Tien has grown up in England with a backdrop of violence and retribution, especially as his older brother gets deeper into his life with a Triad gang. Tien is even inducted into the gang, though he has questions and misgivings the entire time.
Now he’s been coerced to go on a hit with a Japanese samurai sword, forced into a confrontation that will test his loyalties, not just to his brother, but to his Vietnamese cultural heritage.
Writer-director Lab Ky Mo creates that rarity in the short film world: a character-driven crime drama that manages to balance its suspense-driven forward momentum with Tien’s memories and emotions, weaving them together to explore the intersection of family, loyalty and violence, especially when one is an outsider in a strange land.
There are flourishes of violence, which suits the dark milieu and subject matter, but the focus is on the undertow of Tien’s emotional and mental landscape. The narrative is structured like a puzzle, toggling between Tien’s childhood memories, his involvement with the gang and his brother’s growing descent into violence.
The storytelling isn’t straightforward but with a judicial, fluid approach to editing, it covers much emotional ground, putting viewers deep into Tien’s headspace and competing emotions. Tien is torn between his loyalty to his brother, who seems to be the only family he has, and his nascent sense of moral compass.
He doesn’t want to let go of his brother, but he also had growing misgivings about the gang and what it’s doing to his brother. He likes perhaps the sense of protection and belonging he gets from the gang — but their propensity for violence troubles the sensitive young man, always keenly observant of the behavior and nuances around him. When Tien becomes romantically entangled with a girl whose brother runs afoul of the gang, the currents of tension crest into a dangerous confrontation, and Tien must decide where his loyalties truly lie.
“Japanese Samurai Sword” takes the elements of a crime thriller, and with great skill and sensitivity, weaves in a more personal, intimate portrayal of an immigrant experience, an interrogation of loyalty and family and just where a person’s identity lies in such a complicated matrix of influences. Audiences may be drawn in by the tension and suspense, but they will be compelled by a powerfully wrought portrait of a young man caught between worlds — between right and wrong, and loyalty and love — and who must find his own path through all competing cross-currents of his life.