Home Video Hovel- Clash
Watching Clash, a new Vietnamese martial arts film from first time director Le Thanh Son, on my television at home, I found myself wondering as I often have before what figures into the decision not to release a film theatrically but instead consign it to the direct-to-market bin. Indomina Releasing, the film’s distributor, has proven the capability to get its titles on screens (the recent and pretty good True Legend; the upcoming and very good Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame). So why not Clash? (And also, why not stick with the much cooler sounding original title, Bay Rong? That question is pretty much immaterial at this point but Clash is a lame name for a movie).
Perhaps a film like Clash, with its very narrow ambitions, plays well on the small screen. Expectations are lowered for a home viewing and the plot and character problems in this movie might be easier to ignore in that setting. The trouble there is that the one thing the film is truly interested in doing well are the fight scenes – and it does them very well indeed. That kind of kinetic spectacle would be a treat to witness in a theater setting.
Make no mistake. In most ways, Clash is a very dumb movie. But so are most of the celluloid products that clog America’s multiplexes. Maybe it’s just the stars that get a film up there on those screens. Robert Luketic’s The Ugly Truth has got to be one of the worst films of the last decade but it wasn’t damned to premiere on DVD. Clash’s plot may be ridiculous but it’s better than that one.
Veronica Ngo plays Trinh, a woman who was kidnapped as a young girl and forced into prostitution, during which time she had a daughter. Then she was rescued by a crime lord called Black Dragon who trained her to fight and kill but also kidnapped her child. This is all backstory, by the way. Now she must execute heists for Black Dragon in the hope of getting her daughter back. To this end, she has recruited a group consisting of Quan (Johnny Nguyen) and a bunch of idiots who exist only to either get killed or betray the team.
It’s a convoluted and silly premise and the director doesn’t help matters by giving his actors a few too many heavy emotional beats to play. The cast is clearly here because they can fight and when they’re not doing that, the movie becomes instantly inert. Luckily, these boring heartfelt scenes, while too numerous, are really only links between the action set-pieces. When things get violent every ten to fifteen minutes, the movie is unleashed and becomes invigorated, a thrill to behold. The choreography is meticulous and Le Thanh Son knows exactly where to put his camera to catch every brutal detail and every feat of pure athletic wonder. He also knows how long to go without cutting, allowing the performers’ skills to register but never losing the filmic momentum. Even with all the other criticisms I’ve leveled above and will level below, Clash is a film worth watching for these scenes.
The rest of the time, the director makes aesthetically pleasing – if uninspired and meaningless – use of the beauty of the Vietnamese countryside. The compositions may be hackneyed but they are never ugly. Things also end a little disappointingly, as the final fight scene is far from the most exciting one in the movie.
Really, there are many ways that Clash could be better. Still, this is a martial arts movie which means its chief draw is scenes of people acrobatically punching and kicking each other. There’s nothing at all wrong with that and, if it’s what you’re after, you’ll be richly entertained.