Fantasia 2012 Review: BLOOD LETTER is Vietnam's Martial Arts Calling Card!
A young boy arrives at the shore of a remote monastery under dark omens. He grows up under the care and martial arts tutelage of the lone monk who cares for the temple. Tran Nguyen Vu discovers his true identity, that he is the lone descendant of a nobleman who was beheaded, along with the rest of his family, when he was implicated in the death of the King. Two Eunuchs from the Royal Court learn the truth and when they try to escape are hunted down. One of the eunuchs writes his testimony in blood before he dies and this Blood Letter disappears. Tran embarks on a quest to find this letter so that he may clear his grandfather's name. Along the way he meets two sisters who are also on a quest to carry out vengeance against the Royal Court.
The story of Blood Letter is traditional and true to a lot of plots in Wuxia genre. There is nothing really surprising about the story elements. The plot devices are tried, tested and true. Many stories of other swordfighter films have their main characters on a quest to right wrongs and bring evildoers to justice. I won't speak for director Victor Vu about why he chose to adapt Bui Anh Tan's novel A Blood Letter but I am okay with him choosing a story with familiar plot lines.
What pleased me about the story was the high level of humor in the script. As Tran come across the sisters on his quest there is a great amount humor in their interaction during the second act. Tran is still coming into his own as he embarks on his quest so at first he is sort of a hapless oaf. This humor is a welcome change to a genre where so many films before Blood Letter maintain their serious tone from beginning to end.
Victor Vu's direction is top shelf. Along with fantastic and lush production he and his crew have made a gorgeous film. Choosing locations in Co Loa (Hanoi), Ninh Binh and Cu Chi (HCMC) some of the scenery is simply breathtaking. And for this foray into martial arts Vu wisely lets the action do most of the talking. He does fool around with film speeds in post and I do not know if it was to add flourish to the sequences or cover up lack of ability. It works in this setting though because of the fantastical elements of the story.
Hats off to Johnny Nguyen [The Rebel and Clash] and his action choreography for it is awesome. One of the early sequences was very complex as Tran went back and forth between attackers. It reminded me of some of the choreography on display in Clash. Despite Vu decision to tinker with film speed Nguyen's choreography does not suffer much and the cast carry themselves very well.
The success of Blood Letter is important for a couple of reasons. First, it is the first film of its kind, Kiem Hiep - Swordfighter Adventures, in Vietnam. With its success hopefully we will see more Kiem Hiep films come out of this burgeoning film industry. Second, it proves that powerhouses like Hong Kong and South Korea are not the only countries that can produce sprawling martial art epics. Vietnam has game, they have come to play with the big boys and if Blood Letter is any proof, can keep up with the best of them.