Your Favorite Catgirl’s recent flirtation with all things “Martial Art-y” continues here at the ol’ Litterbox with a review of director Victor Vu’s 2012 swordplay fantasy “Thiên Mệnh Anh Hùng” aka “Blood Letter”. With the recent release of this one on Region 2 DVD over in Germany, unfortunately without those ever so handy English subtitles this wee Catgirl needs, I honestly had begun to despair ever getting a look at it any time soon. But…. the Wuxia Fairies have deigned to smile on a certain wee “Warrior Princess wanabee”, and… thanks to an admittedly suspicious All region, supposedly Chinese made, DVD… that is no longer the case! Yay!! 😉
Our synopsis? How’s about this: “Adapted from a popular novel by Bùi Anh Tấn, the film begins with a dying man delivering a mysterious young boy at the shore of a remote mountain monastery. Scared and alone, the boy grows to manhood under the care and martial arts tutelage of the one lone monk who is the sole caretaker for the lonely remote temple. Twelve years later, Nguyen Vu discovers his true identity, that he is the single living descendant of the nobleman Nguyen Trai, advisor to the late king, who was beheaded, along with the rest of his family, when he was wrongfully implicated in the murder of his liege. Two Eunuchs from the Royal Court learn the truth and when they try to escape are hunted down. One of the eunuchs writes his dying testimony in blood before he dies and this “Blood Letter” then disappears. Nguyen Vu then 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 and the evil Empress Dowager.”
Sounds all epic and “kung-fu-licious”!! Yep… this wee Catgirl’s hooked. But then… your truly is a real Wuxia movie nut… So should this one also be on your “must see” list too? Well… before spending those hours scouring the Internet for a copy of this one, why not let a certain crazy Catgirl tell you all about it first?
Pssst!! That’s your subtle invite to “Read On”…. C’mon… You know ya wanna!! 😉
Chances are that you… like this wee lady… haven’t seen all that many Martial Art films from Vietnam. Or well…. any films from Vietnam for that matter. Luckily for us all, the Vietnamese film industry has been undergoing a quiet metamorphosis the last few years from being a rather lackluster producer of entertainment for merely just the consumption of the Vietnamese domestic audience to one that wants recognition from a wider world audience of hungry film fans. Admittedly, they are coming a bit late to the party… especially given the large market-share of Asian cinema is already pretty much split between the big Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Korean film industries as well as the spunky Indonesian and Malay players already churning out films by the hundreds. Makes you wonder if their is any room left for some new movie goodness….
Now you already know that, along with her creepy ghost stories, your Favorite Catgirl Princess is an honest-to-goodness certifiable Martial Arts movie nut. Kung-fu movies… ninja flix… chambara samurai sagas… Wuxia epics… Thai kickboxing… I thought I’d seen them all. But apparently not…. Seems in exotic far away Vietnam there’s something called the “Kiem Hiep” film… and thanks to Vietnamese/ American director Victor Vu, this wee lady finally gets a look at one. 😉
“Thiên Mệnh Anh Hùng” or “Blood Letter” as it’s known most everywhere else, is based on the popular Kiem Hiep novel, “Bức Huyết Thư” by Bùi Anh Tấn. Much like it’s Chinese Wuxia film counterparts, it takes it’s period setting and sprinkles it with large doses of melodrama, romance, gorgeous sweeping action, and breathtakingly lovely locations to tell one of those epic swordplay stories we all know and love. Nothing new there, but coming from a place not really known for such epic films, it surprises one with just how well crafted it ends up being.
