Director: Cuong Ngo
Producer: Truong Ngoc Anh
Cast: Trung Ngoc Anh, Lamou Vissay, Marcus Guilhem, Maria Tran, Trung Ly, Thien Nguyen, Mike Leeder, Antony Nguyen, Hieu Nguyen, Cuong Seven
Running Time: 90 min.
By Paul Bramhall
In 2007, Thailand was still riding the coat tails of Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong, a double whammy of action brutality, that seemed to proclaim the South East Asian kingdom as the new home of bone crunching martial arts cinema. However with Tony Jaa in the midst of his Ong Bak 2 meltdown, a movie appeared from Vietnam that seemingly came out of nowhere, entitled The Rebel. Featuring Johnny Tri Nguyen, who himself featured in Tom Yum Goong, the period piece set in a French colonised Saigon placed Vietnam firmly on the map for martial arts action. Nguyen followed up The Rebel with Clash a couple of years later, and then in 2013, it seemed that his latest offering, Chinatown, was set to eclipse both of his earlier starring productions.
However Vietnam also comes with strict censorship laws, and to say that Chinatown fell afoul of them is an understatement. Siting such reasons as the lack of any police presence during the many gang fight scenes, and the brutality of the violence on display, the filmmakers were forced to make a significant numbers of cuts, and had it re-submitted for approval, only for the re-edited version to be rejected as well. Ultimately, Chinatown was destined to a fate of languishing unreleased on a shelf somewhere, and the incident seemed to knock the sails out of the countries action movie industry, with most of the crew turning to other genres in the aftermath. Skip forward 3 years, and Truy Sát can be considered Vietnam’s first fully fledged martial arts action movie since those controversial days.
But Truy Sát isn’t just unique for heralding the countries return to modern day actioners, it’s also the first production to be backed by CJ Entertainment, the Korean distribution giant behind so many of Korea’s biggest blockbusters. The involvement of CJ is indicative of a confidence level in the Vietnamese film industry which likely hasn’t been experienced since that brief but exciting era in the mid to late 00’s. No doubt a part of that confidence was securing one of Vietnams premiere actresses, Trung Ngoc Anh, to play the lead role of a tough as nails police woman, who spends the movie trailing a gang of drug dealing diamond thieves. Anh also took on executive producer duties, and as a result, like The Rebel so successfully did previously, Truy Sát also brings in a number of overseas based Vietnamese talent, here in the form of Australians Maria Tran, Trung Ly, and Thien Nguyen.
Tran has featured in a number of action shorts, most notably the entertainingly hyper-violent Hit Girls (which she also wrote and co-directed) alongside JuJu Chan, as well as starring in full length features, such as Anthony Szeto’s Fist of the Dragon (which also features Chan), for which she won the Female Action Performer of the Year award at the 2016 MartialCon. Tran and Ly are frequent collaborators, and as a master of Shaolin kung-fu, Vovinam (Vietnamese martial arts), and Hapkido – it’s safe to say that as an action director, he brings an impressive amount of talent to the table. Rounding out the trio from down under is Nguyen, who as a fellow member of the tightly knit Australian action community, can also be seen in many of Tran and Ly’s previous projects.
In many ways Truy Sát feels like a distant cousin of the early 90’s Girls with Guns genre from Hong Kong, with Anh’s no nonsense police woman echoing the likes of Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Khan’s characters from the In the Line of Duty series. Before the opening credits have finished rolling she’s already elbowed one guy in the face, and taken a whole room out via some double fisted handgun action, followed by the standard warning from her superior that she shouldn’t act alone. It’s a familiar setup, but it’s a welcome familiarity. The opening scene of Anh on the beach decked out in combat drill uniform, while instructing a group of male officers on the likes of how to disarm an attacker, is a reminder of just how long it’s been since we’ve had a female driven Asian action movie.
The plot kicks into gear when a tip-off is received that the Wolf Gang is going to attempt to steal an antique at a high profile auction. Sure enough, Anh is able to intercept the thief mid-heist, getting into a nicely shot fight which sees him falling to his death, through possibly the thinnest glass window ever featured in a movie. But this is an action flick, it doesn’t matter. The thief happened to be the fiance of Maria Tran’s character, and capturing a glimpse of Anh, she becomes consumed with revenge, despite the warnings from her gang leader brother to let his death go. Proceedings are setup to revolve around the rage filled widow seeking vengeance against the police woman that killed her husband-to-be, and the thought of an Anh versus Tran finale recalls the days of the Moon Lee versus Yukari Oshima era.
Indeed the two femme fatale’s do get to face off in a couple of confrontations during the runtime, including one which has Tran running down the street with a shotgun so big it wouldn’t be out of place in Heat. However the driver for the plot changes mid-way through to focus back on taking down the gang as a whole, and while this isn’t detrimental as such, a part of me still wishes it had stuck to being about Tran’s character seeking vengeance for her husband’s death. Ironically, Tran revealed in an interview with Mike Leeder that her character was a very small part in the original script, however once she came on-board, it was fleshed out considerably to include more scenes that highlight her impressive martial arts talents.
Speaking of Mike Leeder, the IFD films stalwart and occasional Hong Kong actor further adds to the HK feel that Truy Sát often evokes, by taking on a small part as a drug cartel leader. What true Asian action movie isn’t complete without a gweilo in its midst? While some may claim Truy Sát is far from original, it arguably does what it sets out to do with a lot of energy and commitment from its performers. We get a fight that takes place on motorbikes, which is clearly influenced by the similar confrontation from In the Line of Duty 4, just minus Donnie Yen. At its most blatant, we get a shot-for-shot scene from A Bittersweet Life, when Lee Byung-hun is on his knees in the rain facing a group of umbrella wielding gang members, only in Truy Sát it reverses the gender to be Anh. However despite the obvious source material for such scenes, they’re handled with a sense of sincerity, which stops Truy Sát from ever feeling derogatory.
The action also comes at enough frequent intervals during the compact 90 minute runtime, that you never have enough time to give much thought to any particular scene before the next round of fights begin. Even Anh’s young brother, who has a mental disability, ultimately only serves as a plot device to be kidnapped, so as to give her an excuse to spring into action. It’s a move by the bad guys that reminds us that, when it comes to this type of plot, you should never make things personal. Despite the only cast members with a significant amount of screen fighting experience being Tran, Ly, and Nguyen, the rest of the cast, particularly Anh, do a great job at selling their fight scenes, which should also be credited to Ly’s action direction and the lensing of Ross W. Clarkson. Another Australian, Clarkson is a frequent collaborator with Isaac Florentine and Scott Adkins, being the man behind the camera for both Undisputed sequels, and also the Ninja series.
Director Cuong Ngo may only have a handful of movies under his belt, including a gangster flick entitled Huong Ga – Rise (which also features Ahn in the lead role), but if he continues to partner with the likes of Tran, Ly, and Nguyen, there could be a bright future ahead for the Vietnamese action movie. As for Truy Sát, throw in a bare chested training montage (note: not from Anh or Tran), a John Woo style showdown in a container park, and a finale that involves katanas, archery, and plenty of fisticuffs, what you’re left with may not be perfect, but it’s never anything less than entertaining.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7.5/10