An about-face from 2007’s sentimental three-hander “The Owl and the Sparrow,” Stephane Gauger’s sophomore feature, “Saigon Electric,” is brash, baldly commercial and trendy, milking the popularity of hip-hop in Southeast Asia (which would come as no surprise to viewers of the terrific 2007 docu “Planet B-Boy”). Skillful and energetic enough to overcome its myriad narrative cliches, this is a crowdpleaser that should play well in regional markets, then translate to niche DVD farther offshore. Wave Releasing plans a U.S. theatrical launch in late summer, following the Vietnamese release next month.
Country lass Mai (Van Trang) arrives in Saigon as green as can be for a dance school audition, her village success as a traditional ribbon-dancer having ill prepared her against much more worldly, ballet-trained aspirants. Nervously flubbing the opportunity, she’s too ashamed to go home, instead finding subsistence service jobs while living in a flat under the stern eye of a once-prestigious composer, now a hard-drinking slumlord known as the Professor (Phan Tan Thi).
The Professor is particularly disapproving once Mai befriends fast-food co-worker Kim (Quynh Hoa), whom he considers a mere delinquent. One of many orphaned or neglected street kids who make the neighborhood youth center their de facto home, Kim is the female star of a breakdancing crew based there, under the leadership of Do Boy (Zen 04, aka Ha Pham Anh Hien).
Do Boy earnestly pitches woo to ingenue Mai, even as Kim is courted by Hai (Khuong Ngoc), a smitten rich kid whose intentions are pure, but who bends to pressure from his bigwig father over this class-inappropriate relationship. Meanwhile, by farfetched coincidence, said bigwig is behind a scheme to raze the government-sponsored youth center to make way for a new upscale hotel.
Kim calls Mai’s country ways corny, and that’s as good a term as any for the essential elements of a script distanced from let’s-put-on-a-show cliches only by kinetic execution. Inevitably, the good girl will spark with the not-so-bad boy; the moderately bad girl will learn that irresponsible sex and drugs are bad; the grumpy old man will turn out to have a heart o’ gold and stellar city-hall connections; and the snobby rivals (a corporate-sponsored crew called Hanoi Killaz) will be undone in a competition climax by Kim, Do Boy et al., who dance not because they’re paid to but “because they have to.”
This all could have easily turned laughable in the tradition of “Roller Boogie” and “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.” But Gauger manages to soft-pedal his screenplay’s formulaics by coaxing naturalistic performances (some from local hip-hop dance champs making their screen debuts) and assembling a very sharp tech package. His own extra-vivid digital color lensing reps a major plus, though as is usual with post-MTV dance movies, framing and hyperactive editing too often cut off full appreciation of the human body in choreographed motion.