Review: BLACK SCAR BLUES (2017) Heals Its Wounds With Indie Triumph

Looking at most shortfilms, many prove to be workable concepts that, if handled with care and granted the right amount of money and production muscle, could turn out to be something of a worthy feat. Most times though, especially with independent filmmakers, achieving that sort of thing with little to no money at all and a small crew with extenuating circumstances in between can ultimately prove to be quite an endeavor, which is exactly what filmmaker Leroy Nguyen endured considering the well-over five years it took to make his feature-length debut, Black Scar Blues, a reality.

With an online resume on their YouTube channel that dates back as far as 2006, Nguyen's production banner, Rising Tiger Films, rose with the growth of an arm of the online film scene geared toward making action movies. Since then and for the last five years to date, Nguyen and his team have become an award-winning company with a slew accolades, including those recently earned for the 2015 shortfilm, Black Scar Blues, starring Nguyen and actor Edmond Shum which I had the opportunity to screen for myself early last year.

Clocked in at about 45 minutes, it was Nguyen's biggest project by then, and a very different film as well with themes focused on love, jealousy and the dissolve loyality between two best friends who run drugs for their employer. Fast forward through 2016 and following a number of those extenuating circumstances I mentioned earlier, Black Scar Blues has taken somewhat of a new life whilst not straying too far from a few of those aforementioned themes, and partly due to the prospects of a hopeful wider release as a feature film as of last October.

For this, we have an almost entirely new movie with a number of changes and augmentations that help the story progress much more than it could have in previous iterations, despite a few stumbles. Nguyen and Shum are still the center of the premise, however, as characters Roy and Eddie, two closely-knit drug runners trying to work their way up Baltimore's criminal ladder under the tutelage of their employer, Uncle Sammy, played by Donald Williams. In the span of a year Roy's own ambition ensues an ideological falling-out with Eddie, along with a series of gruesome events, and a brutal, climatic fight between two former friends at the end of their rope.

The film becomes a bit of a balancing act between certain scenes as the narrative tries to hold together. Thankfully, Nguyen's decision to narrate the film helps lend some much needed support along the way as we meet some of the supporting and supplemental characters that aren't hugely explained in the dialogue. It also helps accumulate the kind of depth and substance that a character study like this requires, and interestingly with the use of second-person references throughout, which I found intriguing.

Nguyen and Shum present an enjoyable chemistry at the top of the film with flashes of omenous shots that are suggestive of what awaits in the third act. On that note, much of the acting is good as the film moves forward, but it is Nguyen who proves to be one of the film's few, strongest actors, hands down, wearing a pompadour that coincides with his gangster persona, modeled inspiringly from iconic movie crimebosses with exemplary nods to Brian de Palma's Scarface and Martin Scorsese's The Departed. He shows great range in acting, as well as his skill as a physical actor next to fellow choreographer and co-star Shum whose acting isn't hugely up to par, but makes his role work with a level of gravitas and bravura to some of the more intense moments, including the film's brutal fight choreography and stunt work. The same goes for Daniel Sim who plays Eddie's cousin, Sonny. Sim only recently became part of Rising Tiger Films in the last few years, and in his short time, still manages to impress on screen with some doable acting, as well as accustoming to the style of action that Nguyen and Shum bring to the table.

Actress Jen Barnard plays a call-girl named Tracey, the on-again-off-again pseudo-romantic ell of Roy's life as he deals with his own downward spiral; it's an arc of the film that leaves you guessing as there isn't a lot of dialogue between the two, but is insisted through moments where she shows caring and concern for Roy who often comes to her place battered and bloodied. In one scene, she hands him a beer moments before sitting next to him on a couch before slapping him twice. Next to Nguyen's audible chronicling, it was all you needed to know of the timbre of their relationship and it's something you can relate to, even if the dialogue is minimal.

The fight choreography is a solid tether to a lot of things fans want when they go to the movies to see a Hollywood flick or an independent film. The action sequences are intense and full of electricity, but the camerawork here is a true winner as well with a distinct balance between Michael Mann/Paul Greengrass-style cinematography that lends the kind of intensity and realism to fast-paced action, but doesn't cast logic by the wayside and go full-blown retard to the extent of trying to make the likes of Olivier Megaton proud; Let that be a lesson to anyone who wants to make action movies, because cinematography and lensing is important, and if you're too busy trying to shake the camera and chop scenes up to sell your action, simply put - you are doing it all wrong and you should reconsider your profession immediately.

You see though, that's what you get when you observe the work of Rising Tiger Films. You get the results of people among the likes of Zero Gravity, The Stunt People, Jabronie Pictures, Whirlwind and Dardrex who have all taught themselves and learned from others on how to shoot action to make their projects work. Rising Tiger is no exception, and, thus, have equally proven themselves to be messengers in their own right, nonetheless continuing in their journey to learn what it takes to be better filmmakers each time. And for all that and more, you get to see a feature film that rewards you with a little bit of everything and more in its delivery, even if it falls short in some areas of overall production quality as an indie picture.

The film also presents changes in scoring and certain areas of editing; There's one particular scene in which characters Roy and Eddie are sitting in a car and discussing the importance of instinct, and the camera zooms in on Eddie's face just enough to hint at the internal struggle his character is quietly dealing with while stay measured and balanced. It's a glimmering moment in the film for Shum and hugely conducive to Nguyen's script as the film progresses without coming off as an excessive feature with filler in-between.

Granted, if you're overly technical and looking to nitpick about the film's shortfalls, you might be at it for a while. The film is probably not meant for everyone, although I do challenge everyone who loves movies to watch it...especially for the sake of ones' own measure of appreciation for independent cinema. In my view, get a story that is darkly lit, shrouded in an archaic style and vision with a good cast, and a director that fleshes out the best of his story to make it work, and compared to anything it was before in its evolution, this works.

Love it or hate it, Black Scar Blues makes for an albeit terrific coming-out party for Rising Tiger Films. With more to come, they are emboldened by their successes in delivering fine-crafted action and drama to the screen...all in representation of a community that has proven itself time and time again that it can do ten times better what most Hollywood films fail at. As such, I carry some high hopes for Rising Tiger Films in the months and years to come, and for all the successes this beast has yet to sink its teeth into.


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