Year: 2009 Runtime: 98′ Director: Johnny Nguyen
Writers: Johnny Nguyen Cinematography: Dominic Pereira Music: Christopher Wong and various long-dead Europeans
Cast: Thanh Van Ngo, Johnny Nguyen, Lam Minh Thang, Hoang Phuc Nguyen
Trinh (Thanh Van Ngo) has been working as an assassin and girl for every opportunity under the codename “Phoenix” for a shadowy gangster-type with connections in the grey areas between espionage and crime known as Black Dragon (Hoang Phuc Nguyen) since she was a teenager. Not that she ever had much of a choice in the matter. Black Dragon “rescued” her out of slavery as a prostitute in Cambodia and made her what she is now. Plus, he is keeping Trinh’s daughter hidden away somewhere as a very convincing argument for the woman’s loyalty.
Still, her life is getting to Trinh, and she only wants out and start a less violent existence somewhere with her daughter. Black Dragon even seems willing to grant Trinh her wish, there are just a tiny handful of missions she has to finish for him first.
The seventh and last of these missions sounds simple enough: steal a MacGuffin laptop from some hairless Frenchmen. For the heist, Trinh recruits a small group of criminals, among them the less than stable Cang (Lam Ming Thang) and the upright emo gangster Quan (Johnny Nguyen).
From the beginning, that could go wrong for the group does go wrong. An attempt to buy guns ends in a shoot-out with weapon dealers who have reasons to hate Cang. Later on, the French turn out to be more resilient than anyone would have expected, and kill the only person beside her daughter Trinh cares about. Well, at least the group manages to get the laptop.
But that’s not the end of anything. Cang uses an easy opportunity to abscond with the laptop, leaving Trinh and Quan – the only other survivors of their group – with nothing. On the more positive side, Trinh and Quan have fallen in love with each other during the course of the operation and are even more motivated to get the merchandise back. It is just a little unfortunate that Quan isn’t gangster at all but an upright emo undercover cop out to get Black Dragon (and – fittingly – just as tired of his way of life as Trinh is of hers).
Bay Rong reunites some of the key players of 2007′s The Rebel, one of the finer semi-historical action movies of the last few years, and one of the few Vietnamese movies not aiming for the arthouse festival circuit to make its way outside of the country. It has been something of a dereliction of duty that I haven’t reviewed the older film here or at my home base at all, so let’s just say that it seemed heavily influenced by the action style of Thai movies of the last decade or so, as well as by classic Heroic Bloodshed films from Hong Kong, and did its influences honour, and leave it at that for now.
As The Rebel was, Bay Rong is again driven by Johnny Nguyen, who is here credited as the film’s co-writer, co-producer and action director besides playing the lead role (and honestly, I’m not sure how large the role of the film’s nominal director Le Thanh Son actually was). Nguyen has spent a lot of his time working as a Hollywood stuntman or playing the second henchman in action films, and has by now grown not only into an experienced martial artist of the sort that knows the difference between good tournament fighting and good screen fighting, but also a more than solid actor, a combination that should lead to more success than what his work in Hollywood grants him. Unfortunately US productions still seem infuriatingly incapable or just unwilling of putting the talents of Asian stars to good use. Fortunately, Nguyen does try to make the films he can’t make in the USA in his native Vietnam, at least from time to time.
Given this background, it’s a little surprising that Bay Rong isn’t the Johnny Nguyen one-man-show one might suspect. While the film provides its male star with ample opportunity to show off his martial arts skills, it puts just as much emphasis on its female lead Thanh Van Ngo (also going under Veronica Ngo), whom everyone and her mother on the Internet describes as “singer turned actress”, but who really deserves a better description for her work here. Something like “pretty darn impressive actress who is just as convincing in her fight scenes as the professional martial artist Nguyen” would probably work nicely. Having a woman without a martial arts background putting this much effort into her physical performance as Ngo does here is quite the thing to watch in a film that does stage its action so that it would be difficult to use stunt doubles extensively. This is something I’d love to see various Chinese/Hong Kong idols and models, male and female attempt in theiraction roles.
The film’s action style is of the brutal and intense looking variety, lying somewhere between that of contemporary Thai cinema and Hong Kong circa 1987, perhaps with a little less love for the spectacular and a little more love for the fighters’ health than its models showed, but realized so tight and convincing that the slight deficit in the insanity department doesn’t hurt the action’s quality.
So far, so close to basically every film with Tony Jaa in it, as well as most of the throwback attempts to more interesting times in the action genres Hong Kong cinema of the last few years provided us with. But Bay Rong does something a little differently than films like Coweb or Bad Blood. It treats the scenes between the various punch-ups and shoot-outs not as filler or excuses to trot out some guest stars, but is genuinely interested in telling the story of Trinh and Quan. It’s as if someone had realized that the punching and shooting is even more exciting when the audience does at least care a little for the people doing the punching and the shooting.
Having said that, I’ll also have to say that Bay Rong’s story will be far from surprising for anyone familiar with, say, the work of John Woo (though a female character like Trinh would be quite unthinkable for that particular director). But originality isn’t necessarily the point in a genre film, as long as it puts the tropes of its genre together in an organic and thoughtful way, instead of a mere mechanical one (torture porn movies, I’m looking at you). There may be no real surprises in the film’s plot or characters, but it treats both aspects with a degree of respect and seriousness that seems to be missing from many other efforts at keeping martial arts and action cinema in Asia alive, while also avoiding the kitsch of the last two Ong Bak films.