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Blood Letter
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by Jay Seaver

"Familiar plot, good fights. Which matters to you?"
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: If nothing else, the English title of "Blood Letter" is a neat play on words, even if it won't stand out on a DVD shelf of imported action movies. That's not the best thing about it - it hits its legendary revenge martial-arts marks pretty well, actually. It's just worth mentioning because the rest of the movie is kind of like that; well-executed, but one of many.

12 years ago, a statue coming to life portended a new arrival at the pagoda of solitary monk Su Phu (Minh Thuan) - a young boy who washed ashore with a dying servant. Now grown and having been schooled in martial arts (though he has not yet mastered the more mystical practices), Nguyen Vu (Huynh Dong) learns that he is the last surviving member of a family exterminated on false charges of murdering the king by Queen Thai Hau (Van Trang), and swears to get justice. Arriving in the city, he meets others opposed to Thai Lam - nobleman Vuong Enia and sisters Hoa Ha (Kim Hien) and Hoa Xuan (Mi Du) - and learns that the way to clear his family's name is to retrieve the so-called "blood letter" detailing Thai Lau's crimes, which has recently resurfaced. Of course, Thai Lau is sending her best man, Tran Tong Quan (Khuong Ngoc) to find it as well.

This has been the general outline for a great many martial arts movies over the entire history of the genre, and it's certainly gotten a fair amount of use in a number of other traditions as well. Blood Letter doesn't deviate very far from it, and to a certain extent, why should it? It gives Nguyen Vu a functional dramatic arc, many excuses for fight scenes, and a nice sense of scale. On the other hand, it can be kind of predictable - the Motivating Death and Inevitable Betrayal come exactly where the audience has grown to expect them and thus lack a certain ability to shock, and writers Victor Vu (who also directs) and Bui Anh Tan sometimes are only loosely able to string scenes together.

But, hey, some of those scenes are fight scenes, and those are not bad at all. Johnny Nguyen of The Rebel handles the choreography, and while this movie does go in for a lot more wire work than has been typical with Vietnam's young action-film industry - even scenes with regular fighters have them seeming preternaturally light on their feet - there's a lot of quality swordfighting and hand-to-hand going on, with even the flying stuff being well-shot , both for giving the audience a good look and just being kind of pretty.

(Also kind of pretty: Vietnam in general. Vu and company make good use of some amazingly beautiful countryside, as well as making the town and court impressive.)

The cast is, admittedly, kind of a mixed bag. Khuong Ngoc is almost certainly there primarily for how well he handles a sword; he's kind of exposed when asked to do something other than look intimidating or kick butt. Mi Du and Kim Hien are certainly good enough for what the movie needs as the Hoa sisters, with Mi Du certainly enjoyable as the girl who can fight but has a chip on her shoulder if the hero ever forgets she's a lady. Van Trang handles being the alpha villain well, with enough iron-willed authority to make a little complexity work. And Huynh Dong actually handles the lead quite well; not only does he look good in action, but the script actually remembers that he was raised by a man of peace, and he works the conflict between his desire for revenge and what his surrogate father has taught him well. He also functions as his own comic relief - Nguyen Vu is understandably a little lost when dealing with the city or women - without playing the fool.

It would certainly be nice if "Blood Letter" stretched itself a little more; there's a few too many moments when the seams show or the plot seems a little familiar. You could certainly upgrade the rest without hurting the above-average action, which certainly works for those who'd like a martial-arts fix.

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originally posted: 07/31/12 16:21:23
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.

User Comments

12/03/12 noshadali i want see location 4 stars
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Directed by
  Victor Vu

Written by
  Victor Vu
  Bui Anh Tan

  Huynh Dong
  Khuong Ngoc
  Van Trang
  Minh Thuan

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