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Li Bo
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by Jay Seaver

"You start with head transplants, you've got to be kind of crazy."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: For a movie whose basic premise is goofy enough to include head transplants, this doesn't play as nearly the bit of madness it could have. Granted, you've got to scale expectations down a bit for Vietnam - the effects budget it's not going to be huge - but there's still a feeling of rather mild ambition here, of taking the superhero stuff in stride because you know the beats.

After a sort of misdirecting opening depicting a scene from a comic book Tam (Cuong Seven) is writing and illustrating, the audience gets to know him a bit better - he's pretty well-liked in his neighborhood, although people do make a few comments about how his wife Linh (Tran Thi Nha Phuong) is supporting Tam and their son with her coffee shop. It seems likely to be his last; he has terminal cancer, although it turns out that Linh's Uncle Ma (Hoang Son) is doing more than creating a few hybrid crop strains on his farm, and an otherwise-healthy man about Tam's size has been shot and killed nearby. It's a miracle and then some, because Tam has inherited athleticism and fighting skills that he uses to rescue people and fight crime, disguising himself as his character "Lôi Báo" - but this "cellular memory" also pulls him toward the dead man's home and girlfriend Dr. Tue (Ngoc Anh Vu). What he finds in the house leads him to believe that this Nghia fellow was not a good person, working for organ smuggler Mr. Dao.

Does this make any sort of sense, science-wise? No, not really, but it is by and large the kind of dumb pseudoscience a viewer can roll with; it hits the right wish-fulfillment buttons and taps into the right fears about losing oneself in a new role that seems to be everything one has always wanted. It's not an especially clever story - twists, connections, and betrayals happen almost exactly on schedule, and for a movie with a genuinely loopy premise, it's got a fairly boring, conventional set of villains. Genuinely evil and vicious, sure, but if Tam gets to be something more than himself, maybe the bad guys should as well.

Then again, Tam isn't a whole lot more than himself, and that's probably for the best; Cuong Seven can sometimes only stretch so far - he's generally likable enough but looks kind of silly when he's doing the thing where Tam is kind of caught up in his new power and maybe influenced by the person whose body he's using not really being that good a guy. Still, it's straight-ahead enough that everyone being a bit simply-drawn is okay, with Ngoc Anh Vu the only actor who really gets much more than one note to play as Tue. It's good enough for action, less so when the story veers into melodrama where there's maybe not enough there for Tam to seem conflicted (it doesn't help that a lot of those scenes have a kid actor in them who is either not necessarily well-cast).

The movie's got some good action, though, with the stunt team and a couple of the actors showing some nice martial-arts chops and knife work when they get in close enough. There was a moment a few years back when it looked like Vietnam was going to be the next big thing in action until some heavy-handed censorship seemed to discourage filmmakers, but there are still plenty of stuntpeople who can get up in the air and use legs around the head to get their opponent to the ground. The folks involved are good at that sort of hand-to-hand fight, with gunplay and anything requiring visual effects a little iffier.

Filmmaker Victor Vu and his team get a lot of atmosphere out of their location, not always in the way one might expect. Many foreign audiences have likely only seen Vietnam on film as a place of jungles and the less prosperous parts of Hanoi, whereas Lôi Báo takes place in a comfy middle-class town where the dense forest nearby doesn't seem initially threatening but becomes a place where secrets can hide. That includes a secret lair that is close to Bond-villain quality, where everyone can finally cut loose and have a pretty darn entertaining climax.

That last stretch is probably when the movie at its best, with lots of action and no need to hold anything back. When Vu goes for the full pulp experience, "Lôi Báo" is a bunch of fun, even if it stumbles when trying to be a bit more sincere.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32435&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/12/18 05:03:10
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Victor Vu

Written by
  Doan Nhat Nam
  Victor Vu

Cast
  Cuong Seven
  Tran Thi Nha Phuong
  Ngoc Anh Vu
  Quach Ngoc Ngoan
  Jason Ninh Cao



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