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Number 10 Blues/Goodbye Saigon
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by Jay Seaver

"A Vietnam movie missing in action for almost 40 years finally resurfaces."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It's almost certain that there have been movies made under more insane circumstances than "Number 10 Blues/Goodbye Saigon" (both titles appear on-screen at once), or worthier ones made in a war zone, but that does nothing to take away from what a peculiar and exciting bit of pulp fiction this movie, shot in Vietnam and almost unseen for nearly 40 years, turns out to be.

Though the United States pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, the war between North and South is still going on as of March 1975, when we meet Toshio Sugimoto (Yusuke Kawazu), the representative of a trade company who has been in Saigon for eighteen months. He's gotten used to the place, and Saigon is safe; the gunfire is a distant sound. This somewhat stable situation is upended when a former employee breaks into Sugimoto's house, only to wind up shot with his own gun. Rather than call the police, Sugimoto hides and plans to flee, but while crime boss Chen (Do-an Chau Mao) is willing to sell him a forged passport, he's also looking to stab Sugimoto in the back. Only his mistress Lan (Lan Tanh) seems willing to aid him, although Chen's half-Japanese man Taro (Kenji Isomura) certainly seems like he could be an ally.

It's important to understand right off that Number 10 Blues is not a very polished movie, even by the standards of other 1970s grindhouse movies: The acting is stilted whether one takes the fact that characters are often speaking their second or third languages into consideration or not, the story is basic but still has occasional moments when it seems to make little sense, and there are points when it seems writer/director Norio Osada just didn't have the footage he needed in the editing room. If one approaches movies without context or interest beyond what's right up front (which is a completely legitimate thing to do), this one will almost certainly be found wanting.

That, however, overlooks that Osada made this movie in Vietnam mere weeks before the fall of Saigon, and while it's hardly the only movie to be shot on-location while there was a war on, it still shows a mad commitment that must be at least somewhat admired. It's an intriguing look at the mindset of a country trying to behave as normal in conditions that are anything but that; not a documentary, but just as true in its own way. There's an undeniable tension and raw energy to knowing that the gunshots on the soundtrack quite likely weren't added in during post-production, and something profound in an extraordinarily beautiful shot of a sunset - both out of the filmmaker's control, both reflecting the nature of the land.

And while the story itself is a fairly standard potboiler, it winds up being richer than it looks on the surface. The opening narration describing a Vietnamese tradition of planting bougainvillea plants on graves is a wonderful lesson on rebirth out of tragedy, for instance. The interactions between Sugimoto, Lan, and Taro are inevitably loaded with subtext on how the people of wealthy and powerful nations treat those of the less prosperous (and how the latter take it), but there's truth to it, and it doesn't get in the way of the characters being individuals.

Make no mistake - for all that Osada (screenwriter of the Lady Snowblood movies) has built a classically grim pulp and told it in an interesting way, he's not working with much. Yusuke Kawazu is frequently not great at all, and while he and Isomura are given to occasional overacting, Lan Tanh sometimes has pauses where she seems to be waiting to hear the next English word to be relayed to her. Characters will mention time limits and then move right past them, and a fairly well-executed gunfight will be followed by an aftermath where important parts are skipped over..

The places that "Number 10 Blues" falls short could perhaps have been given their proper attention if shot somewhere else, but would the film then have had its peculiar energy? And who knows what it would have been like had it finished post-production in 1975 rather than falling between the cracks, only to finally be completed in 2012? However it happened, this has become a strange artifact - a noteworthy piece of film history, even if it had little effect on that history.

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originally posted: 08/03/13 03:49:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Norio Osada

Written by
  Norio Osada

  Yusuke Kawazu
  Lan Tanh
  Kenji Isomura
  Eiichi Kikuchi

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