Ghost stories aren’t for everyone, but it’s understandable how keen some folks are toward tales of the supernatural like Loi Bao director Victor Vu’s latest, The Immortal. Vu combines action and otherworldly horror to produce an epic, dual-headed ghost story that thrives on the timeless, cyclic nature of vengeance and death.
Such is what happens as An (Dinh Ngoc Diep) finds herself in a bizzare situation mired in tragedy; Dreams and apparitions emerge in her wake as her daughter is suddenly dying of brain cancer. A certain birthmark on her back lends to the mystery that now drives her joruney to a remote area near a river – a cave where she discovers a near century-old journal that offsets the crux of Vu’s The Immortal.
The journal tells of Hung (Quach Ngoc Ngoan) and Lien (Jun Vu) who dream of a simple family life together until his conniving stepbrother, Khang (Lam Vissay) sets him up to be murdered in order to claim the family fortune. The event triggers a series of events that not only ensue Hung’s mysterious reemergence from death, but an unnerving spiral of revelations rife with lust, greed, conspiracy and haunting regret.
Desperate to beat death, he seeks the aid of Thay Ninh (Nsnd Bui Bai Binh), the local witch doctor who treated him earlier, in order to achieve immortality. Against all consultation and fair warning, Hung is granted his wish after a harrowing trial, only to pay a price more grave than he ever wished.
Victor Vu’s The Immortal lays the messaging thick for viewers as Hung’s trevails toward becoming a man of power and stature grow ever chilling. Khang’s death and the sudden loss of Hung’s wife and unborn child follow wherever he goes as he’s haunted by tethered specters for having weaponized his power to settle the score with those who’ve wronged him.
Local corrupt businessmen, vying for his assets and territory, can’t kill him, and for that matter, nor can local law enforcement. Hung can’t hide the looming bodycount in his wake either, though the leading inspector, De Bray (Francois Negret) has other ideas. He holds Hung captive for several days, poking, prodding and mutilating his prisoner through countless means in hopes of discovering the key to immortality.
Vu’s The Immortal, at first glance, leans heavily on Hung’s story as it unravels through trevails of romance, undying affliction and yearning. His desperate search for forgiveness finally culminates into a cataclysmic moment that, after more than ninety minutes into the film, finally puts the pieces together joining the story arcs of both Hung and An as much as the film harps on tropes dealing with elements like destiny, fate, karma and the heavens.
Celestial implications, however silly at times, serve to contextualize the film’s supernatural allure where ghosts take possession of the living on occasion. Hung’s crossing with Duyen (Thanh Tu), a woman living by herself in a hut, also falls prey to the chain reaction in Hung’s wake as the spiritual imbalance set off by his resurrection continues to affect those around him with brutal consequence.
By the end of this nebulous tale, you’re handed a view of the peculiar mechanics by which Vu tells his story of The Immortal. Third act twists almost seem jarring to a certain point despite adding to the excitement as things recapitulate some where An finds herself confronting Hung, learning a number of things that mostly tie into a much darker truth about Hung’s immortality.
Alas, don’t be fooled into thinking this is all Vu will leave you with in The Immortal. If you can suspend disbelief, you’ll find yourself at the tail end of an intriguing psychological thriller that entertains with its richness and plush views of Vietnam’s landscape, coupled with pulsating moments of action as we follow along with Hung’s trevails of survival, and inner turmoil at the behest of the evil spirits that keep him awake.
Action director and fight choreographer Vincent Wang, and action producer Jason Ninh Cao put up a feasible display of thrilling moments from one action sequence to another. Close quarters fisticuffs is what gets the adrenaline pumping watching as Hung uses his immortality to his utmost advantage.
High speed cinematography captures the film’s time bending paranorms along with static editing to highlight what looks to be An’s dreams, all juxtaposed by an immersive score from Christopher Wong.
Ngoan invokes a sheer, fantastic performance that exudes a dueling conflict that is much ado with his pennance for sacrificing his humanity, as it is with what we later discover for ourselves as his curse takes a shape all its own. Diep’s portrayal of An, however, while serving an essential purpose to the story, is a role that still feels like an overextension into a confusing one-off that might even raise an eyebrow on David Fincher’s mug.
I’m reminded of the Narrator’s line in Fight Club here:
“…It’s called a changeover. The movie goes on, and nobody in the audience has any idea.”
It’s probably less perplexing than that, but still bewildering when trying to piece together just why it is the events after the final confrontation unfold the way they do. It’s an oddball mechanism that only Vu can really account for at this point. Really, you have cliffhanger endings, and then you have such an ending in The Immortal where you feel like you should have been watching an entirely different movie.
I humbly welcome fans of Vu’s work and folks keen on romantic thrillers with action, revenge and horror elements to look into The Immortal when its stateside release or festival presentation arises. It’s a fascinating period thriller with mesmerizing cinematography and worthwhile performances, dramatic and physical, that justify watchability. Just don’t get too settled by the last ten minutes or you might face as much unrest as Lien’s ghost.