Director: Phan Anh
Cast: Peter Pham, Kim Long Thach, Simon Kook, Cong Ninh, Pham Huy Thuc, Truc May
Running Time: 86 min.
By Paul Bramhall
In the world of martial arts cinema Vietnam has been in somewhat of a unique position in the 21st century, in that its most popular star is female, with Veronica Ngo leading the charge with the likes of Furie and its sequel, Furies, which she also directed. For many Ngo came on the radar in the late 2000’s when she starred in The Rebel and Clash alongside Johnny Tri Nguyen, who at the time was considered to be Vietnam’s premier martial arts star, until his 2013 movie Cho Lon fell foul of the Vietnamese censorship board. The production remains unreleased to this day, and Nguyen has rarely worked in Vietnam since, his considerable martial arts pedigree leaving a significant void. It’s a void that in 2020, Peter Pham would attempt to fill with his first feature length starring role in the revenge driven action flick Foggy Mountain.
The comparisons between Pham and Tri Nguyen feel inevitable – both were born in Vietnam and immigrated to the U.S. at an early age, both studied various martial arts styles from when they were young, and both had an ambition to get into the movies. Set in present day, Foggy Mountain sees Pham playing an orphan who’s grown up in the underground fighting circuit, but after getting married is finally ready to start afresh. Since his wife is blind, his plan is to quit once he has enough for her vision restoring surgery, and live a peaceful life in their humble beachside home. Of course, when a talented fighter plans to quit such a lucrative business, the shady characters who inhibit it traditionally don’t take it well, and it doesn’t take long for things to turn tragic. A ruthless gangster played by Kim Long Thach (Furie) pays their home a visit while Pham is indisposed, and he ultimately returns to find her hanging from the ceiling fan, dead.
All of this takes place before the title has even appeared onscreen, which lands at the 17-minute mark after Pham is given the dubious warning that “Hatred is a kind of poison, and revenge is not the antidote.” Understandably an antidote isn’t what Pham is interested in, so after a tipoff that Long Thach and his gang base themselves somewhere in the foggy mountain the title takes its name from, Pham swaps out the underground fighting rings for the lush mountain scenery and heads out to hunt them down. Foggy Mountain is clearly a low budget affair, however the opening pre-title sequence of events do an effective job of setting up the next hour of its punchy 86-minute runtime that’ll see Pham go on his mission of revenge.
As a leading man his stoic demeanour suits the tragic circumstances he finds himself a victim of, making the expected cathartic face off against the bad guys one to look forward to. Unfortunately it soon becomes clear that his expression was one that worked only due to the tragic circumstances, as it fails to change for the entirety of the runtime, almost making Steven Seagal look like Robert De Niro in comparison. To say Pham has a limited range wouldn’t cut it, and the result is a performance that feels both lacking in energy and increasingly devoid of any screen presence. Nobody is going to accuse Tony Jaa of being the greatest actor in the world, but he could get by through the ability to convincingly channel pure rage. Pham on the other hand literally never shifts out of neutral, maintaining a blank expression regardless of if faced with snakes, near drownings, or dressing up like a mummy (don’t ask).
The directorial debut of Phan Anh (who, at the time of writing in 2024, Foggy Mountain remains his sole credit in any capacity) and his co-director Ken Dinh (who at least has some cinematographer credits to his name), the inexperience behind the camera becomes increasingly blatant as the plot progresses. Pointless sub-plots are introduced involving an orphanage and a hilltribe both based on the mountain, seemingly for no other purpose than to pad out the runtime with supporting characters who, for the most part, add nothing to the plot apart from mild annoyance and sub-par acting. What’s worse is that it feels like Pham’s mission to seek revenge is all but forgotten about, and most of the runtime ends up being spent on him protecting a group of orphan kids from the gangsters. The one plus point is that a sub-plot involving a member of the hilltribe whose turned heel allows Simon Kook to enter the narrative.
A Thai actor who entered the Thai action scene a little too late once it was cooling off in the late 2000’s, Kook’s likely most recognizable for playing the Thai boxer that Donnie Yen faces off against in 2015’s Ip Man 3, and can most recently be seen in Xavier Gan’s Mayhem!. Smartly, he’s set up as the main opponent for Pham to face off against once things get to the pointy end, and the fight between them is easily the highlight in terms of the action. The rest is an uneven mix. Pham is also the fight coordinator, and even to the untrained eye the extensive use of wing chun will be immediately apparent, however the way the fights are shot frequently make them an ordeal to watch. Choppy editing, odd angles, and often shot far too close, for every shot that gets it right there’s about 10 which get it wrong.
The ability to convey power is also a major issue, especially since in the sound design they’ve opted for the realistic ‘soft’ sound effect, and anyone who thinks a chain punch performed while laying on your back could look convincing should probably study the law of physics a little more closely. Confounding the issues with the fight choreography is the torturously pedestrian approach to literally everything else. For a plot about revenge that clocks in at 86 minutes (less if you take off the closing credits!), the biggest crime that Foggy Mountain commits is that it becomes terminally boring before the halfway point, feeling at least 30 minutes longer. To say there’s zero narrative thrust would be an understatement, with it being painfully obvious that directors Anh and Dinh have no understanding of how to build drama or tension.
Events just happen without consequence or meaning. At one point Pham tells the kids they’re not his concern and wanders off on his own, leaving them to fend for themselves. Then in the next scene he silently reunites with them and they carry on. That’s it, no build up of how he had a change of heart (although if it was intended to be conveyed via facial expressions, perhaps it’s best left on the cutting room floor), no sense of danger for the kids left alone, stuff just happens. Even many of the fights literally start out of nowhere, which in another filmmaker’s hands could give them a sense of immediacy (Gareth Evan’s The Raid), or like here, simply feel like a monotonous continuation of the scenes that surround them.
Topping everything off is the soundtrack, which falls into the trap of being one of my pet hates in this increasingly accessible world of media, in that it feels like it’s one of those rent-a-soundtrack atrocities that seem to be increasingly in use in the low budget DTV world. Regardless of if the score is actually credited to someone (it is), it’s difficult to believe the almost constant drone of repetitive keyboard strokes that tread water in the background of every action scene hasn’t had a hand from AI. Like the 2020’s equivalent of CGI blood in the 2000’s, the scenes afflicted with the looping 10 second crescendos grumbling along in the background would be far better off without them.
Foggy Mountain eventually reaches its conclusion with a protracted scene involving Pham watching a video on a smartphone for what feels like far too long, although I admit by this point I’d probably been looking at my own for far longer. Peter Pham and Simon Kook have already reunited in the South African action flick Red Cargo, which has been sitting on the shelf unreleased for at least 3 years, and admittedly makes me wonder how bad it can be if a production like Foggy Mountain can successfully find a distributor. While Pham’s onscreen fighting ability and choreography shows potential, it’s safe to say that here it’s still some distance away from being realised, and in a movie sold on its fight scenes, it doesn’t take much to see through the fog as to what the issue is.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 3.5/10