Blood Letter is a sweeping and engaging martial arts epic from American-Vietnamese director Victor Viu
By Ariel Esteban Cayer
Multiple Vietnamese-American filmmakers have recently returned to the mainland to fuel their country’s film industry with fresh voices and perspectives – a movement that some have even dubbed “Viet Wave”’. Film such as Timothy Linh Bui’s Green Dragon (2001), starring Patrick Swayze and John Whitaker or Charlie Nguyen’s The Rebel (2007) are perfect examples of the kind of cinema this cross-cultural movement has been creating, but few films have been exactly as successful as Victor Vu’s romantic comedy Battle of the Brides (2011), which despite being a box office bomb in the United States, went on to be one the all-time highest-grossing films in Vietnam. Vu, raised in Los Angeles and working in Vietnam is now back with Blood Letter, a second, very ambitious film in the kiem hiep (swordfighting epic) genre that offers serious competition to most wuxia films out there.
When his parents are killed during the Le Chi Vien massacre, a young orphan is found by a monk following a strange supernatural phenomenon that brings a statue to life. Dark omen, it will, years later, be the key to the boy’s past: the monk will reveal a symbol saying “unjust” at the bottom of the dragon. Now named Tran Nguyen Vu, the boy has now become quite the gifted martial artist and soon, he learns that he is in fact the last descendant of the possibly unjustly decimated Nguyen Trai family. Now determined to seek out his past and find answers, the now grown-up boy sets out on a journey for answers and into a world he’s been shielded from for nearly all of his life. A search for justice that quickly leads Trai to the royal court…and the search for a specifically convenient document – the titular blood letter – in which his origins are officially proved wrong or right. Perils and naïve mistakes await, as well as Hoa Xuan, a vengeful female swordswoman with whom he will build a powerful alliance.
Everything about Blood Letter is appropriately sweeping: a score, which at best of times recalls action epic scores in the vein of John Williams or Howard Shore; the scenery of Vietnam, its impressive mountains, crystal-clear lakes and terrains, all of which are brilliantly exploited here through gloriously captured helicopter shots. More so, and most importantly, the choreographies and martial arts sequences are beautifully handled: cameras impossibly scanning the air, movements being slowed down as to revel in the beauty of movements and the details of choreographed fighting, all of which were supervised by renowned choreographer K’Linh Nguyen. And balanced throughout the epic is a thrilling sense of colliding destinies, drama and intrigue as well as a remarkably unexpected sense of humor that distinguishes Blood Letter from most films or similar ilk. Huynh Dong’ s portrayal of Tran Nguyen Vu is at times charming and precise, as well as thoroughly engaging, making for the perfect travelling hero bound to get involved into awkward situations, yet never failing to kick ass when the time is right.
A Canadian premiere not to be missed, Blood Letter takes the Hall Theater by storm on July 30th, showcasing one of Vietnam’s current top – if under-represented – talents.