Saturday, April 06, 2013

VIFF ’13: Blood Letter

You have to admit an indictment written in blood simply carries more weight.  Rumor has it a former eunuch scrawled just such a document detailing the Dowager Queen’s crimes.  The survivors of two families she almost but not quite wiped out doggedly seek it in Victor Vu’s Blood Letter (trailer here), the first wuxia-esque martial arts historical produced in Vietnam, which screens tomorrow as part of the 2013 Vietnamese International Film Festival in Orange County.

Nguyen Vu is the grandson of a highly respected but profoundly unlucky court official.  Hoa Xuan and Hoa Ha have more common roots, but their family also became rather inconvenient.  While the sisters lived by their wits, Nguyen Vu found shelter in a monastery.  In their formative years, they all learned how to lay down a martial arts beating.  As fate demands, his path crosses that of the hot-headed Hoa Xuan at a critical juncture. 

Just as he starts snooping round the royal palace Crouching Tiger style, Hoa Xuan makes an ill-conceived attempt on the Dowager’s life.  It is game on from this point on, except not really.  As alliances are forged, some start to question whether personal vengeance is worth the widespread chaos that will surely follow.  Indeed, Blood Letter is not unlike many Chinese historical epics (such as Hero and Detective Dee) that rather openly suggest maybe a little authoritarianism is not so bad if it establishes stability.  Of course, for a film produced in a country with an authoritarian government that is a handy takeaway to tack onto a film.

Regardless, the action choreographed by Johnny Nguyen (so awesome in Clash) is spectacular.  Strangely, Huynh Dong is a bit stiff as a leading man, but he is credible enough in the fight scenes.  As Hoa Xuan, Midu also handles the martial arts choreography like a natural and lends the dramatic proceedings a dynamic screen presence and a whole lot of verve.  However, the most memorable works comes from Khuong Ngoc as Tran Tong Quan, the Dowager’s reptilian enforcer.  All kinds of creepy, he is up there with Yayan Ruhian’s Mad Dog from The Raid [Redemption].

An alumnus of last year’s NYAFF, Blood Letter is a nicely crafted period production that capitalizes on Vietnam’s natural beauty.  It is great when it cuts loose but a wee bit clunky when it soul-searches.  Without question though, there is more than enough to the film to keep genre enthusiasts well satisfied.  Recommended for fans of martial arts cinema and action-driven historicals, Blood Letter screens tomorrow (4/7) in Irvine as part of the 2013 VIFF.