That can be seen almost from the start as our camera sweeps along a river valley somewhere in the Vietnamese mountains through what can only be described as possibly some of the most beautiful landscape this wee Catgirl has ever seen. We find our way to a picturesque mountain temple where a lone monk diligently sweeps away the courtyard… until one of the Temple Dogs statues at it’s doorway suddenly gets all frisky and animated and climbs down off its pedestal to get all cranky. Ummm? OK… now that’s pretty freaky. Lucky for us, the caretaker of the temple, monk Su Phu (played by Minh Thuan), has some cool mystic moves of his own to keep that stone doggy from running amok. A good thing too, considering it’s right then that a mysterious visitor decides to drop dead on the front landing along with young orphan fugitive Nguyen Vu, last member of a family ordered executed by Royal decree. What’s a lonely monk to do in a situation like this? Awwww c’mon…. 😉
12 years pass and Nguyen Vu (now played by Huynh Dong) grows to manhood under the tutelage of his “Foster father” Monk Su Phu, getting all that neat training in the deadly arts of whatever butt-kicking Martial Art they do here in Vietnam. Yeah… it’s a good thing too, cause he’s gonna need it once the old Monk fills him in about that tragic family history he’s got. Seems his ancestor Nguyen Trai got himself wrongfully implicated in the assassination of the old King and as a result was sentenced to beheading along with his entire family and retainers by the nasty minions of the Evil Empress Dowager Thai Hau (played by Van Trang) to cover up her own evil machinations. If you think that’s the sort of thing any self-respecting Kung-fu Hero ought to be getting some payback for, you be right on the money…. so it isn’t long before Vu says goodbye to his old mentor and heads out on the bloody trail of Vengeance with a few notions right along those lines.
Naturally… as in any good Swordplay story.. it also isn’t long before his paths cross with two pretty sisters Hoa Ha (played by Kim Hien) and Hoa Xuan (played by Mi Du) who also have a similar grudge against the Empress requiring some serious homicide to fix as well. Throw in a righteous nobleman who’s ended up on The Dowager’s hit list, Vuong Gia (played by Van Anh) in need of help and you can see our story isn’t going to stray all that far from the usual genre conventions you’d expect in a plot like this.
Now… while there might be some who would find this idea somewhat disappointing, this wee Catgirl would beg to differ. Not every story on film has to be completely novel and unique. Sometimes there can be quite a bit of satisfaction in seeing a familiar story that’s both easy to follow as well as comfortably, if somewhat predictably, entertaining. As long as it’s done with skill, and style, and craftsman-like competence on the part of the filmmakers, that is…. “Blood Letter” falls squarely into this niche.
We get the usual chaste yet simmering Romance between our naive Hero Vu and kung-fu swordfighting cutie Hoa Xuan… we get the usual boss battle between our Hero and the Evil Empress’ main thug and “go to” guy, Tran Tong Quan (played by Khuong Ngoc) as they both strive to recover the titular “Blood Letter” detailing all the Evil Empress’s crimes. There’s even the prerequisite “twist” moment when a trusted ally turns out not to be so much of an ally after all…. Yep… it’s all been done before.
Still…. “Blood Letter” manages to get it all right, genre-wise for the most part. Director Victor Vu doesn’t score any major points for originality with this one, but when you consider this is a Vietnamese epic… then it’s a pretty darn good effort after all. The locations… the sets… the acting… all are very good throughout, and the fight scenes as choreographed by Johnny Nguyen of the earlier Vietnamese action film “The Rebel” are very slick and well done. Can’t say this fighting style is something as unique as Thai Kickboxing, but it certainly looked effective to this lil’ Catgirl.
So basically… I liked this one. It was a nice “old school” swordplay film that reminded me much of the Chinese Wuxia films of the late 90’s… lots of action… lots of “wire fu’… and the sort of simple revenge melodrama that always works when the chips are down. I give “Blood Letter” 4 “Meows” out of 5 for delivering the goods with a surprising level of polish and style that I hadn’t expected from such a modest lil’ film industry like the one in Vietnam. Go a little crazier… give me some more originality… a bit more local flavor… and who knows? We could have another great lil’ movie-makin’ dynamo on our hands. 😉
Now…. the DVD. Well… **ahem**… this wee Catgirl’s fairly certain the “Chinese All region NTSC disc” that Carolyn and I watched this one on was probably a bootleg from the recent Region 2 German PAL release, factory made somewhere in Asia, with separate selectable fansubs added during the mastering process. Not something I was particularly happy to discover… but hey… sometimes when you buy movies waaaaay out there in the wilderness of the wild and wooly Internet that kind of thing happens. It was a fairly well made disc…. but I soooo would have preferred a legitimate copy with all the bells and whistles. (Hint… Hint!! Somebody pick up the rights to this one and do just that! I’d definitely pick up another copy!!) 😉
Trailer? Yep… of course there’s a Trailer…. and this lil’ lady would never let you leave without a peek, now would she? 😉