By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Clash (Bay Rong),” the new spy thriller from Vietnamese director Le Thanh Son, opens with a flurry of action. In between fights and stunts, we see a sinister man in a white suit brooding over a game board filled with round pieces.
The man in white is Black Dragon, played by prominent Vietnamese movie star Hoang Phuc. He explains his theory of game playing to his protégé, a gorgeous female assassin called Phoenix (Ngo Thanh Van).
The pieces on the board, Black Dragon explains, have no initiative of their own. They would be nothing without a game player to command them. This is Black Dragon’s theory of the world. He always sits at the head of the game board, controlling everyone else.
Phoenix is manipulated by Black Dragon, who knows too many things about her past. As the film opens, she’s organizing a complex and dangerous mission to retrieve a top-secret laptop.
Her hired hands for this job include White Tiger (Johnny Tri Nguyen, who also co-wrote and co-produced the movie), Ox (Hieu Hien), Snake (Lam Minh Thang), and Hawk (Tran The Vinh). Everyone uses nicknames. Nobody knows, or is supposed to know, anybody else’s real name.
Phoenix does what she can to be tough and uncompromising. It is important for her to not show any weakness. But, sometimes, she can’t help herself. If a team member is wounded, she attends to them with urgent, almost motherly affection.
Operatic singing fills the soundtrack during moments of great tension, or soft romance.
Obnoxious hip hip music underscores the title sequence. A heightened sense of drama, of things lifted above the level of the mundane, prevails during the entire film.
The movie’s plot and characters might seem a little familiar to longtime moviegoers. But the action sequences save the day. Most Hollywood films shoot action sequences in a series of close shots, disguising the lack of rhyme, reason, or any complex choreography.
The action scenes follow an opposite pattern. The camera lingers on each fight within a larger fight. Long takes make it clear that the actors perform much of their own fighting, instead of relying on stunt players.
Nguyen, who plays White Tiger, worked as a stuntman on “Spider Man 2” and took part in international Wushu competitions after immigrating to America as a youth. His martial arts moves underscore the dedication, drive, and even the secret vulnerability of his character.
Ngo began her career as a model and pop singer. But she’s no slouch in the action department.
Playing Phoenix, her signature fighting move is a spectacular takedown that involves pressing her opponent’s neck between her legs. She fights for the mission, and to ultimately free herself from Black Dragon.
The short and squat Hieu is a highly regarded Vietnamese comedian. His role as Ox calls for him to be crude at times. But his good cheer and ready wit make him easy to watch. He undercuts the always-thick tension of the group.
Such movies usually end with a huge extended battle sequence. This one is no exception. By the end, the surviving players have become fully developed characters. They use their bodies and their minds to walk away from Black Dragon’s game board and into a world where choices exist. ♦
“Clash (Bay Rong)” opens Friday, March 11, at Pacific Place Downtown, 600 Pine Street in Seattle. For prices and show times, check local listings or call 206-652-2404.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.