Once Upon a Time in Vietnam
Often, when looking at a country’s national cinema, the focus is solely on its arthouse cinema, with a few exceptions (USA, UK, India, Hong Kong and China mainly). Because these are the films that reach festivals and arthouse cinemas worldwide, whereas commercial cinema doesn’t seem to travel or translate as easily. But the native filmgoing audience at large of any country will be far more familiar with its commercial cinema, and its stars.
One of Vietnam’s biggest stars is Veronica Ngo (original name: Ngo Thanh Van), who recently had a small role in Spike Lee’s war drama Da 5 Bloods (2020). She played the sultry radio host Hanoi Hannah, spreading propaganda and truth to American troops. Besides that, in the West, she’s mostly known for her wordless role in the opening scene Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017). However, in Vietnam, she’s been a huge star for over a decade, and has repeatedly refused to try to build a career in Hollywood in order to help foster and grow Vietnamese cinema.
Veronica Ngo started out as a singer and TV actress, but got her big break in cinema with The Rebel (2007). Presented at the time as Vietnam’s first big-budget martial arts film, it broke all box office records domestically, got praise and attention at festivals and from genre aficionados worldwide, and also launched the careers of male lead Johnny Trí Nguyễn (who also has a supporting role in Da 5 Bloods as guide Vinh) and his brother, director Charlie Nguyễn.
The Rebel is set in 1920s Vietnam, or rather French Indochina, as it was called at the time. It tells the story of a police officer tasked with tracking down the leader of anti-colonial rebels, who ends up joining their cause. This he does because he baulks at the brutality of his superiors, because he sees first hand the mistreatment and virtual enslavement of his people, and because he falls in love with the daughter of the rebel leader. She, of course, is played by Veronica Ngo, as a ferocious yet sensitive fighter. Her martial arts fighting style isn’t as distinctive as Johnny’s in this film, but she more than holds her own next to him and against antagonist Dustin Nguyễn (no relation).
Although Ngo also starred in thrillers and romantic films at the time, it’s her martial arts films that gathered her the most praise and success internationally (and thus available in the West), and those will remain our focus. Two years after The Rebel, Ngo reunited with Johnny Trí Nguyễn in Clash (2009), in which both looked even more beautiful than before, if such a thing is possible. There’s a dance scene in evening wear here, that seems to be included mostly to highlight the couple’s (also in real life at the time) attractiveness. It’s as much a pleasure to see these two dance as it is to see them fight, though they do plenty of that here too, and spectacularly so.
If the ostensible lead of The Rebel was Nguyễn, Ngo here is the real lead, as leader of a criminal group that gets into all kinds of trouble after an arms deal gone wrong. Even if Clash is less blatantly political than The Rebel, there are still traces of that film’s anti-colonial message to be found here, in the fact that the arms deal that sets everything off is about weapons delivered by ‘Frenchies’ and the exploitation of poor people by the rich (here in the form of a mob boss) propels the plot forward. Both have a bittersweet ending that contains a kind of hope for a better future, but also shows that the scars of the violence inflicted on people will take a long, long time to heal.
That sentiment is also present in Once Upon a Time in Vietnam (2013), albeit indirectly. Ancient warriors wielding swords (and wearing see-through mesh shirts as uniform!) defend Vietnam from invaders throughout time in this fantasy action film. Which was marketed as the first of its kind from Vietnam. An animation sequence tells us these warriors fought off ancient dragons and monsters, but also modern tank battalions. However, now they seem mostly concerned with fighting and tracking down deserters who are tired of the warrior lifestyle. It could be construed as a commentary on how the Vietnamese were once united in fighting off foreign invaders, but then turned the violence inwards, and are now living in a Vietnam that’s still its own country but irrevocably influenced by Western countries.
Perhaps that is why Once Upon a Time in Vietnam takes place in what only can be described as a western town – including saloons, lots of talk of whiskey, cowboy hats, leather vests and sandy streets. No guns, however. The main musical motif references Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), the final showdown comes complete with Sergio Leone-esque close-ups and shots through legs, and when the anti-hero leaves town a little boy comes running after him shouting his name as if he was Shane from Shane (1953). The man, however, takes off not on a horse but on what can only be described as a steampunk motorcycle. Whatever this fantasy place and time is supposed to be, either commentary on western influence, war and colonialism changing the country or simply a crazy mix of filmic styles both western and eastern, it’s a lot of fun to spend a 100 minutes in.
Veronica Ngo plays such a deserter, who settled in the remote town and has a small son and husband (who devotes his life to baking buns and croissants in what looks like a western saloon, a possible commentary on how both France and America have left their mark on Vietnam). She’s reunited with Dustin Nguyễn (also making his directorial debut), the antagonist from The Rebel, who rides into town to take her back to the ancient warrior camp, but finds himself defending her against other ancient warriors. Partly because, of course, Veronica Ngo is the centre of not one but two love triangles over the course of the film. It’s a testament to her skills as a dramatic (and martial arts) performer that she manages to make all this silliness emotionally resonant.
Cam Tam: The Untold Story (2016) is Veronica Ngo’s own directorial debut. Another fantasy film with sword fighting, but this time fully set in ancient Vietnam. It’s an adaptation of The Story of Cam and Tam, an old Vietnamese fairytale that remarkably resembles the story of Cinderella. At least, for the first half. Tam is a poor girl made into a maid by half-sister Cam and her evil stepmother. Until, of course, there’s a festival where Tam loses her slipper and the prince of the realm marries whoever’s foot fits into the slipper. Here the story departs with Cinderella, because after the marriage the stepmother kills Tam so Cam can take her place.
Then Tam reincarnates into a bird, a tree and a piece of fruit to protect the prince, until she finally appears as her old self again, and with the help of the prince exacts bloody revenge on her stepfamily. Cam Tam: The Untold Story proceeds to add a whole lot of court intrigue between the prince, his loyal and not so loyal advisors and a powerful magistrate (secretly a demon). It’s all a bit daft, but a good excuse for mass battle scenes and one-on-one fights. Veronica Ngo for once doesn’t take part in these, since she plays the evil stepmother, who’s greatest feat is her gleeful cackling. A hammy part for a hammy film that nonetheless breezes by pleasingly. In no small part due to the gorgeous costumes, people and scenery. Everything in the film’s very pretty to look at.
Tam Cam: The Untold Story got middling reviews at best in Vietnam, however, just as her other supporting role in a wuxia in 2016, the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) sequel Sword of Destiny. Forgettable in 2016, completely forgotten by 2020. Luckily that wasn’t her last foray in the martial arts film genre, as Veronica Ngo gloriously returned to the genre last year with the aptly named Furie. In a story that more or less combines some of her earlier roles, she plays an ex-gangster who has retired from a life of crime to raise her daughter in the countryside. But then her daughter is kidnapped, and she has to fight her way through a lot of henchmen and former colleagues to find her again. There might be nothing really new here, but there are a lot truly breathtaking fight and chase scenes in which Veronica Ngo thoroughly and ferociously kicks a lot of ass, and that never gets old. Just like The Rebel, this broke all previous box office records in Vietnam, cementing her status once again as one of the, if not the major star of Vietnamese cinema.