Remember the first time you saw Ong Bak: Thai Warrior, a balls-to-the-wall Thai action flick featuring international superstar Tony Jaa’s incredible muay thai skills and “I kick death in the face” stunt choreography? Clash, directed by USC graduate Le Thanh Son and starring Vietnam’s equivalent to Brangelina, Johnny Tri Nguyen and Veronica Ngo Thanh Van, is guaranteed to make you feel the same way about Vietnamese film. I’ve been following the evolution of this film since the summer of 2009, and right when the first trailer came out, I nearly fainted.
You may now exhale. Four months after its widely successful release in Vietnam, the film has been screened outside of the country on a handful of occasions, most recently at an event at the UCLA Film School titled “New Voices from Vietnam.” I finally had my chance to see it at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in May of 2010, joining a packed and diverse house of patrons. After some introductory remarks by Ysa Le, Executive Director of the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association (VAALA) (whom I personally refer to the “Queen of Art and Aesthetics in Little Saigon”), two members of the film’s crew remarked about the film’s wild production process. According to Ham Tran, the film was shot in an frantic thirty days and edited, inconceivably, in another thirty (ask anyone who works in film and they’ll tell you it can’t be done). “This is Vietnam,” Ham said with a smile, describing the production climate in Vietnam as a maelstrom of excitement and chaos.
Finally, the curtains parted, and the film began. I went to the screening expecting precision-choreographed violence and unnecessary but gratifying explosions; in other words, straightforward visceral entertainment. In that respect, the film delivered, especially during the first half. The film also incorporates another untapped dimension to the martial-arts flick – wrestling and grappling – which should please mixed martial arts enthusiasts. Shot on the RED (a digital camera that produces film-quality images and is quickly becoming a standard instrument in film making worldwide), the film looks spectacular yet appropriate for the gritty subject matter. Johnny and Veronica look terrific (my fiancée, sitting next to me, whispered “He’s cute…” every time Johnny’s smoldering physique came into shot). My favorite character of the film was the vertically-challenged gangster (I forget his name and the actor that played him), who provided some delightful comic relief.
However, at a very specific point in the film (!), the joyride of Clash ends, and the film takes itself way too seriously, exploring the dark subplots of the main characters. The effort on the whole sucks out all of the momentum of the film, and I could tell that audiences were getting restless towards this heavy-handed storytelling. At no point during the first half of the film are the main characters of Quan (Johnny) and Trinh (Veronica) developed in any way that draws the audience in to root for them. Part of this could be attributed to the underdeveloped acting, writing, or directing (thirty days is not enough time to do a lot of re-shoots), but I believe that if one particular moment in the film didn’t happen (!), the rest of the film could have been saved.
Nonetheless, I was told by a little bird that Clash will be released nationwide very soon. Despite its flaws, the film does entertain on the level you expect it to, and especially if you’re Vietnamese or some other denomination of Asian-American, supporting this film will further the overall project of creating a viable entertainment industry for a minority group that is constantly yearning for increased representation in the media. For those two reasons, I highly recommend you to go see this film upon its release.
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