LOI BAO: Victor Vu’s Cautionary, Redemptive Hero Tale Thrives And Thrills
With the foothold superhero movies have gained throughout the spectrum of cinema, the dynamics fluctuate greatly with Hollywood being the most noticeable blip. Other territories sprout with more regional appeal whereas Victor Vu’s latest, Loi Bao, has the fruit of momentum on its heels for greater profusion.
Following screenings at Fantasia in Canada and East Winds in the U.K. in the past year, Vu’s new film still stands firm in today’s film climate. Its circulation outside of Vietnam sort of deems it a worthwhile talk topic with respect to Asian representation in cinema, and its attribution to the superhero genre certainly makes it ripe for the occasion.
Its lead star, Cuong Seven, has all but proven his apt, physical capability thusfar as the villain in Cuong Ngo’s 2016 thriller, Tracer. Switching into protagonist for the duration of Vu’s new crimefighting foray, Seven pulls his weight firmly in carrying a story that stops short of being a full-tilt comic book spectacle, instead choosing to draw in a few untimely dramatic plot twists in the process.
It’s also a welcome mat for the kind of tropes seen in similar films – namely Body Parts (1991) with Jeff Fahey as an afflicted transplant patient whose new arm may be turning him into a killer. Recent titles like Self/Less (2015) and Ariel Vroman’s Criminal (2016) also come to mind along with the relevance of recent fascination from various articles discussion head transplants. Pepper it up with stylish martial arts action, explosive fight scenes and chase sequences and Vu’s Loi Bao is the party you arrive to.
The film starts with a voice-over narration that reflects on the difference one might imminently make in lieu of closing danger. From there, we meet Tam, a struggling, mildly ailing graphic novel artist who lives in a small town with his otherwise loving and supportive wife, Linh, (Nha Phuong) and son. He soon learns his sickness is far worse than predicted with late stages of cancer having consumed most of his body, rendering his lifespan shorter on the clock than preferred.
Surprisingly, consultation with his next door neighboring fruit farmer, Uncle Ma (Hoang Son), sees Tam then introduced to Ma’s secret lab where he’s been quietly, albeit illegally, upkeeping as the first Vietnamese trailblazer in his decades-old, off-radar practice of head transference experiments. In no easy measure and at the whim of a chance encounter with a shooting victim, Ma hastens Tam to help carry the body back to the lab where they measure its compatibility to Tam, thus greenlighting the procedure.
A presumed success in lieu of a hopefully normal and happy life, the road to Tam’s recovery is paved in blood, sweat, and a dash of intrigue. Fleeting memories that aren’t his begin corrupting his daily routine next to finding himself suddenly gifted with the kind of strength, speed, agility and fighting prowess he’d only ever dreamed of since childhood. Spates of harrowing rescues and thwarting of crime make him something of a media celebrity, drawing both praise and criticism, and with it, unwanted attention from shadowy figures lurking in the backdrop.
The story takes an even more haunting turn when the accumulating flashbacks compel his efforts to identify the previous owner of his new body. In a series of twists and turns amid the revelations, conspiracies and deceit he keeps unearthing, little does he realize his actions have brought him closer to the criminal underworld that now not only threatens the city at large, but his family as well.
From start to finish, Loi Bao is primed with an exciting story and a number of palpable performances to boot. To a slightly lesser affect, the modus operande plays second fiddle in its cautionary character study on what defines a hero as the film weaves between plot points in its progression The few major pivots in the latter hour tend to almost make Loi Bao feel like different film at times until things eventually balance out in the viewer’s favor.
Culminating the intertwining drama at hand is the entry of Ms. Tue (Vu Ngoc Anh), a doctor who often finds herself treating Tam’s wounds after every fracas. As if Tam’s aloof demeanor, secrecy and introvertism weren’t enough, there’s an underlying connection here that Tam himself can’t let go of. It ultimately invites further uncertainty in Tam’s personal life as Linh begins to ill-suspect the worst of circumstances.
Complicating things further is the emergence of Luc (Quach Ngoc Ngoan), a physical force to be reckoned with, donned in a black suit and tailing Tam at every turn. Actor Nguyen Chanh Tin plays Dao, the parasitic crime boss Luc works for, and as fate would have it, someone with deeper ties to Tam’s family than he knows. The bombshells continue as the viewer observes the treacherous world of Nghia (Vu Tuan Viet), the formerly-living assassin whose body becomes the vessel for Tam’s succession of troubles, and incidentally, the grist of his thrust into action heroism.
From the moment I saw Seven perform opposite actress Troung Ngoc Anh in Tracer, I knew I wanted to keep him on my radar going forward. The prospect of teaming up with Vu – coming off Yellow Flowers On The Green Grass and 2014 thrillers Scandal and Vengeful Heart – bred even further promise with the additions of Hollywood-etched stunt professional Vincent Wang as action director, joined by Jason Ninh Cao (Once Upon A Time In Vietnam) as action producer.
It doesn’t take long for the fight scenery to kick off either. Eight minutes in, you get a spectacular whiff of it in a foretelling fight sequence that’s very much bang-for-buck in action design, prefacing the forthcoming drama that looms. The remaining sequences lessen the extravagance some, but never diminish the volume and caliber of stunt work, swift technique execution in the choreography and overall pacing. Seven’s Tam makes swift work of laying waste to henchman at speeds often faster one can draw a handgun at a distance.
Not all superhero films produced in varying Asian or even European territories around the world ever make it to the vast film market abroad. Films like Mercury Man, the Cicak Man trilogy and even Indonesian superheroine, Valentine, are hardly remembered outside of their territories to date, and that’s not speaking for so-called fans who’ve torrented these movies in the last ten years. Jimmy Henderson’s Hanuman is all but stationary and no one even knows what the heck happened to Jian Bing Man, and freaking Jean-Claude Van Damme is in that one.
Gladly, at least two titles of late, Russian action adventure Guardians and Finnish vigilante crime thriller, Rendel, are both fortunate in tapping into their own viability in the last two years. Angga D. Sasongko’s Wiro Sableng, which opened to an enthusiastic crowd in Indonesia at the top of the month, has some rising potential of its own thanks in part to the region’s own film industry momentum.
With Vietnam, it’s been a bit frustrating since the heyday of censorship brouhaha over Charlie Nguyen’s unfinished and leaked 2013 crime thriller, Cho Lon. It was a stifling time for the average fan an enough to dampen optimism in wake of such hits that arose in actor Johnny Tri Nguyen headliners The Rebel and Clash – tastemakers in contemporary Asian action cinema. Indeed, there is way less risk taking for filmmakers in Vietnam trying to meet the criteria of getting a movie approved for release nowadays. That said, times are changing – somewhat – and in some ways it’s all the more motivating with a film like Loi Bao seeking more attention from the global festival scene.
Its congruent assembly in tasteful and fashionable superhero action and drama make Loi Bao a worthwhile and enjoyable contender that thrills as much as the average MCU flick, sans the usual post-credit cliffhangers. And at the very crux of this endeavor – an Asian champion who is neither crazy nor rich, but emancipates the conversation on inclusivity from the even crazier, broke notion that Asians can’t carry a narrative superhero film. They definitely can and Vu has done a fitting, terrific job at the mantle for it.
Time will tell if future producers and creatives will live up to the task of telling substantive stories that bring more minority characters to the fold. Perhaps one day fans will get their Shang-Chi or Annihilator, or Silk provided Sony stays the course. Until then, Loi Bao serves up a hearty, contest of good versus evil worth the price of admission, and a quality package worth the hype.
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Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.
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