Dustin Nguyen makes his directorial debut and wrote the screenplay for this action film that melds genres and is quite a fun film overall.
Nguyen plays Dao, a member of the Emperor’s Guards, an elite band of assassins who have taken a life-time oath and must kill those who desert them. On his way towards his next assignment, his motorbike explodes and he is rendered unconscious. He is picked up by two farmers who take him to their village, where he awakens and finds a room for rent by local baker Hien.
That night at dinner, Dao meets Ahn, Hien’s wife and their son, Hung. Dao knows Ahn as she was once a member of the elite guards who deserted nine years ago. However, before he can confront Ahn and make her pay for her desertion, he deals with local thugs who are hired by a crime boss who wants to take over Hien’s bakery. Soon enough, Dao himself begins to go through a change, even teaching Hung to defend himself against bullies. However, the elite guards have arrived and learning Dao has not “taken care of business”, they brand him a traitor and now Dao must choose between his oath and a chance to start over.
In the world of action cinema, there tends to be the “lone hero” who has left some sort of group, comes to a small town and become its protector. This brand of heroism has been seen in films like Seven Samurai (1954) and recently, The Warrior’s Way (2010). This time, former 21 Jump Street actor Dustin Nguyen, who’s come on a welcome resurgence in his native Vietnam, makes his directorial debut with this film, which takes the aforementioned genre and adds some nice twists and turns that make this a very nice popcorn film.
Nguyen does quite well in the role of Dao, the stone-faced warrior who undergoes a change as the film progresses. While he mostly holds a serious look, one can tell that inside, there is more than what one may see. As for Veronica Ngo, she continues to hold her own as one of Vietnam’s most famous actresses with her role of Ahn. She acts motherly but holds a dark secret, one that can threaten her family in the worst way. Thai Hoa plays Hien first as an impish baker but tires of everything gone wrong and finally does what is necessary despite who he must hurt to show he will be listened to.
Van Hai Bui served as the film’s action director. He did a good job with help from consultant and co-star Roger Yuan, who plays the big bad General Long (with his voice dubbed over by Nguyen Hoang Phuc). The action scenes melds types of action seen in wuxia pian, kung fu films, and even a taste of mixed martial arts. Tekken 2 helmer Wych Kaosayananda does have a good eye when it comes to cinematography and combined with Van’s choreography and Vance Null’s editing, the action scenes are quite nicely done. The finale brings a comic book feel to the film but still done well nonetheless.
Once Upon a Time in Vietnam is a pretty good film for Dustin Nguyen. He performs well in the lead role and proves himself a viable director. The action scenes are pretty well done for the genre. A definite recommendation for rental, with an option to buy.
WFG RATING: B
A BHD Films Ltd. production. Director: Dustin Nguyen. Producers: Quang Minh Do, Dustin Nguyen, and Ngoc Hiep Nguyen. Writer: Dustin Nguyen. Cinematography: Wych Kaosayananda. Editing: Vance Null.
Cast: Dustin Nguyen, Veronica Ngo, Roger Yuan, Thai Hoa, Ngoc Diep, Hieu Hien, Phi Thanh Van, Van Hui Bui, Jason Ninh Cao, Nguyen Hoang Quan.