ONCE UPON A TIME IN VIETNAM
MOVIE: *1/2 (out of 5)
DVD EXPERIENCE: ** (out of 5)
Dustin Nguyen as MASER DAO
Thanh Van Ngo as ANH
Roger Yuan as GENERAL LONG
Hieu Hien as HUY
Directed by: Dustin Nguyen
BY KEVIN CARR
I realize that “Once Upon a Time in Vietnam” is likely not the actual translation of the film’s original Vietnamese title, but I’d still like to request a moratorium by filmmakers on the use of the “Once Upon a Time in…” title. From Robert Rodriguez’s “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” to this movie, it seems like it’s a way to announce that your film isn’t going to live up to the greatness of what has preceded it.
Even with the cheapness of the title, I was intrigued enough to see the film. It’s a fantasy about a monk who wanders the Vietnamese countryside. When he stumbles onto a small village that is being threatened and bullied, he becomes their protector. However, soon his past catches up with him, threatening to destroy the village.
While I understand this is the first authentic Vietnamese action-fantasy film, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I’ve seen all of this before. It doesn’t help that I’ve seen all of this before in movies like “47 Ronin” rather than classic films. Either way, “Once Upon a Time in Vietnam” is at times painfully derivative.
Considering the production itself being in the now-developing nation of Vietnam, I suppose there’s a level of ambition behind it. However, the ambition that buoys up “Once Upon a Time in Vietnam” seems to be similar to the independent filmmaker who spends countless hours developing home-grown effects for his epic science fiction movie, only to have the final product just be somewhat unimpressive against other contemporary (and often rightfully less-ambitious) films.
The characters have very little depth, with the only dramatic elements to them being cliches. There are some decent action sequences, but like the aforementioned indie films, they’re not jaw-dropping and only impressive if you’re given the full background of how the filmmakers worked with nothing to create something.
Whether you use the subtitles or the badly-dubbed English-language track, the dialogue falls flat, leaving the conversations that should propel a script to lay down and fall asleep.
Perhaps there’s a cultural angle I am missing on this, but from my perspective, this film did not connect with me at all, and it didn’t do enough to differentiate itself from the dozens of other low-level feudal martial arts action films released over the years.
Even if the film isn’t great, there’s at least some special features to enjoy. This comes in the form of general behind-the-scenes segments along with interviews and a trailer gallery. These are worthwhile if you’re more interested in the film than I was, or if you happen to speak the language, or deal with subtitles.