Monday, November 14, 2011

Reel Asian 2011: Saigon Electric

Before screening Saigon Electric, CS told me that the film is a cross between Save the Last Dance and Honey, and I’d have to agree. It also reminded me a lot of the Step Up movie series. Saigon Electric is an effective mash up of these popular North American dance films. It’s got dancers from opposite worlds, bonds forged through dance, conflict and tension from threatening foes, characters with dreams and a verve to succeed, a major dance competition, obstacles to overcome, young love, and impressive displays of dance.

The film opens with a b-boy break dancing in a puddle. It’s a great opening scene with an impressive display of dancing skills. The film is full of such scenes with superb dancing vignettes in what were, for me, the best moments in an otherwise standard dance film. What sets Saigon Electric apart is not its plot or its execution, but the cultural richness it puts on display with its locale – Saigon – and with its exhilarating dance displays, its young, charismatic characters and its Vietnamese hip hop soundtrack.

Saigon Electric tells the story of Mai, a traditional ribbon dancer from the countryside who moves to Saigon in the hopes of being accepted into the National Dance Academy. When her first audition doesn’t go well, she is too ashamed to return home and remains in the city where she befriends a talented, yet volatile hip hop dancer named Kim. Despite coming from different worlds, the two girls forge a strong bond.

Mai joins Kim's dance crew - Saigon Fresh - and finds a family amidst the crew, until Kim quits the crew after underperforming at an underground battle that the crew captain blames her for losing. At this point, Hai, a rich kid from a powerful family starts pursuing Kim. At first, Kim shows no interest in Hai, but she eventually falls for him with thoughts of a better future. Hai's father, however, disapproves of Kim because she doesn't come from a wealthy family and forbids the two from seeing each other. Distraught, Kim gets into trouble with drugs and her world begins to crumble around her until Mai and Do-boy - the crew captain of Saigon Fresh - rescue her.

After Kim recovers, she humbly rejoins the crew who welcome her back with open arms. The crew then begins to train for the hip hop dancing championship in Vietnam in the hopes of making the world championships in Korea. Two obstacles stand in the group’s way – North Killaz, a rival dance crew, and a land developer who wants to tear down the community centre where Saigon Fresh trains. Does Saigon Fresh win the hip hop battle against North Killaz and save their community centre? I think you can probably guess. For all of its creative dance sequences by fresh-faced actors captured at times through beautiful shots (Mai ribbon dancing in a field), the movie plays out predictably like many of the North American dance films of the last decade.

What I enjoyed most about the film was the energetic and exciting dance sequences executed by the collection of dancers in the film portrayed by fresh-faced, unknown (at least to me) actors. Unfamiliarity with the actors is an aspect that I thought worked in the film’s favour because I found myself feeling like I could have been watching a documentary at times because it wasn’t Jessica Alba or Julia Stiles portraying dancers, but rather a group of fresh faces rather than actors playing dancers who learned how to dance specifically for a film.


One major problem I had with the film is surprisingly one of the issues I had with, of all films, Transformers. The fight scenes between the Autobots and the evil Decepticons were underwhelming because they were shot too close to the action, resulting in a blur of metal and colour close-ups. Similarly, some of the dance scenes in Saigon Electric are cropped too close to the dancers, which detracted from the great dancing at times because the camera was too close to the dancers’ faces so I couldn’t always see the dancing.

Saigon Electric is culturally sound and entertaining and stands on par with many of the other North American dance films. If you like hip hop, break dancing and hip hop dancing and a feel-good story of youth overcoming obstacles to achieve their dreams, then Saigon Electric is the film for you.

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