one he should follow.”

Speaking of family, In more ways than one, the film was an in-house venture. Besides the plot, late acting icon Nguyễn Chánh Tín, Charlie and Johnny’s uncle, played Cường’s father. That also meant one brother is directing and one is leading. Other than Vovinam, another style of martial arts on display was Liên Phong—roughly translated to “linked winds”—by Charlie’s grandfather (and is the chosen name of Johnny’s MMA training center in Ho Chi Minh City).

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But The Rebel was also a creative adventure, according to Pereira. The Singaporean cinematographer, currently based in Vietnam, formed a professional relationship with Charlie while studying in the U.S. at Loyola Marymount University.

“A lot of the things I was doing, people were very afraid to do, and I didn’t know if they were gonna work or not,” he said of the film’s distinct aesthetics, one infused with plenty of noise, grain, bleach bypass, and heavy color grading. “Even if people do a period movie today, on the RED and Arri, in Vietnam, they wouldn’t dare grade it like that. I was young and didn’t care.”

Pereira’s approach paid off: At the same event that The Rebel got the Golden Lotus, he won the Best Cinematography award. Charlie’s film was the first feature, on 35mm, that he worked on.

And considering all the culture shock and isolation that came with living in a (then) yet-proficient-in-English Vietnam—simply buying foods and drinks became a major challenge—it was the coveted sweet after the bitter for him.

Bridge over river nope

When Pereira knew I’d also be interviewing Charlie, he gave me a task: “Ask him about the ‘bridge escape’ scene, see if he still misses it.”

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He was referring to a sequence that never made the cut: Cường and Thuý, as they were heading out of the city, would come across a checkpoint on a bridge. The crew would have to close it off from locals. Scaffolding would be built. Complex, “Michael Bay” camera setups would be involved. The “limited budget versus limitless vision” notion would come knocking.

Then there was the water that some stuntmen would have to fall into.

“It was so polluted with human waste, so nobody wanted to go into the water,” Pereira said. “Finally, they found these sewage divers in Vietnam who are willing to do the job. They said, ‘Yeah, they’ll do the jump, but we got to clean out the [infected] HIV needles first.’ That will take days, and the government will also have to be involved.”

The reality prompted one of the stunt leads, who worked with Johnny in the Thai action film Tom yum goong (The Protector), to leave the production, he also shared.

“I guess, as a director, you always wanted to push as far as you can,” Charlie said. “I was so adamant about making that scene happen, and ultimately I didn’t get a lot of support. Dom was the one who was so frightened because of the safety concerns.”

Pereira also became the production’s hero for ensuring that the bridge escape would be scrapped. Besides lensing The Rebel, he was also one of the three credited screenwriters, and that was the hat he used to uncover a “logic problem” — the one thing that could prompt Charlie to reconsider. He wanted a night scene when the preceding one happened early in the morning. It would have been spectacular to see, but, again, budget.

Per Charlie in 2008, despite a tag of $1.6 million (approximately 24 billion VND at the time) that made the film Vietnam’s most expensive, there was precious little leeway. To put this in perspective, in 2012, The Rebel’s production designer Lã Quý Tùng said that the six-figure budget, even if optimally used, would still be of the “little can be done” range.

“I haven’t even thought about it until you said Dom mentioned it just now—it was gone from my memory,” Charlie said, a hearty laugh followed.

I asked Pereira if his wines and dines were covered for a whole week thanks to this save. His reply, paired with a chuckle: “It should have been for the rest of my life!”

Dance of highs and lows

Obviously, it was not as humorous when they were in the thick of it. Both Charlie and Pereira talked of moments where they believed there wouldn’t be a film. As it has always been, making a film is no walk in the park; we are just so used to being presented with the sheen of the assembled that we forget the sweat during the assembly.

You see, much discord followed The Rebel’s lauded journey. The warm reception and hot ticket sales couldn’t recoup the production costs; it was estimated that the film grossed a total of 10 billion VND, or under $500,000 today. Many involved accrued debts; reportedly Charlie’s uncle Chánh Tín had to sell his house. Writer Hoàng Lâm of Doanh Nhân Sài Gòn cited The Rebel’s underperformance to filmgoers’ still-unwavering affinity for lighthearted fares.

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“Watching The Rebel and Clash [Bẫy Rồng, also starring Johnny Trí Nguyễn and Veronica Ngo] have a bittersweet air,” said Christian Valentin, a writer for Spectrum Culture based in New York. “It seems like every Asian country that had that Ong Bak-era craze—Thailand, Hong Kong, Indonesia, et cetera—got a glow up, with major stars and varying projects. Yet, as great as Furie [Hai Phượng, which Ngo headlines] and the other films are, it feels like that bus missed Vietnam.”

Renowned rampant piracy in Vietnam also jeopardized the film’s—and Vietnamese cinema’s—ability to live a fulfilling post-theatrical life at home and abroad. Specifically in the U.S. where The Weinstein Company bought The Rebel’s global distribution rights, executive producer Jimmy Nghiêm Phạm shared that they didn’t exert any influence on the pirated copies in Vietnam. TWC came into the mix when Bey Logan acquired Charlie’s film in his role as the company’s vice president of acquisitions.

