Blood Letter (Vietnam 2012)

Rating: ***
Alternate Titles: "Sword Of The Assassin" (US Release), "Bloody Vengeance"
Review Date: 3/8/14
Director: Victor Vu
Music: Christopher Wong
Action Director: Johnny Nguyen
Cast: Huynh Dong, Midu

This beautifully shot swordplay drama is reportedly the first wuxia styled picture to come out of Vietnam. Nguyen Vu (Huynh Dong) is the only surviving member of a royal family that was wrongly executed twelve years ago. Rumor has it that a blood letter was written by the court eunuch that could expose the empress's treachery and restore the throne to its rightful owner, and Vu sets out to find it. Along the way, he meets a couple of sword fighting sisters who also have a bone to pick with the empress. They begrudgingly decide to work together towards a common goal, but how much innocent blood must be spilt for the sake of justice and revenge? Can love and wisdom prevail over the sword, and is there a higher path to dealing with tyranny and injustice?

The first thing you notice about the film is that it looks and sounds fantastic. The cinematography is gorgeous, with silky smooth camera movement and breathtaking locales, and Christopher Wong's dramatic music score is strong and emotionally resonant. Unfortunately, the opening credits are followed by some unnecessarily tacky computer animation and unconvincing wirework, which sets the tone for all of the action that follows. The pacing is slower than similar Chinese fare, and focuses on the drama and intrigue of assassins, corrupt officials, secret societies, and the slow and steady evolution of a hero. The acting is fair, although a little stiff, and Huynh Dong has just enough charm and charisma to hold the film together. The action is a mixed bag. While the choreography, cinematography, and execution are stylish and attractive, the fights tend to be a bit soft and suffer from intrusive and overly floaty wirework. The rhythm is also spoiled by an overuse of sped up and slowed down intra-shot segments that emphasize and de-emphasize certain elements. Is there a name for this technique? I'm going to call it "time shift editing." It's been gaining popularity in recent years, but I'm not a fan of it and I tend to find it disruptive. Regardless, genre fans will find the film entertaining and engaging throughout. Just don't question why the good guys can survive being stabbed while the bad guys can't. If you're looking for a good kung fu action movie, you'll probably be disappointed, but if lavish swordplay costume dramas are your thing, "Blood Letter" is worth checking out.