Action movies are often given short shrift and are written off as silly or shallow. Truthfully, action filmmaking takes incredible skill and discipline. It’s why you so rarely see low-budget, independent action movies. It’s even more rare to see one done well.
Winnipeg filmmaker Kyle Wong has done just that (for the most part) with Vendetta, his short martial arts film premiering at the Action on Film International Film Festival the week of Sept. 2 to 10.
Most of Vendetta’s cast and crew pull double or triple duty, and Wong is no exception. In addition to writing and directing, he co-stars as Thomas Leung, a member of a nebulous criminal organization engaged in a violent feud with Adrian Kang (Joshua Zacharias).
Like most of Vendetta’s story, the nature of their feud is ambiguous (if you want to be generous), or vague (if you don’t). There’s a good deal of talk about these men being trapped in a violent life, but it’s never clear exactly what they do or why they do it. Wong’s ambition here is admirable, but one wonders if these questions are better left unasked as opposed to unanswered.
This is all beside the point. Vendetta is a 25-minute action movie. We care about the action, and the action is pretty damn good. The fight choreography by Sonny Ayson is spectacular. This isn’t film school movie fighting. The onscreen fighters are the real deal and, while the leads don’t always nail their dialogue, their fight performances are spectacular.
This is silent movie acting, letting the audience know what the characters are thinking, feeling or reacting to with only their faces. The fights aren’t just generic “guys punching each other” affairs, either. There’s always a unique premise to every bout, whether in its setting or execution. One Russian Roulette-themed fight is particularly clever, even if it doesn’t make sense from a plot perspective.
Just as importantly, Wong knows how to shoot his action. He and cinematographer Samuel Frechette make great use of handheld camerawork, making the fights feel spontaneous while never obscuring the choreography with shaky-cam nonsense.
As a director, Wong makes choices that prove he’s no amateur. When something crazy happens in an action scene, he never gives in to the desire to highlight or sensationalize it. He has the style and foresight to just let it happen, because half the fun of those moments is asking, “Did that just happen!?”
Wong and Frechette use their lighting and setting to give these scenes an atmosphere of dread, making them feel like more than just well-shot choreography.
Where the film really falters is its sound design. Wong goes for a more subtle approach that sounds a lot more like what these types of fights actually sound like. Punches don’t land with a resounding, action movie “crack,” but this leaves the fights lacking in impact. Instead of feeling the pain of every blow, the parries and punches feel observed from a distance.
All that said, it’s more a sign of promise than a failing. Here’s hoping Wong finds a great sound designer for his next picture. And, soon, please. Because if Vendetta is a first filmmaking step, whatever comes next could be truly great.
Published in Volume 71, Number 1 of The Uniter (September 8, 2016)