The most expensive Vietnamese production ever mounted, “The Rebel” is a highly entertaining mix of martial arts and historical drama looking several times larger than its $3 million budget. 1920s-set tale of a Vietnamese agent deserting his French colonial employers to join forces with a beautiful resistance fighter is less well developed as a romance, but still broke B.O. record for a local feature, with 400, 000 admissions in its April domestic release. Weinstein Co. has picked up video rights in key English-language territories. Lengthy fest travels are in store, and niche play in selected markets is a possibility.
Most key staff, including helmer Charlie Nguyen and lead thesp Johnny Tri Nguyen, are Vietnamese-born Americans whose privately funded collaboration reps a major step forward for popular cinema in their country of origin.
Handsome and extremely fit, Cuong (Johnny Tri Nguyen) is part of an elite squad of locals hired by their French masters to flush out rebels. Less committed to the cause than hardnosed team member Sy (Dustin Tri Nguyen), Cuong dutifully springs into action when a large contingent of guerrillas ambush a colonial official. In the exciting set-piece, Cuong is unable to prevent the killing, but does succeed in capturing guerrilla Thuy (Ngo Thanh Van), whose father is a much sought-after resistance leader.
Chancing on the imprisoned beauty as she’s about to commit suicide rather than betray her father, Cuong’s disillusionment with his profession rises to the surface. Talking Thuy out of the deed, he helps her escape in the first of many sequences that display the fighting prowess of pop star-turned-actress Ngo. After a quick stop at Cuong’s house for discussions about national identity and personal responsibility, the duo take it on the lam with Sy and company in pursuit.
Swiftly paced events have the couple accidentally landing in a forced labor camp before holing up in a country hideout where romance blossoms. While the leads occupy the frame well together, the love story per se is dampened somewhat by being intertwined with murky details relating to the tragic fates of their respective mothers. Still, action and adventure are by far the main game here, with big points scored on both counts as the road leads to a rousing showdown in Thuy’s village.
Wisely relegating French characters to the sidelines, the film presents a rich picture of Vietnam under foreign domination. Perfs by uniformly fine expats and locals are calibrated to the same meter by Charlie Nguyen, who also stages pyrotechnics and a multitude of Vietnamese “Iron Jacket”-style hand combat scenes with flair.
In harmony with the story’s gritty fiber, good-looking pic is fluidly lensed in slightly muted tones by d.p. Dominic Pereira. Christopher Wong’s well-attuned score and ace production design by La Quy Tung round out a top tech package.