Viewing The Rebel: Butt-kicking Martial Arts as Anti-Colonial History

Co-stars of the Rebel

by Mike Liu

The Rebel is a watershed 2007 Vietnamese film that, despite some weaknesses as a film, is important to see on different levels. Despite its production by Viet Kieu i.e. overseas Vietnamese, it became the highest grossing film in Vietnam history. It has also received strong support among the Vietnamese American community.

The plot is based on the operations of elite Vietnamese agents in the employ of French colonials in the 1920s. Their task is to infiltrate and destroy anti-colonial rebels. One agent Cuong grows increasingly ambivalent about his mercenary role especially after meeting and helping torture Thuy, the daughter of an infamous rebel leader. You know where this goes. Eventually, he helps and falls for Thuy and sides with the rebels. Using his Vietnamese fighting skills, he (and Thuy) fight for the French and his old elite unit through the city, a mining camp, a village and a train.

As a martial arts film, it is fast moving, creative, and done without wires. The narrative may be somewhat obvious and contemporary Western, but the action sequences are the heart of the film and move it forward in a more realistic twist than current globalized (read Hollywood-ized) martial arts forms.

The film is engaging, not only because of the introduction of unique Vietnamese forms of marital arts, but important because it shows a relatively unknown piece of history and has had real social significance.