REVIEW: Once Upon a Time in Vietnam (2013)

Master Dao rolls into town on his motorcycle to retrieve a deserter. Little does he know, big bad General Long is also looking for the same person.


By Raymond Arcega
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Once Upon a Time in Vietnam

Original Title: Lửa Phật
Year: 2013
Country: Vietnam
Language: Vietnamese
Genres: Fantasy, Martial Arts
Director: Dustin Nguyen

Dao (played by the film’s director, Dustin Nguyen) is a warrior monk – a member of an elite group whose duty is to protect the country. He wanders the land tracking down deserters of his order, making sure the law stating that all deserters must be punished is kept.

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The master rides into town on his motorcycle and stumbles upon the bakery of a man named Hien (Thai Hoa), who is being bullied by some of the local thugs. Moved by Hien’s determination in not selling his property to their boss, Dao helps scare the thugs away. Looking for a place to stay, Dao starts renting a room from Hien and his family, which includes his wife Anh (Ngo Thanh Van) and their young son Hung.

As it turns out, Anh is Dao’s next target, as she is a deserter of the military. Dao tells her that they must move out immediately, and that she must say farewell to her family. However, plans get delayed when Anh tells Dao that Hung might be his son. Things get even more complicated when General Long (Roger Yuan), Dao and Anh’s old leader, shows up in town looking for blood.

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Once Upon a Time in Vietnam is a martial arts spectacle that blends the genre’s usual tropes with those of spaghetti westerns. Dustin Nguyen plays Master Dao, which in essence is the “Man With No Name”, the archetype made popular by Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy and Kurosawa Akira’s Yojimbo. The story promises something unique, with its anachronistic world of motorcycles and swords, and a budget that makes it one of Vietnam’s most expensive films to date.

The visuals are simply amazing. Fans of anachronistic worlds might be tickled seeing the town and villagefolk, lifted straight from spaghetti westerns, interact with the armor-donning Master Dao. The CG-enhanced special effects, though nothing compared to Hollywood’s best, are fantastic and really add icing to already sweet martial arts choreography.

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Though as amazing as the martial arts sequences were, it felt like the amount of them were lacking. There were only three to four major fight scenes – very little for a martial arts film. Instead, the film focused a lot on the character drama between Master Dao and Anh, and eventually General Long.

Roger Yuan, a veteran in martial arts stunt work, plays General Long in a short, but exciting role as the film’s villain. No really; he doesn’t appear until the final 20 minutes of the 107 minute film. Of course, the characters constantly refer to him by name throughout the course of the film. But because we don’t see General Long interact with the characters throughout the story, there is no real tension built up when it’s final boss time.

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It’s also a bit difficult to appreciate the story with the kinds of twists and turns it took. In the end, we have three men who were, in a way, shafted by the same woman, with Hien the baker seeming to get rained on the most. Though the biggest twist was that Master Dao turned utterly useless in the final moments of the film, though admittedly Anh was striking in his stead.

Overall, the film was without a doubt visually impressive, easily appealing to fans of martial arts films, but it failed to hit a mark with the character drama. But, after finishing the film, one last thought comes to mind. The title of the English film should be changed, because there is no way that this is film is set in Vietnam, in any era. They should have kept it closer to the Vietnamese title, which according to Google Translate means “Fire Buddha”.


Watch this film…

…if you’re a fan of the martial arts genre. And, if you’re ready to become a fan of Ngo Thanh Van.


About the Author

Raymond Arcega

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