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July 07, 2011


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Bay Rong
Le Thanh Son - 2009
J-Bics Region 3 DVD

In terms of action film, is Vietnam the new Hong Kong? I would guess that it would be if Johnny Tri Nguyen had his way. Relegated to stunt work and small supporting roles in Hollywood film, Nguyen has served as star, producer and co-writer of a couple of Vietnamese productions which have attracted some international attention. Clash has some of the feel of the down and dirty films from the late Eighties and early Nineties, when Tsui Hark and John Woo made their presence known initially to a handful of cinephiles and genre cultists.

The setup, a small band of gangsters known to each other only with pseudonyms provided by the gang leader, will of course remind some of Reservoir Dogs, which in turn should remind those familiar with Hong Kong cinema of Ringo Lam's City on Fire. The heist, of a laptop computer in the hands of French criminals operating in Saigon, is only part of the story. There is the short, comic gangster, the guy who's secretly affiliated with another gang, and the undercover cop. In a sign of the changing times, this gang is led by a woman her calls herself Phoenix.

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The main narrative is about Phoenix, who leads the gang on behalf of the elegant, opera loving, white suited Black Dragon. In return for doing several "missions" for Black Dragon, Phoenix will get back her kidnapped young daughter. Black Dragon is presented as someone who sees the world as a board game in which he controls the players. Nguyen, known by the nick name of White Tiger, falls in love with Phoenix, with the two attempting to get back Phoenix's child after the planned heist goes awry.

Much of the film is as much a showcase for the lean and leggy Ngo Thanh Van. Even more than her previous film with Nguyen, The Rebel, Ngo demonstrates her way with guns and martial arts moves. One of the high points in the film is Nguyen and Ngo dancing a tango, while simultaneously casing the French thugs in an attempt to discover which of two briefcases has the laptop they are after. In most of Clash, Ngo wears form fitting shirts and jeans, while at the scene in the Saigon Sheraton, she wears a low cut, long red dress, with the camera focused on her legs as she emerges from her car. Well known in her native country as a pop singer, Ngo is exactly the example to bring up to those who bemoan Hollywood's lack of capable female action stars.

Hollywood has proven unwilling or unable for the most part in dealing with Asian action stars. Still, it might be nice if Johnny Nguyen was given a featured role in an English language film. The gap between Nguyen's Vietnamese filmography and what he has done so far in some very high profile Hollywood films is quite wide. The one weakness of Clash is that Nguyen needs to work with a director with greater visual flair than Le Thanh Son. Nguyen was somewhat better served by director "Charlie" Nyugen on The Rebel. One hopes that as Vietnamese action films, and Vietnamese films in general, become more visible, that there will be the equivalent to a Tsui or a Woo, yet to be discovered.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 7, 2011 09:24 AM