In an interview with Thể Thao Văn Hoá in 2010, Phạm said that many eyes they sent the film to wasn’t interested or didn’t even watch it because they would still associate “Vietnam” with “war.” It took him being persistent “until my tongue dropped” for Logan to take a glance. He acquired The Rebel right that night, though not before reprimanding Phạm—in jest, hopefully?—for not telling him about it sooner. This was how the film entered the Dragon Dynasty library.

“It’s tacky to compare movies, but when I first saw The Rebel it gave me the same feeling as seeing Shiri or Ong-Bak for the first time—a mind-blowing action movie for an up-and-coming action industry, with stars that feel set to break out globally,” said Michael Scott, one of the hosts of the Action For Everyone podcast. “I feel like Johnny Trí Nguyễn was going to be the next global martial arts star. The fact that it hasn’t happened is a shame, but it does nothing to detract from the film’s brilliance.”

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In the end, Charlie still regarded his work as a success, especially under the light that they made it happen in the face of challenging circumstances. “If I’m looking at it from a business standpoint, then it is not a successful business venture,” he said. “But we weren’t business people, and we didn’t make the film from that angle.”

Still, he wished there had been a creative producer by his side during the production. At the moment, he is one for new filmmakers in Vietnam — helping them with story development, scripting, and distribution. He also hosts workshops and teaches. Or representing creatives and the flexibility to create at seminars dealing with film laws. Or pushing personal projects closer to fruition, a couple of them involving concepts that will potentially be firsts for Vietnamese cinema or other known Việt kiềus.

One belonging in the latter category is the second part of The Rebel.

The rebel strikes back?

Absent from the film’s English Wikipedia page, yet very much present on the Vietnamese one, is information about the (arguably more spiritual) follow-up to The Rebel. Yes, it exists, all the way since the 2007 film was made. The project has gone through “three, four” changes now, and it will be a more biopic-esque and bigger-budgeted telling of Charlie’s grandfather’s years as a rebel fighter in the Mekong in Vietnam’s south.

It’s also likely that what Charlie said is a theme in all of his films—finding a sense of belonging—will again be explored.

“Even when I’m on set in the U.S., I feel like, ‘This is not my story,’ and as a storyteller you want to tell something you can relate to, see yourself in,” he said. “When I went back to Vietnam, I also felt that, ‘I’m not really relating.’ I’m sort of in limbo. Where is my community? Where’s my country? Where’s my people?”

Pereira also expressed interest to be onboard should Charlie invite him, but he noted that he wouldn’t assume a co-writing role like before. No more scripting for 21 hours a day, feeling sleep-deprived and, during his visit to Thailand where The Rebel’s post-production work was carried out, being hospitalized.

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But, as rough as it was, the opportunity allowed him to be more in tune with his original creative background, one that allowed him to be a successful cinematographer. After The Rebel, Pereira would continue to work on many Vietnamese films, three of which are comedies with Charlie again in the director’s seat: Để Mai Tính (Fool for Love), Fan Cuồng (Fanatic) and Chàng Vợ Của Em (Mr. My Wife)—in 2010, 2016 and 2018, respectively.

“It’s nice to get appreciation from the government,” he said of his win at the 15th Vietnam Film Festival. “I know they would want to give that to a Vietnamese person as much as they could, you know? I guess on a deeper level, to win an award that’s local like that, I think it’s very meaningful.”

In 2019, he again came home with Best Cinematography for his work in Mắt Biếc (Dreamy Eyes) from Victor Vũ. The film, currently viewable on Netflix, was Vietnam’s submission to the 93rd Oscars.

There was one thing on all of our minds once the interviews concluded: It was nice to again talk about The Rebel and to remember that it had entered our lives. That it did make an impression on people who, thankfully, remain curious about the cinema they see—or whether there’s more to Vietnam in films than just wartime dramas and documentaries. It is with hope that one day, likely one beyond my lifetime, cinema from Vietnamese native and diasporic will gain more official interest and validation so that works akin to The Rebel can be closer to the tongue’s tip than it currently is. So that I don’t have to either spend months pitching a piece like this, or face immediate disinterest from places that build themselves upon the “welcoming all corners of filmmaking” foundation.

So that I could tell stories similar to this from actor Justin VanCho, who said watching The Rebel with his father in the ICU helped rekindle his love for the craft: “Seeing [Johnny] creating work like this for himself, Dustin putting in so much, and Ngô Thanh Vân giving her all—it got me fired up. I knew I had to come back. I got back into acting classes a couple months later and started refocusing. I don’t know if I realized it at the time, but the movie stayed on my mind for a long time. It was definitely a huge motivator for me to just do and be more.”

Nguyên is an of-Vietnamese-descent writer who considers films his oxygen. He covers films big and small, with special attention paid to those with Vietnamese elements or talents. You can read his other works at his website here or on his Twitter (and added bonus: amateur cooking photos).